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Senate shift paves way for straight-talking U.S. climate reforms

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 January 2021 16:55 GMT

Democratic Senate race victories in Georgia give a 'green light' to President-elect Joe Biden's push for a new climate-smart pandemic stimulus

By Laurie Goering

Jan 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Democratic Senate seat wins in the state of Georgia have given U.S. President-elect Joe Biden a "green light to move forward" on some key shifts in national climate policy, such as much greener pandemic stimulus spending, U.S. policy analysts said.

With Democrats now in control of the Senate, "it's a huge, huge difference", Nigel Purvis, CEO of the Washington-based Climate Advisers policy group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"This almost doubles what he can do - he has a whole additional range of tools and levers at his disposal," said Purvis, who has worked with three former U.S. administrations on climate policy.

Biden has proposed a $2-trillion, climate-smart economic stimulus plan, for instance, which he would not have been able to get through if the Georgia election had turned out differently. "Now he has a real chance," Purvis added. Biden's thin Senate majority means he is unlikely to be able to pass a single comprehensive climate change bill, which would require the approval of 60% of senators.

But many measures related to raising or spending money - including stimulus funding for things like electric vehicle infrastructure, or incentives for farmers to sequester more carbon - can win approval with a simple majority.

Biden should, for instance, now be able to back his plans to mainstream climate action into all government agencies with cash to make that possible, said Christina DeConcini, director of government affairs at the World Resources Institute (WRI). "There are limits for sure, but it's ... a green light to move forward," she said. "I really think this is a new day for climate in the United States."

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks next to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as he announces members of economics and jobs team at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., January 8, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


How shifts in climate policy are framed for a country politically divided on the issue will be crucial to Biden's success in bringing change, the analysts said.

Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama and Biden's nominee to become the first national climate adviser, for instance, speaks more about the need for a "cleaner, stronger, more resilient economy" than about climate change.

"We know clean energy supports millions of jobs in the United States and it can support millions more," as well as saving money and improving people's health, she told an online event in November.

To get people behind climate action, governments "need to give citizens and communities a better life today" - not just promises that future catastrophes will be avoided, she added.

Rachel Kyte, a former U.N. special representative on energy and dean of the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said McCarthy and other Biden cabinet picks excel at talking about the need for climate-friendly reforms "in language ordinary people can understand".

"They will find a very main-street narrative for why these are common-sense policies" - and that could galvanize broader bipartisan support, she predicted.

Alden Meyer, a strategic adviser with independent climate change think-tank E3G, noted that during the last fiscal crisis in 2009, the Obama-Biden administration crafted a stimulus package that included $90 billion for clean energy technology.

Biden's pick for energy secretary, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, in that crisis helped negotiate a rescue of the U.S. auto industry that included an agreement by Detroit to adopt much more aggressive fuel economy standards.

Such "green strings" on stimulus cash will be needed to help drive effective climate action in the United States and globally, climate analysts say.

"This is not new territory for Biden," Meyer said. "He knows this game very well. He gets this, he feels this in his bones."

A small fleet of electric Chevrolet Bolt vehicles are charged by a sun tracking solar panel car charing system in San Diego, California, U.S. October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake


Another challenge for Biden, the analysts said, will be keeping onboard factions of the Democratic Party - such as the youth-led Sunrise Movement - that are demanding swift, immediate and aggressive action on climate threats.

The Sunrise Movement has already told Democratic Senate leaders it expects "an enormous green spending bill on day one", Kyte said - and that desire for rapid change may be at odds with efforts to sell climate action to a broader U.S. audience.

Yet, despite paralyzing political polarization on many climate-related issues, a few hints of possible bipartisan compromise have emerged in recent months, the analysts said.

Stimulus and relief packages passed in December included policies that could help set the stage for decarbonization of the U.S. economy, such as tax incentives for clean energy and carbon capture technologies.

Congress also agreed, with bipartisan support, to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), powerful climate pollutants used in air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment.

As well, a Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress is likely to work more closely with the cities, states and other bodies that have driven U.S. climate action during global-warming skeptic President Donald Trump's administration, said WRI's DeConcini.

U.S. businesses - a growing number of which have adopted net-zero emissions goals, or are having to adhere to tougher climate policies in other countries where they work - also increasingly want consistent, clear climate policy, she said.

"At some point, the desire to just stay the course - because they see the future on the wall and because it's good for their bottom line - will become so strong it will provide the political momentum for the U.S. to move toward a decarbonized economy," she predicted.

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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