Can you pass climate legislation in post-election America?
Donald Trump and Joe Biden inside a crystal ball on top of a background of a maze and an earth pattern in the style of the Choose Your Own Adventure books
Grist / Comstock / Drew Angerer / Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The Foreseeable Future

Imagine the election is already over. Now it's up to you to save the planet.

on Oct 30, 2020

Every election gets portrayed as crucial in its own way. But in this one, the stakes are planetary in scope: The outcome might just determine whether climate change will be a disaster for some or a catastrophe for all. That’s because, for the first time in more than a decade, the political constellations are moving into rare alignment.

“This is the shot where we either do something, or we lock in billions and trillions of dollars of economic damages and probably millions of American lives lost.”

The West has been on fire for months. The South has lost more than 140 lives and $27 billion in property to intense hurricanes this year alone. And Death Valley has reached the highest air temperature ever recorded on Earth. Never before has the reality of climate change been apparent to so many Americans.

“There is a real window for climate reforms happening, at the last possible moment for the country to do anything to really make a difference,” said Matto Mildenberger, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is the shot where we either do something, or we lock in billions and trillions of dollars of economic damages and probably millions of American lives lost.”

The repercussions will shape billions of lives outside the country, too. China’s economy may be growing faster, but the United States retains the power to set expectations. It’s still a dream factory, pumping out entertainment that makes hearts race or break, all while whispering, “This is what your life should look like.”

If the United States can show how to take aggressive action against climate change while simultaneously becoming more prosperous and happy, other countries might follow. If on the other hand, the United States shrugs off the responsibility, politicians around the world will point to the country as proof that it’s simply too hard, too expensive, and too utopian to try and stop runaway global warming.

Grist often publishes stories that highlight or scrutinize solutions, but this one is different: It’s a story about what we can do. It’s a guide to the current boundaries of political possibility.

We can’t tell you who will win Tuesday’s election, or whether a Senate run by Democrats would trash the filibuster. But given any one of those results, we can game out what might happen with a reasonable degree of precision, thanks to the assistance of historians, political scientists, and Beltway insiders. We talked to lots of them to help us lay out scenarios for climate policy after November 3.

To explore these paths, we built this piece as a “choose your own adventure” story. You are in the driver’s seat (of this sleek, electric cargo bike), and your political choices will steer the country. Click on one of the buttons at the right of each section to guide the United States to a cleaner future.

Before we get to those strategic choices, you have to choose the opening conditions.

What happens in the general election?

Trump triumphs and remains in the White House.

Split ticket: Biden takes the White House, but Republicans keep the Senate.

Democrats ride a blue tsunami as voters reject Trump and Trumpism.

Trump wins

The idea of Donald Trump staying in the White House until 2024 provokes something close to despair among those hoping the United States takes action on climate change.

“If Trump wins? Oh, just give it up,” said Jerry Taylor, president of the centrist Niskanen Center. “I’ll be off the scene because I will have drunken strychnine.”

“If Trump wins? Oh, just give it up. I’ll be off the scene because I will have drunken strychnine.”

In this scenario, past would be prologue. Trump finishes the work started in his first term, undoing the rest of President Barack Obama’s executive actions to protect the environment with executive actions of his own. He’d likely renew efforts to keep the coal industry alive while doing everything possible to boost oil and gas production.

Scribbling a black Sharpie signature on one order after another, Trump has already scrapped everything from standards to keep light bulbs efficient, to a ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to Obama’s Clean Power Plan — and that’s just three of 100 environmental rollbacks. If these rollbacks remain in place until 2035, it would add up to a 1.8 gigaton carbon bomb, according to a study by the Rhodium Group, an independent research company. That’s like adding a Czech Republic’s worth of pollution to the country’s emissions every year for the next 15 years.

The world hasn’t fully felt the effects of those executive orders because, for most of Trump’s first term, Democratic attorneys general have kept many of his rule changes tied up in the courts. Their lawsuits have managed to stymie the administration because a lot of Trump’s orders were sloppy. A second term would give Trump’s agencies plenty of time to correctly cross t’s, dot i’s, and cement the new rules into place, then grease the skids for more.

“In a second Trump administration, we are likely to see executive action that is even bolder, even more aggressive, and probably doing everything imaginable to pump up oil and gas production as a strategy for economic recovery,” said Barry Rabe, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

Trump couldn’t quite save coal — but he might try to slow down coal’s death spiral with executive orders. He has already started this process, loosening the rules to allow coal plants to emit more toxic metals like mercury, while his Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioners have made a new rule that provides extra payments to giant electric plants.

“It would be more of the same, but a lot more intense. It will go from being a Category 2 hurricane to a Category 5 hurricane.”

“With no mercury controls on coal plants, and with a more muscular Federal Energy Regulatory Commission making it mandatory to have some power plants with characteristics that look suspiciously like coal, you could imagine that Trump could keep coal plants running well beyond when they’d retire otherwise,” said Varun Sivaram, who studies energy policy at Columbia University.

All the while, the administration would be packing the courts, the EPA, and other parts of the federal government with people friendly to the fossil fuel industry. Just imagine the last four years — squared. “It would be more of the same, but a lot more intense,” said Monica Medina, founder of the environmental news source Our Daily Planet, who worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies under Clinton and Obama. “It will go from being a Category 2 hurricane to a Category 5 hurricane.”

Still, you can escape oncoming disaster, even during a Category 5 hurricane. You could play hardball in Congress while working courts for leverage. If a judge opens a trial in one of the lawsuits against oil companies, that could force politicians to take action. There is some climate policy that could pass in Trump’s second term if you are willing to make big compromises and assemble a bipartisan team.

Use the courts to force Congress to act

In the past few years, cities, states, fishermen, kids, and probably your Uncle Frank have filed lawsuits arguing that Big Oil should pay for the damages done by climate change.

None of them have landed a blow yet. One federal judge threw out a lawsuit from San Francisco and Oakland, then another saved it on appeal. Defending against these lawsuits is already starting to cause headaches for oil companies — they cost money, and there’s always the danger that one might actually go against them. Big Oil was sufficiently bothered to have thrown its support — and its lobbying money — behind a proposal to impose a national carbon tax that comes bundled with immunity against these lawsuits.

Many of these cases are moving through state courts in places like California and New York, where liberal, environmentally-concerned judges might be happy to move them toward a trial. And if just one court decides companies are liable, it could cripple ExxonMobil, Chevron, and their kin. “Liability is the ultimate executioner’s ax above their head,” said Niskanen’s Jerry Taylor.

“I could imagine the bat signal going up out of the oil and gas industry to the GOP saying, ‘It is absolutely imperative that Congress protect us from liability, because if we are liable we are dead”

Companies will start to panic if a case gets to the discovery stage, when a judge orders everyone to turn over evidence.

“If we see a case going into discovery, and we are about to really find out what Exxon knew, that’s when I could imagine the bat signal going up out of the oil and gas industry to the GOP saying, ‘It is absolutely imperative that Congress protect us from liability, because if we are liable we are dead,” Taylor said.

In that case, climate advocates in Congress would be in a position to negotiate: You want to shield oil companies from lawsuits? Only if we get big-time action on climate change.

Some argue that it would be better for Democrats to block any legislation shielding Big Oil and wait for the executioner’s ax to fall. But Taylor, though he actively supports these lawsuits, notes that bankrupting U.S. oil companies wouldn’t do anything to stop climate change. Sue Exxon out of existence and other oil giants, like Saudi Aramco, Mexico’s Pemex, and the China National Petroleum Corporation will happily take its place.

If oil companies begin lobbying hard for a deal, it could throw the GOP into disarray. Maybe the negotiations are chaotic, and many Republicans swear they will never compromise. But Big Oil leans hard on key senators, and the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, ends up cutting a deal with Democrats behind closed doors. Today, there’s already an industry-supported proposal to create a carbon tax that gives oil companies legal immunity. Members of Congress might dust it off and add a bunch of amendments. Democrats get trillions for Green-New-Deal-esque programs, rebranded as a stimulus for America’s businesses, and enough Republicans sign on to get it passed.

Not bad. Sure, the law doesn’t “keep it in the ground,” but it does more than anyone thought possible under Trump. Emissions begin declining. The legislation, because it’s bipartisan, is durable: Politicians of the future are more likely to build on this law, rather than trash it.

Start over

Climate legislation Trump might sign

You can bet your last penny that any president who believes climate change is a Chinese hoax is going to veto altruistic legislation that reins in carbon emissions. However, that same president might be happy to sign bills that give a boost to American businesses and fund innovation. And businesses of the future will have to be green to be competitive.

The midterm after a president’s reelection — 2022 in this case — is especially brutal: Every president since Ulysses Grant has watched his party take a shellacking in his sixth year.

Around the world, businesses are slashing greenhouse gas emissions and making long-term strategies to succeed in a world that runs on clean energy — often with the help of government research. China’s government support has done wonders for that country’s clean energy economy, making it the world’s largest producer of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. Japan’s government helps its corporations push hydrogen-fueled vehicles. Germany is pouring money into taking the lead on ultra-high voltage transmission lines. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is reportedly burying studies that speak to the promise of renewable energies versus fossil fuels.

If this keeps up, American businesses are bound to complain. Leaders of the auto industry, for example, might look around the world and see other countries investing real money in developing better electric cars, and start to lobby Congress to do the same, said David Hart, who studies innovation policy at George Mason University. A few Republicans — Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — have suggested that the country needs to help American industry develop new technologies to keep the United States competitive, he noted.

So Republicans might be interested in passing a bill supporting research and innovation in the name of national security, and Democrats could steer that bill toward making “America first” in battery innovation, or green chemistry, or any of the industries that the world needs to stop climate change.

Skepticism is warranted — but remember, this legislation wouldn’t have climate change on the marquee. It would be a bill to give American businesses a competitive edge, and it would need Democratic support to pass.

Democrats are likely to control both bodies of Congress for part of this scenario: If Trump wins in November, according to the historical pattern, Democrats gain seats in the Senate and House in the midterms. “Whoever wins the presidential election is immediately favored to lose the next midterm election, and usually by a fairly large margin,” said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State. And the midterm after a president’s reelection — 2022 in this case — is especially brutal: Every president since Ulysses Grant has watched his party take a shellacking in his sixth year.

If Democrats have majorities in both houses by early 2023, they’d just need a bill inoffensive enough to Republicans that Trump would be willing to sign it. What might that look like? Recently, the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University published a “roadmap” for launching a $25 billion national energy research and development program. It would foster the development of everything from clean farming to advanced transportation, from basic research to providing markets for fledgling businesses. And Sivaram, an author of the report, said it’s just the sort of thing that could garner support from both parties.

“If there’s one major climate initiative that gets passed under Trump, it should be this, because it’s got the most bipartisan support, and it happens to be the highest leverage thing we can do,” he said.

In the case that this law passes, many environmentalists will scoff: It’s meant to spur economic growth, not to reverse climate change. But at least it’s spurring economic growth in the direction of clean energy, rather than a coal renaissance.

Start over


Biden wins; GOP retains Senate

On Tuesday, November 3, just before midnight, the Associated Press calls the race: Joe Biden will be the 46th president of the United States.

On Biden’s first day in office, he rejoins the Paris climate agreement and reverses Trump’s cancellation of 100 health and environmental rules.

Down the ballot, a victory for Biden isn’t turning into a wholesale rejection of the Republican Party. As the last mail-in ballots are counted in the weeks after the election, it becomes clear that Democrats will keep their majority in the House but will be sending fewer than 50 senators to Capitol Hill in January.

Even so, Biden’s election guarantees big changes. On his first day in office, he rejoins the Paris climate agreement and reverses Trump’s cancellation of 100 health and environmental rules. But the Republicans grip on the Senate makes the chances for ambitious climate legislation shaky. Democrats would need to propose bills that Republicans won’t filibuster. And the Republican strategy throughout the Obama years was to do exactly that.

Something would have to change for a bill to pass. If the GOP clung to Trumpism post-Trump, it would probably be a waste of your time to try to pass a major new law. You’d be better off working with Biden to force policy through, with maybe a few climate policies sneaking through under the cover of larger laws.

If the election showed that suburban voters are sick of Trumpism and Republican incumbents begin worrying about the 2022 midterms, however, it might be worth reaching for bipartisan climate legislation one more time.

The GOP embraces Trumpism

There’s President Donald Trump, and then there’s what’s come to be known as Trumpism: demolishing environmental regulations, blocking immigration, withdrawing from international affairs, raising trade barriers, and tapping resentment among white people. If Trumpism lives on without Trump in the White House, it could prove an obstacle to taking action on climate change.

“If it’s at all close, they will look at that and say, ‘Well shit, Trump was a little incontinent about the tweeting, he wasn’t disciplined about messaging, he got unlucky with COVID, but basically he got the formula right.’”

The point of this version of the Republican Party would be not to govern, but to stick it to the libs.

Because Democrats didn’t win in such a landslide that it was clear that the GOP must fundamentally change or die, there would be no moment of mass conversion, said Nils Gilman, one of the organizers of the Transition Integrity Project, and a historian at the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute.

“If it’s at all close, they will look at that and say, ‘Well shit, Trump was a little incontinent about the tweeting, he wasn’t disciplined about messaging, he got unlucky with COVID, but basically he got the formula right: Go for the white nationalism, go for the xenophobia, don’t give a damn about the debt, and get rid of all the environmental regulations,’” Gilman said. “They will just look for a more perfect version of Trumpism with a less imperfect vehicle.”

And Trump himself would be doing everything he can to encourage the Republican Party to press on in his image. “He will be yelling from the sideline forever,” Gilman said. “He will be that dad at the soccer game. And that will continue to fuck up the Republican Party.”

That doesn’t mean that Republicans will necessarily believe all the Trumpian ideology personally, but if they suspect their base is moving in that direction, they would be less likely to stick their neck out to vote for a policy meant to protect everyone, including non-white people in other countries. A Trumpian solution to climate change would be to build a wall around the entire country, to help Americans — and only Americans — to weather the coming storms.

Anything with the words “climate change” on the marquee is going to get filibustered. Democrats might still be able to sneak measures into less politicized bills and work with Republicans on research and innovation. But maybe it’s a dead end to count on Republicans, and there’s a lot the president can do without help from Congress.

Sneak bits and pieces through

Congress used to pass big legislation: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Food Stamp Act. Now the legislative branch’s best bet is to make deals when they have no other choice — like in response to a catastrophe or to forestall a government shutdown. What happened?

Biden would be the president with the most congressional experience, ever.

Grossman, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, answered this question in his book, Artists of the Possible. The period of gridlock and inaction we are living in now isn’t an aberration, he found. All those landmark bills listed above passed in one very unusual period from 1961 to 1976, which he calls “the Long Great Society.” Most of the time, he said, giant new laws like these are doomed to fail, and real policymaking happens on the sly. Big efforts are split up and packaged into smaller bills, or tucked discreetly into spending packages.

If Congress slips tax credits for clean energy into a tax bill, and discretely adds money to a housing bill for insulating low-income homes, those provisions are a lot more likely to pass than a big bill directed squarely at climate change. And there are a bunch of laws that should be passed in the next four years just to keep the country running smoothly: An energy bill, a farm bill, and probably another stimulus bill, Grossman said. Any of those could be vehicles for important climate policy.

It’s worth highlighting one other point here: Most of the characteristics that made it possible to pass ambitious legislation during the “Long Great Society” don’t exist today. During that period, policy continued moving forward even as power shifted: President Lyndon Johnson signed the Housing and Urban Development Act, and then instead of trying to repeal and replace it, President Richard Nixon oversaw the growth of housing subsidies. There was fighting, sure, but also continuity, bargaining, and evolution, rather than an insistence on total reversal. But in this scenario, there’s one similarity: A longtime Washington insider in the White House with deep relationships to key players, who is willing to compromise to get something passed.

“Biden definitely fits that category,” Grossman said. “He’d be the president with the most congressional experience, and he has long relationships with Republican senators, so it is possible that they trust him a little bit.”

The resulting law wouldn’t attract much attention at first. Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has pointed out that policies like clean energy tax credits and renewable portfolio standards passed under the radar, then went on to enable a boom in solar panel and wind turbine construction. So your modest strategy really could make a big difference.

As part of this strategy, lawmakers would probably include a policy with bipartisan support, like a major increase in funding for clean energy research.

Focus on non-triggering research

Imagine a full-court press from Washington to make America the undisputed leader of a future economy running on clean energy. Congress passes a bill to radically expand research funding and the White House puts all its backing behind it. Advanced geothermal test wells sprout across the West, the Department of Energy sets prize money out for an inexpensive electric car with a 300-mile range and 15-minute charging time, and the Department of Agriculture starts paying farmers to capture carbon in their soil.

Senator Lamar Alexander has called for a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy,” and Republicans have already proposed a dozen energy innovation bills.

That’s the proposal made by a group of scholars, and it could happen. Research and development is popular across the political spectrum. It’s front and center in Biden’s climate plan. On the left, Data for Progress, the Green-New-Deal-backing progressive think tank, wants $30 billion dollars for energy innovation by 2030 — about a three-fold increase in spending. On the right, Senator Lamar Alexander has called for a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy,” which would double energy research, and Republicans have already proposed a dozen energy innovation bills.

A big R&D bill could even pass even under a second-term President Trump, but it’s more likely under Biden, said Varun Sivaram, who studies energy policy at Columbia University. “It’s the one thing everyone can agree is a really good idea.” He and three co-authors recently published a plan for a $25 billion dollar energy innovation initiative. It’s not even that expensive: It’s about how much the U.S. military spent on fighting wars in 2020.

Republicans might push for more nuclear and carbon capture money. Democrats might argue for more renewable energy. But if they could make a deal on those details, something like this really could pass.

The funding stream you have created pays for thousands of brilliant postgrads to investigate basic scientific questions, and their findings launch hundreds of new companies. All this work will pay off big-time in the long run. In the short to medium term, however, the country is still pumping out clouds of greenhouse gases. You’ve bequeathed a hotter climate to your descendants, but also some fancy new tools for cooling things down.

Start over

Embrace executive action

When all hope for passing climate laws fade, there’s still a last-ditch option: Rely on Biden to do it all. If you’re old enough to have been politically aware during the Obama administration, you know the routine by now. A new president gets into the Oval Office and immediately starts to reverse everything their predecessor accomplished, whether it’s George W. Bush, Obama, or Trump. Presidents have relied on the use of executive orders for ages. In this situation, Biden would no doubt do the same.

“To be confident of an executive-only strategy, one should really be confident that they are going to win at least two but preferably three or four elections in a row.”

In many cases, Biden could quickly reinstate Obama-era rules that Trump gutted, said Monica Medina, a former general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and publisher of Our Daily Planet, an environmental news site. “They could pick up the old Obama actions — ‘OK, this one goes in the trash, and we can pull out the old one and use it.’” It would be much less work for the executive branch agencies scrambling to set up a Biden administration compared to starting from scratch.

Biden would also go farther, said Barry Rabe, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, who has a new book examining the boom in presidential policymaking. On his very first day in office, according to his climate plan, Biden will sign a flurry of executive orders. He’ll crack down on methane leaks, raise gas-mileage requirements for cars, boost energy-efficiency standards, and that’s just a sampling of the planned actions his campaign has released.

It’s easy for a president to sign an executive order, but it takes a huge amount of work behind the scenes before it can start changing things on the ground. And the federal agencies are already going to be drowning in work. “The beginning of any new administration is really challenging,” Medina said.

In the middle of all this, the incoming administration will have to find droves of new hires: A lot of career bureaucrats will be retiring over the next 10 years. There will be new people coming in and learning the ropes, and inevitable culture clashes. “There’s a major shift that’s going to happen in the federal government,” she said. “We need desperately to bring in bright young people to be the champions of the new world they are striving to build.”

Finally, when Republican attorneys general sue to block his executive actions, Biden would face a court system sprinkled with hundreds of newly appointed Republican judges. He will also face a much more conservative Supreme Court ready to rein in the power of federal agencies.

And even if Biden succeeds in jamming his executive actions through the courts, Democrats would need to hold onto the presidency to make it stick. “The danger is that as soon as a president of the opposite party gets into office, everything flip-flops,” Rabe said. “To be confident of an executive-only strategy, one should really be confident that they are going to win at least two but preferably three or four elections in a row.”

Note: That has never happened in modern American politics.

For a couple of years, it looks like you’re making progress relying on the executive branch. Liberal states sprint forward with gas-mileage regulations and clean power rules. But then the courts begin to knock down executive orders, with judges saying the president was never meant to have such king-like authority. And there’s another presidential election looming …

Start over

Court Republicans

If the GOP holds the Senate, but the vote clearly shows that the suburbs have rejected Trump, Republicans representing those voters are going to start looking for a way to rebrand themselves. What could they do to distinguish themselves from the rest of the party and win back those voters?

“Just by process of elimination, you find that one of the best ways of making yourself look like a normal non-Trumpian reasonable Republican is by embracing climate action.”

There aren’t a lot of great choices: They could vote for gun control, but the National Rifle Association remains formidable. They could help keep abortion legal, but the religious right is now the core of the Republican Party — throw them under the bus and it would be easier to win as a Democrat.

“Just by process of elimination, you find that one of the best ways of making yourself look like a normal non-Trumpian reasonable Republican is by embracing climate action,” said Jerry Taylor, president of the centrist Niskanen Center. That’s become more likely, he said, now that the big oil companies have accepted that climate change is real and begun pushing for a carbon tax.

Denying the science behind climate change isn’t written into Republican DNA. In 2000, George W. Bush ran for the White House on a promise to cap carbon emissions. Christine Todd Whitman, his first EPA administrator, immediately began building this cap-and-trade system when Bush took office in 2001. (Vice President Dick Cheney, and a few other representatives of fossil fuel-rich states, quashed that effort).

It’s only recently that climate denial has become a marker of red-state culture. That’s thanks to a concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry, said Matto Mildenberger, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, whose recent book, Carbon Captured, looks at why some countries have passed climate legislation and others have not.

All this adds up to a real possibility that a handful of Republicans might pivot to support an effort to reverse climate change if a credible bill was on the table. They’d have a lot more incentive to do so if conventional wisdom hitches the story of Biden’s win to climate change, said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. “Say there’s a large youth turnout, and the exit polls ask some stupid question about climate change, which makes it look like that was the No. 1 issue for people under 40,” he said. “Then that becomes the interpretation of what swung the election. I’m actually being serious about this! That can make a big difference in how the parties respond.”

So there’s a chance — a small but real chance — that a Republican-controlled Senate makes a deal to support a big climate action bill. Republicans would find a way of branding their own form of climate action. They might (at long last) embrace a carbon tax that returns the revenues to citizens. They could support funding and tax credits to boost American clean energy businesses while defanging regulations.

It’s not the legislation activists wanted, but it gets the United States moving. Emissions begin declining steadily, if too slowly. The legislation isn’t revolutionary, but because it’s bipartisan it’s durable: Politicians of the future are more likely to amend and build on this law, rather than trash it.

Start over


Blue Wave

As the dust and confetti clear after the election, it’s clear that American voters have had enough of Trump and the direction he drove the Republican Party. Democrats didn’t just win, they beat Republicans like a rug, with traditional Republican strongholds getting swept under a blue wave.

“Democrats face a tradeoff. They can try and do everything at once but they really only get to do a few big things.”

On his first day in office, Biden exerts the full power of the executive branch to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and reverse Trump’s cancellation of 100 health and environmental rules. In Congress, Democrats gained enough votes to control the Senate and picked up seats in the House of Representatives. It’s been more than 10 years since they held this much power. And this time around, if they make it a priority, they can pass landmark legislation to take on climate change.

There’s a wide-open window of opportunity to pass federal climate policy. But that window is likely to close after two years. In recent decades, whenever a new party takes the presidency, it loses big in the Congressional midterms, two years later.

The Democratic majority is going to have a lot of priorities competing for time as those two years tick by. It would take some time to work out the details if Democrats blow up the filibuster, and after that, a logjam of legislation would begin jostling for position. In the middle of a pandemic, with the fate of Obamacare in the hands of a conservative Supreme Court, there would be a lot of pressure to give people access to health care. The conservative Supreme Court could also spur Congress to pass a law clearly legalizing abortion. Politicians would probably pass a stimulus bill. There’s talk of a new Voting Rights Act, and of statehood for Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. What about immigration reform? And — if you can remember that far back — what about foreign policy?

“Democrats face a trade-off,” Grossman said. “They can try and do everything at once, but they really only get to do a few big things.”

Can climate change legislation rise to the top of this flooded agenda?

Mildenberger thinks it can. Biden’s climate plan is suited for this moment because a massive spending bill can address all of our pressing crises at once, in a way that a simple carbon tax can’t, he said. And climate change has become more visible — both in reality, and politics — than ever. “Biden is running the most climate-centric campaign of anyone who has ever run for president,” Mildenberger said. “Much more so than Gore or Kerry, these folks who were committed climate activists.”

Now you face a key strategic choice. Passing a law that makes the United States carbon-neutral by 2050 — Biden’s goal — would probably require that Democrats abolish the Senate filibuster, a procedural rule which allows the minority to thwart a bill that doesn’t have the support of 60 senators. To demolish it, they’d need to get 51 senators on board (the Constitution says a simple majority is all that’s needed to change procedure), which could mean every Democratic senator — depending on the election results — would have to fall into line. If Democrats opt to keep the filibuster in place, they would have to rely on Republicans in much the same way they would if they had not taken the Senate, albeit with a stronger negotiating position. If Democrats want to keep the filibuster, they might also squeeze climate policy through a loophole called reconciliation.

Try reconciliation

Biden’s plan to tackle climate change proposes spending $1.7 trillion on a “second great railroad revolution,” the “largest-ever investment in clean energy research,” and bailing out people stuck in fossil fuel jobs. How do you get something that big through Congress? Maybe you take the same route the Republican majority used in 2017 to pass $2 trillion in tax cuts: reconciliation.

“I just don’t see a world where there’s going to be 60 votes in the Senate for aggressive climate action given the overrepresentation of more fossil fuel-intensive states.”

Let’s say Democrats picked up five seats in the Senate, giving them a 52-48 majority (two independents caucus with Dems). To have any hope of passing Biden’s big bill, Democrats would have to convince their entire bloc (no sure thing) and bring aboard a handful of Republicans to get to 60 — enough votes to break a filibuster. It would probably mean persuading representatives of states that thrive on fossil fuel money — Alaska, Montana, and Colorado — to vote to end fossil fuels. To many observers, that sounds like fantasy.

“I just don’t see a world where there’s going to be 60 votes in the Senate for aggressive climate action given the overrepresentation of more fossil fuel-intensive states,” said Matto Mildenberger, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But there’s a secret way around the filibuster. It’s called “budget reconciliation,” and it’s basically a shortcut through Congress for routine budget bills. Congress cleared this path in 1974 to keep the basic housekeeping work of government from getting entangled in other battles. And all it requires is a simple majority in the Senate: 51 votes, rather than 60.

That’s the scenario Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island envisioned during a recent forum on prospects for climate action: “We go forward with a big bill and use budget reconciliation as a vehicle to get there,” he said.

There’s some wiggle room as to exactly what a “budget bill” means: Democrats might pass a carbon tax through reconciliation but couldn’t use it to ban fracking or create the “enforcement mechanism” Biden wants to force the United States into carbon neutrality by 2050.

But you haven’t succeeded yet: There’s no guarantee that Democrats would agree to all vote together and jam something through reconciliation.

Demolish the filibuster

Back in the olden days, if Senators wanted to stop a bill’s progress they could yammer for hour upon hour and hold up the chamber’s business with a filibuster. It was made famous in Frank Capra’s movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and infamous when Senator Strom Thurmond talked for 24 hours in an attempt to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Obama called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” that should be eliminated.

Senators no longer have to speechify. All they have to do is announce their intention to filibuster, and it stops a bill unless 60 Senators vote to move forward. That’s what killed the last attempt at major climate legislation, the 2009 Waxman-Markey Act, which would have set up a cap-and-trade system in the U.S. “It’s easy to count to 60 — we know we don’t have the votes,” said Senator Harry Reid from Nevada, the majority leader at the time.

An experienced Washington hand recently suggested one scenario to kill the filibuster: Democrats in the Senate introduce, say, a new Voting Rights Act, like this one, and Republicans block it. Democrats could then claim the moral high ground and kill the filibuster by changing the Senate’s rules.

“They will say ‘No, we will not allow this minority to forever deny the equal rights of American citizens,’” said Jerry Taylor, president of the centrist Niskanen Center. “I could see that easily, and then all the other legislation starts coming in behind it.”

We didn’t just pluck the idea of a fight over an updated Voting Rights Act out of thin air. It’s the scenario President Barack Obama outlined at the funeral for John Lewis, the civil rights icon. If some senators use the filibuster to deny “the God-given rights of every American,” as Obama put it, then this “Jim Crow relic” should be eliminated.

Mildenberger thinks that, in this scenario, the filibuster is doomed. “And the minute that happens, you finally open the door to climate policy legislation in the United States,” he said.

Or maybe it isn’t. Some Democrats might balk at shattering precedent. Others might fear a rush of legislation that would follow. “The prospects for filibuster reform go down if a bunch of vulnerable and moderate Democrats see a bunch of impending legislation that is too far to the left for them,” said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

The trade-off, of course, is that abolishing the filibuster not only makes it easier for the party in charge to pass legislation, it also makes it easier for a Senate led by the other party to reverse those efforts with new laws. “That’s how it works in the rest of the world, and that’s what’s going to be necessary,” said Mildenberger, whose recent book, Carbon Captured, explains why some countries have passed climate legislation and others have not.

If it’s a straight party-line vote, “Republicans will do everything within their power to erode it to erase it — it will be the [Affordable Care Act] all over again,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, during a recent online discussion about prospects for climate action in the next Congress.

Even if they abolish the filibuster, Democrats would still have trouble getting their entire party to agree on one climate policy. Next step: Move on to the horse-trading and political brinksmanship!

Building a bill that could pass

If you made it this far, you’ve already cleared major hurdles. Congratulations. Now comes the hard part.

Congress isn’t just going to pick up Biden’s climate plan and enshrine it into law. Politicians will fight like a clowder of yowling trash-bin cats, each pushing different priorities and slowing down the process. And the contents of the bill will determine whether it can survive.

“The boundary of what’s possible on climate is going to be dictated by senators like Joe Manchin. Are these guys going to go all in on a legislative package that is going to make the Sunrise Movement skip and do backflips? No f’ing way!”

“I really think there’s undue optimism that a bill is just going to breeze through a Democratic Congress; I don’t think that’s likely,” said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan political scientist and author of the recent book, Can We Price Carbon? “In 2021, in all likelihood, we are looking at a major horse-trading strategy where each senator is going to be trying to extract as much rent as possible for their state.”

This horse-trading will be a little easier thanks to the zeitgeist: Plans to punish or tax polluters have gone out of style. Austerity is passé. Big spending is in. That means there will be more goodies to lure holdouts.

Rust Belt senators will want to help the auto industry make a heel turn to electric cars. Representatives from big cities will want to upgrade housing and protect their constituents from hurricanes. Breadbasket senators will want to pay farmers to store carbon in their soil. Senators from fossil fuel-rich states like West Virginia, Colorado, and Montana will try to protect jobs — or at least workers — in the oil and gas industry.

“The boundary of what’s possible on climate is going to be dictated by senators like Joe Manchin [a Democrat from West Virginia],” Taylor said. “Are these guys going to go all in on a legislative package that is going to make the Sunrise Movement skip and do backflips? No f’ing way!”

It’s unlikely that the negotiations will stiff-arm the fossil fuel industry. Even in ultra-blue California, activists complained that former Governor Jerry Brown seemed to spend more time negotiating with lobbyists than anyone else while hammering out a climate policy. Oil and gas companies are powerful. They have unions going to bat for them. They’re a key source of jobs in several states. And the entire country still runs on their products.

“We should expect that industry will be in the room,” University of California, Santa Barbara’s Matto Mildenberger said. “We should expect that the policy is responsive to industry.”

And so, Biden’s climate plan might look pristine when introduced, then wind up with big concessions to the hold-out Democrats who know they control the pivotal votes. “That’s the complaint of the left,” Grossman said. “Through that bargaining process, the policy tends to move rightward. That’s happened repeatedly.”

Progressives might play hardball. After all, they could become the pivotal votes if they are willing to torpedo a bill that seems too tepid. But there’s a reason Democrats are often willing to compromise: Progressives tend to think that imperfect government policy is better than nothing, whereas right-wingers tend to prefer no government at all.

“Say there’s a climate bill that makes a lot of improvements but doesn’t go far enough for the left wing of the Democratic Party — I don’t think they vote against it,” Grossman said. “People have overstated the change there. Even The Squad has voted for almost everything when it came down to it. Democrats just don’t tend to see logic like that: If they really think it’s a step forward or nothing, they tend to go for the step forward. So do their voters. So do their interest groups,” he said.

There’s a possibility that a few Republicans could break ranks, weakening the bargaining power of senators from fossil fuel states. Biden’s climate plan doesn’t push a carbon tax — but Republicans might push their form of a carbon tax as the conservative option. But either way, whether it’s centrist Democrats or moderate Republicans that provide the swing votes, the bill would slide right.

When politicians talk about the concessions required to turn a bill into law, they often say the negotiations have improved the bill. Maybe they even believe it! In this case, it will take years before we will know if the compromises were worth it, a form of prudent moderation — preventing a populist revolt against the policy — or just another way of selling out to the defenders of the status quo.

Even if it’s the latter, you’ve successfully gotten landmark climate legislation through Congress! Sure, it didn’t drive oil companies out of existence, but it does drive meaningful emissions reductions. And the spending package is enormous: Bikeways bloom across the country, high-speed train tracks stitch the continent together, electric cars replace gas guzzlers, the air becomes cleaner, and a booming green-jobs economy lifts families out of poverty.

Start over

Peel off a few Republicans

The results are in and the suburbs have roundly rejected Trump (already a trend). It was such a clobbering that some Republicans up for election in 2022 are already nervous: Their pollsters tell them they will lose unless they can distance themselves from Trumpism. What could they do to distinguish themselves from the rest of the party and win back those voters?

If some Republican senators really believe they must tack away from Trumpism to survive the midterms, they might break with tradition and get behind a big climate law.

There aren’t a lot of great choices: They could vote for gun control, but the National Rifle Association remains formidable. They could help keep abortion legal, but the religious right is now the core of the Republican Party — throw them under the bus and it would be easier to win as a Democrat.

“Just by process of elimination you find that one of the best ways of making yourself look like a normal non-Trumpian reasonable Republican is by embracing climate action,” said Jerry Taylor, president of the centrist Niskanen Center. That’s become more likely, he said, now that the big oil companies have accepted that climate change is real and begun pushing for a carbon tax.

Denying the science behind climate change isn’t written into Republican DNA. In 2000, George W. Bush ran for the White House on a promise to cap carbon emissions. Christine Todd Whitman, his first EPA administrator, immediately began building this cap-and-trade system when Bush took office in 2001. (Vice President Dick Cheney, and a few other representatives of fossil fuel-rich states, quashed that effort).

It’s only recently that climate denial has become a marker of red-state culture. That’s thanks to a concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry, said Matto Mildenberger, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, whose recent book, Carbon Captured, looks at how some countries have passed climate legislation and others have not.

All this adds up to a real possibility that a handful of Republicans might pivot to support an effort to reverse climate change, if a credible bill was on the table.

Could this actually work? It all depends on the Senate: If recent history repeats itself, Republicans will run down the clock negotiating on a bill, and then block it with the filibuster. But if some Republican senators really believe they have to tack away from Trumpism to survive the midterms, they might break with tradition and get behind a big climate law.

Because Republicans can wield the filibuster in this scenario, they have a lot more influence over the bill than if you would have chosen to pass something through reconciliation, or by abolishing the filibuster.

As a result, Republicans would find a way of branding legislation. They might (at long last) embrace a carbon tax that returns the revenue raised to taxpayers. They could support funding and tax credits to boost American clean energy businesses, while defanging regulations.

You passed bipartisan climate legislation! It’s not the bill that activists want, but it gets the United States moving. Emissions begin declining steadily, if too slowly. The legislation isn’t revolutionary, but because it’s bipartisan, it’s durable: Politicians of the future are more likely to build on this law, rather than trash it.

Start over