Last Friday morning, Representative Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois, appeared on a Chicago local news channel to talk about the mob of Trump-supporting rioters who had invaded the Capitol building and interrupted congressional proceedings two days earlier. Before going live, the anchor asked Casten if there was anything in particular he wanted to touch on. “I said, ‘Honestly, I want to talk about energy and climate policy,’” Casten told Grist.
Last week’s events overshadowed a major milestone in the effort to accomplish climate policy in the U.S.: Political newcomers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their Senate runoff elections in Georgia, handing Democrats a de facto majority in the Senate and a political trifecta (control of the presidency and both houses of Congress). In the short term, Senate Democrats will have their hands full with the push to convict President Trump following his impeachment for inciting the riot at the Capitol. But after that’s done — or possibly simultaneously — they’ll turn to President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda and one of his top priorities, climate change.
The narrow margin of victory in the Senate — Democrats hold 50 seats, including two independents, and will need Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to serve as tiebreaker if they can convince conservative Democrats to toe the party line — means that climate action will not look quite the way Biden intended. His $2 trillion climate plan is likely off the table; there probably won’t be huge sweeping bills that satisfy progressive visions of a Green New Deal. Instead, the Biden administration will have to work creatively, leveraging esoteric congressional rules and using all the powers of government to accomplish its goals.
“The kind of blue sky dream of some of my friends in the climate movement of a set of standalone climate omnibus bills. I can’t imagine those moving forward in the 117th Congress,” Billy Fleming, a senior fellow at the progressive policy shop Data for Progress, told Grist. “What I think is much likelier, and where there’s real opportunity, is to think about how we pair climate policy and climate justice work into the massive amount of legislation and spending that has to happen anyway to keep the lights on in government.”
The wins in Georgia mean that Biden will have one big advantage in passing his climate plans: a Senate prepared to quickly confirm his cabinet appointees and let them get to work. “The huge, huge, huge thing that has happened with the Senate is the flexibility they have with appointments now,” Casten said. “All of a sudden, there can be some ambition in the agencies that wasn’t there.”
But when it comes to Congress, the hardest part of passing climate legislation isn’t negotiating with fickle Republicans, or even pushing back against fossil fuel lobbyists. It’s dealing with an arcane Senate rule known as the filibuster, which prevents almost any legislation from passing through the chamber without a supermajority of 60 votes. Climate hawks have been burned by the filibuster before: When Obama took office in 2009, he had a huge majority in the Senate with 57 seats — but it wasn’t enough. Democrats couldn’t convince even a few Republicans to sign on to Obama’s landmark climate change bill, and the legislation died in the Senate after passing the House.
Now, the situation is even more difficult: Finding 10 Republicans to support comprehensive climate legislation will be next to impossible, and while some Democrats have talked about abolishing the filibuster — a move that would only require a simple majority — the more moderate members of the party are unlikely to support ditching the antiquated rule entirely. “I’ve got a lot of colleagues who I like a lot who won’t go for that,” Casten said.
All this means that adding Warnock and Ossoff to the Senate “probably is insufficient to get a coalition that’s willing to debate and enact the very large climate bill that has been imagined for a long time,” said David Konisky, a professor of political science at Indiana University.
There’s still a path forward, but it’s a narrow one. Under Senate rules, certain bills can still be passed by a simple majority during “budget reconciliation,” a once-a-year process to tinker with the federal budget. That rule doesn’t give legislators totally free rein: “It has to be something that is explicitly connected to taxes and revenues and spending,” Konisky said. So one of Biden’s central climate promises — to require utilities to generate all their electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 — is probably out. But a carbon price, tax credits for wind and solar, and research and development for clean energy will all be on the table.
Josh Freed, the director of climate and energy at the Washington, D.C.–based think tank Third Way, said he hopes to see two budget reconciliation bills with climate worked in: One broad economic recovery bill, which could include tax incentives for electric cars, renewables, and energy efficiency; and another infrastructure package that could funnel money towards building more transmission lines to distribute power from renewables and creating a smart grid to improve efficiency. The downside is that budget reconciliation often happens only once a year — giving Democrats a tight time window for action before the midterm elections in 2022.
“There’s a real moment here that I think we need to seize with investment first, and get the economy really roaring,” Freed said.
It’s yet another sign of how politicians’ and advocates’ approach to climate policy has changed over the last several years. Once, most experts and activists believed that global warming would be addressed with one sweeping piece of legislation — a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade bill, a mandate for clean power. Now, however, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing recession, addressing climate change has become more piecemeal: a tax credit here, a bit of infrastructure spending there. It’s a strategy that mirrors how Biden has started to infuse climate concerns into every office of his administration, not siloing the issue off into just the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Energy. And — if done right — it’s a strategy that just might work.
The big question is whether Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Krysten Sinema of Arizona, and other moderate Democrats in the Senate will hamstring their party’s efforts to pass climate policy with a simple majority. Both Manchin and Sinema voted with Republicans on a number of environmental measures last year. They cast votes to confirm David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist, to lead the Department of the Interior and voted against a resolution that would have invalidated Trump’s rollback of carbon pollution limits for power plants. In a 2010 TV ad, Manchin, loading up a shotgun, told West Virginians that he had sued the Environmental Protection Agency. Then he took aim and fired at a copy of a major climate bill. Manchin is now in line to become chair of the Senate’s powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
There’s no guarantee that moderate Democrats will give soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer the crucial votes he needs to tie something like a carbon tax to the budget reconciliation process. “As long as you have a Democratic majority that is predicated on a couple of vulnerable people from the oil patch and the coal patch, that’s going to be very difficult,” Casten said. But they could get behind other climate-related measures, especially if they’re offered something in return.
Fleming, the Data for Progress fellow, says he’s optimistic that Manchin and Sinema will get behind any bill that drives investment in the states those senators represent. Manchin, who has an incentive to protect fossil fuel jobs in his state — a big producer of natural gas and coal — might support climate policy in exchange for federal funding for carbon capture and sequestration technologies, which, by trapping emissions and preventing them from escaping into the atmosphere, could allow power companies to continue burning fossil fuels. He might even go for out-of-the-box ideas, like transforming abandoned coal mines in West Virginia into big batteries to store power from solar and wind, an idea that’s had industry support for years.
“We should think about other ways we can creatively incentivize Senator Manchin and Sinema to go along with an ambitious bill that includes climate policy,” Fleming said.
Freed, from Third Way, is confident moderates will back Biden’s agenda. After all, the President-elect is a moderate himself. “The agenda he wants to get done is a center, center-left agenda,” Freed said. “I think you’re going to have a lot of support from across the Democratic caucus, including the Joe Manchins of the world,” he said.
Whether moderates on the other side of the political aisle will support climate policy this congressional session remains to be seen. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska spearheaded the energy portion of a recent omnibus bill, and both she and Senator Susan Collins of Maine sponsored multiple pieces of climate legislation last Congress. Freed says there might be some Republicans in the House who would support it, too. Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania co-introduced carbon pricing legislation in 2019. Peter Meijer, an incoming freshman Republican representative, ran on an environmentalist platform in Michigan.
“On the Republican side, the question is, what do they choose?” Freed said. “Do they choose to actually govern and solve problems — or do they get caught in this horrific cycle that they’ve been in for a while now, particularly the past four years, of politics over country?” It’s a question that’s just as relevant to climate legislation as it is to impeachment.