With Democrats having a narrow majority of the Senate, all the pieces have fallen into place for President-elect Joe Biden’s climate vision to come to life. There’s plenty he can accomplish now, but whether he succeeds will depend largely on whether the Democratic Party can unify—and how determined Republicans remain to sabotage climate policy.
WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
We did it, baby—or, more accurately, Black voters in Georgia did it. Newly minted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hellish reign is over, and Democrats are taking over the Senate—a new reality that changes everything. Many of us in the climate world were preparing for a Joe Biden presidency without Senate support. Now, we can envision so much more.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re celebrating the victories where we can take them. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. These Georgia wins open the door to federal climate legislation, but they don’t eliminate all obstacles. Republicans can still sabotage progressive proposals, such as bills to make the Green New Deal a reality, and Democrats need to come together if they’re going to meet the complex task of funding climate policy and decarbonizing our country with a lens on equity as Biden has promised.
First thing’s first: No matter what happened in Georgia, President-elect Biden will have executive power. That means he’ll be able to designate (and redesignate) national monuments, issue executive orders, presidential memorandums, and presidential pardons, as well as nominate Cabinet officials and sign bills. However, the power to introduce, write, and work on the logistics of those bills lies with Congress. The approval of those Cabinet officials also lies with Congress.
That’s why it’s so monumental to have the same party running these two branches of government. For so long, the only arena we saw climate legislation happening was on the state and city level because federal branches were unable to work together. Now, it can happen federally, whose impacts should trickle down into our own backyards.
“We can at least make Earth a priority,” says Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, an advocate for people and the planet who is formerly the North American director of 350.org. “And that’s huge because people had just abandoned the federal government as a place where work can happen.”
As the New York Times reported, Congress can also reverse last-minute damage Donald Trump created as president. And, boy, has he done plenty these last few weeks, including finalizing a rule to hinder air pollution standards through garbage science and stripping migratory birds of protections.
“There’s not a single climate thing that can happen that doesn’t have a financial component to it.”
Biden can also work on making that $2 trillion climate plan a reality. To make any bill a law, both the Senate and House need to introduce partner bills. That can happen now. Baking climate externality costs into national policy? Hell yeah. A 100 percent clean economy by 2050? Oh, yes. Funding public transit? Man, I hope so. Building out a network of electric vehicle charging stations? That’s what Biden promised us. Regulating agriculture to lower its carbon footprint? That’s much more likely now. Congress can now focus on how to fund the response to the climate crisis—as well as investigate and hold hearings related to it that can result in informed, and sometimes historic, action.
“There’s not a single climate thing that can happen that doesn’t have a financial component to it,” O’Laughlin says.
A few things may delay any of this from happening. For one, the filibuster. If Republicans decide to abuse this practice, they can obstruct the passage of any bill. Senate Democrats have the power to end the filibuster, but they haven’t yet said whether they will. What can also prevent climate legislation from happening at the federal level is, well, attendance. With such a narrow majority, the absence of even one senator could cause a bill to fail. So could the votes from more moderate Congresspeople who might not support progressive climate action necessary to address the crisis.
“With respect to the filibuster, there has been some push for Senate Democrats to get rid of the filibuster because it essentially can prevent legislative action,” says Miranda Yaver, a political scientist with the University of California, Los Angeles. “The Senate filibuster is not going to be deployed for every piece of legislation. There are some things that are just popular for voters and costly to obstruct .”
Navigating this reality won’t be simple, but Danielle Deiseroth, the climate data analyst with Data for Progress, notes that budget reconciliation is a strong option. This legislative process can avoid the filibuster and is directly related to budgetary and financial matters. Plus, the public supports climate action. Moderate Democrats and Republicans would be foolish to defy their supporters.
Still, one arena we shouldn’t get too excited about is fossil fuel accountability, says O’Laughlin. While some politicians want to take these polluters to court for their historic climate denial and role in exacerbating the climate crisis, many Democrats are still in bed with this industry. Plus, this issue doesn’t affect budgets and federal dollars, so it would likely need to go through more traditional avenues.
With the chaos that unfolded on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, it’s hard to imagine a future where politicians and their constituents come together from across the aisle to address humanity’s greatest challenge without getting distracted by a too-emotional reality star. But make no mistake: These Georgia victories are historic. They deserve to be celebrated.
Democrats are in power—thanks to Black voters—whether domestic white terrorists want to accept that or not. Now, the ball is in the Democrats’ court to take on the climate emergency. They have the tools for success at their disposal, finally. Will they be courageous enough to use them?