A Greener Future: the New Horizon for Climate Change Policy in the Post-Trump Era

Vanderbilt faculty share their thoughts on President-elect Biden’s climate plan


Julia Tilton, Contributor

It is scientific consensus that the international community’s actions over the next decade will determine the future viability of our planet as a human habitat. Poised to take office in January, President-elect Joe Biden will preside as leader of the free world for at least four of those critical ten years, meaning his climate plan is imperative. It is also ambitious, combining an extensive legislative package with numerous executive actions, many of which seek to reverse Trump administration moves that set the nation back in terms of emission reductions.

Biden plans to set the United States on a course to achieve a 100% clean energy economy by 2050 with net-zero emissions, according to his campaign website. To do so, Biden has proposed the “Clean Energy Revolution”, a massive legislative package for Congress to pass. This legislation would invest $1.7 trillion into climate goals over the next decade, focusing on reducing emissions through improved transportation as well as funding clean energy research and innovation. 

“This initiative will create more than 10 million new good-paying jobs all across the clean economy in the United States of America,” Biden said in a June 2020 campaign video. He has outlined railroads as a key factor in climate change policy, emphasizing more efficient passenger and freight railways as an avenue for reducing transportation emissions. To stimulate innovation in clean energy, Biden wants to invest $400 billion into that sector over the next decade. 

Although climate change has emerged as one of Biden’s more pertinent priorities, his progressive stance on climate regulation is unlikely to yield the substantive results he promised during his campaign. Much of Biden’s plan to achieve a clean energy economy relies on Congressional approval and funding, meaning a Biden administration set back by a Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to produce the aggressive climate change policy it promises to deliver. 

Understanding the current political context, Vanderbilt Professor of Sociology David Hess does not find Biden’s legislative package to be the most promising aspect of his climate strategy. 

“Everything depends on the Georgia senate races,” he said in an email. “There are some things that President-elect Biden can do via executive order, such as rejoin the Paris Accord, but legislation is likely to be difficult if the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party.” 

Vanderbilt Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Jonathan Gilligan agreed with Hess, adding that climate bills introduced by Democrats and Republicans alike over the past thirty years have failed in Congress. 

“Right now climate change is the most divisive political issue in the U.S., with Republicans and Democrats disagreeing about climate policy even more than they disagree about abortion,” Gilligan wrote in an email.  

Given the current polarization, Biden’s capacity to use executive actions can provide some means for making headway on climate policy. Biden plans to enact a host of climate-focused executive orders on day one, according to his campaign website. 

Vanderbilt Professor of Law Michael Vandenbergh said he expects to see an omnibus executive order from the Biden administration that will seek to repeal many of Trump’s environmentally damaging executive orders. 

“If Biden does nothing other than reverse everything Trump did, he will have done a tremendous amount,” Vandenbergh said. 

Included in these actions is a plan to reestablish climate change as a priority within the Arctic Council and ban offshore drilling in the Arctic, something which President Trump has supported. In a move mindful of environmental justice, Biden also plans to direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pursue criminal anti-pollution cases in order to hold corporations accountable under the law. 

From a foreign policy standpoint, Biden has pledged to re-enter the Paris Climate Accords on his first day in office. He has also said he will take the global conversation about climate change a step further by convening a world climate summit to engage leaders of major carbon-emitting nations in discussions about clean energy. In addition, by combining trade policy with climate objectives, Biden aims to incentivize other nations such as China to stop cheating on their climate commitments.  

While Vandenbergh believes re-entering the Paris agreement is a symbolic move, he also recognizes the challenges a Biden administration will face given the politics at home. 

“The United States will only be able to commit to what it can do with regulations and executive orders, not with legislation,” he said. “That was the problem that Obama faced going into Copenhagen and Paris as well.”

However, Vandenbergh and Gilligan are not yet discouraged, for they recognize Biden’s ability to reverse damages done by the Trump administration is a significant accomplishment on its own.

Gilligan pointed out that just to reinstate the regulations eliminated by Trump, Biden will have to navigate through bureaucratic red tape associated with the Administrative Procedures Act. 

“It will take a good deal of time and effort just to put environmental policy back where it was at the end of the Obama administration,” he said.

In looking toward the future of climate policy, both Vandenbergh and Gilligan are optimistic about the progress occurring outside of the public sector. Already, Gilligan said major companies like Google and Microsoft have become carbon neutral, with Microsoft pledging this year to become carbon negative by 2030. Gilligan said Walmart has also promised to move toward clean energy and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. As these companies make sustainability moves, their supply chains, often in developing countries, are also forced to adopt greener measures. This means the private sector can have a large impact reducing not only U.S. emissions, but global emissions as well.  

According to Vandenbergh, actions by corporations like Walmart are excellent examples of how government is not the only route to solving the climate crisis. 

“It’s not that we don’t need government action — we certainly do — but major companies can make very large contributions to greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and many already have,” he said.

Gilligan added that it will be important for the new administration to form strategic relationships with private organizations like business firms and nonprofits to promote initiatives regulating greenhouse gas emissions that are stricter than what the government would be able to do. 

“The best we can hope for, in such a climate, is that states, cities, and private organizations will step up and do what the federal government refuses to,” Gilligan said. 

Ultimately, the mindset of our leadership in both the public and private sector will determine how far the U.S. goes in terms of reaching essential emissions reductions goals over the next four years and beyond. 

“What we need is for people to be absolutely idealistic but at the same time absolutely pragmatic and open-minded and critical-thinking,” Vandenbergh said. “It’s that combination that’s going to help us solve this problem.”