Implementing Joe Biden’s aggressive climate policies

Rating: High school and post-secondary

Summary: Markham interviews Ryan Kennedy, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston, about the politics of Joe Biden’s ambitious climate and clean energy plan.

Related links:

Biden’s plans for US energy – Oct. 16, 2020 Energi Talks podcast with Ed Crooks, chair of Americas for Wood Mckenzie, global consultancy

This interview has been lightly edited.

Markham Hislop: Now that Joe Biden is the president-elect, he’ll be taking office on January 20th, barring a miracle. All eyes are turning to his climate plan and his clean energy revolution. What is he going to do with that $2 trillion over 10 years? To help us answer that question, we’re going to be talking to Professor Ryan Kennedy of the University of Houston. He’s a political scientist.

What’s your take on Biden’s plan?

Ryan Kennedy: It’s an ambitious plan. It is hands-down the most ambitious climate plan ever proposed by a presidential candidate. Well, a major party nominee in the United States.

As you mentioned, $2 trillion of spending that he’s outlined. He has outlined a number of steps that you can take both immediately and with congressional approval. But as I say that you probably caught the biggest caveat in the implementation of this plan, which is that while there are a number of actions that you can take on the executive level, there are a lot more actions when you talk about that $2 trillion, that has to be appropriated by Congress.

And so what you’re going to see with Biden’s policies is you’re going to see a wave of executive orders. You’re going to see a reinstatement of some of the orders that Obama put in after he failed to get congressional approval for some actions four years ago. You’re going to see a lot of executive orders. There’s a lot of court battles on those executive orders.

And then you’re going to see a big battle in Congress over the pieces of the proposal that he’s put forward. Ed. This interview occurred before the January 6, 2021 Georgia senate elections that gave the Democrats 50 seats in the Senate, with VP Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. 

Markham Hislop: What do you think the odds are that the Senate in particular, because it’s going to be dominated by the Republicans again by the looks of it that they will get on board. Some of this, like I’m really intrigued by Biden’s commitment to making us the US the leader in this new clean energy technology as we pivot to the low carbon future. And that seems to me to be something, because it attracts investment and creates jobs that Republicans are going to eventually become champions of too, right?

Ryan Kennedy: That’s true. So Biden is an old Senator, right? This is where he has spent a large portion of his life.  He still is getting his transition team together and everything like that. But the early indications are that he’s looking at doing this kind of piece by piece, as opposed to trying one single green new deal as an idea.

The reason for doing that is because he thinks he can pick off Republicans for different parts of the proposal. As you said, things like developing new energy technologies. These are going to be appealing to Republicans who’ve come from where those technologies are likely to be built or where they are likely to be put in place.

Where I am in Texas, for example, is a surprisingly large generator of wind energy. And we are one of the largest wind-generating energy regions in the United States. One of the larger ones in the world. And so you might see certain parts of the Texas delegation peel off to support them.

Conversely things like carbon capture. These are things that a number of fossil fuel companies actually support, especially natural gas companies because it makes their fuel suddenly a lot cheaper. Well, it makes their already cheap fuel, I should say a lot cleaner and a lot more viable in a carbon-neutral future. And so you could imagine him trying to pass this group, picking off some of the Republicans who are in areas that have a lot of fracking or other industries like that.

I think that’s the strategy here. The big question is will [then GOP Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell let this happen? Thus far the strategy has been, don’t let these things go to the floor of the Senate for our vote. Don’t let Republicans vote on issues where they might depart from the Republican majority may have been able to keep that. We’ll see if they can continue to do so.

Markham Hislop: Is his commitment to spreading the economic benefits of his plan across all 50 States? I thought it was very telling that he pointed that out because then that puts pressure on their senators to fall into line on some of these projects.

Ryan Kennedy: Absolutely. And this is the real untold story in the United States is that we have now many, many more workers in cleaner fuel technologies than are working in, for example, coal mining. Coal mining was a small industry, you know, long before Trump, who used them as a rhetorical talking point for getting into office.

And what I hope we’re going to see is I hope that we’re going to see you know, the manufacturing, the developments, all these things being spread out, especially in some of the areas that have been hard hit by the move away from coal and other fossil fuels. And in doing so hopefully, this will help smooth the transition.

Markham Hislop: Is there a sense in the American public, and I’m sure there have been numerous surveys about this sort of thing that Americans are saying, Hey, you know what I think this new energy stuff is really it’s real and we need to get on board and look, if we’re going to compete against Europe and the Chinese for this, we may as well be number 1.

Ryan Kennedy: Poll after poll shows that Americans are very supportive of renewable energy and even more so when they learn a little bit about it. For example in Texas a few years ago, they brought together and had a group deliberate on renewable technologies and the local utilities. And what they found was that even though a sizeable portion came in against the idea of more renewables, a vast majority of them came out in support of renewable requirements.

And that’s actually part of the reason for the wind technology that I talked about earlier, that exercise was credited directly with making some of the policies that resulted in Texas turned to wind energy.

So I think that yes, Americans do generally support it. And secondly, the more they find out about it, the more that they tend to support it.

Markham Hislop: How important is the environmental movement and progressive voters for Biden? I mean, somebody said that to me today that the progressive voters didn’t vote for Hillary in 2016, they did vote for Biden in 2020. I assume that Biden will want to supporting Democrats. Are his decisions made with one eye on that voting cohort?

Ryan Kennedy: I think these decisions are made with one eye towards making sure that that cohort remains loyal. And again, certainly, he put forward a very ambitious climate policy for a major party candidate. So he’s certainly looking to that.

With that said, Biden’s never been a radical. This was the irony of all the commercials that you saw about Biden being a closet socialist and everything like that. There’s very little indication about that. So I think what you’re going to see is an aggressive policy.

You’re going to see a lot of rolling back things that Trump did. But you know, to be honest, I don’t think you’re going to see him go as far as what’s proposed in parts of the Green New Deal in part, because that’s just not where he is. He wants to try to build consensus and he wants to get things passed through the Senate, both of which are going to substantially limit the degree to which he’s going to be able to actually pass policies that would have appealed to the more aggressive parts of his party.

Markham Hislop: Give us a couple of names, two or three people that we should keep an eye on over the next six to 12 months maybe on the transition team or maybe cabinet members, people who are going to be influential in implementing Biden’s vision for the climate and clean energy.

Ryan Kennedy: I don’t have any particular names that I can think of off the top of my head. I think you will see a return of a number of people who were working on these policies under Obama.

This is true of the broader cabinet as well. I think you’re going to see a number of people who are experienced in this area and have reputations for previous administrations now coming back into government in order to try to provide some stability and also to be able to really have an effect on the actions down the line of the bureaucracy and on things that executive orders deal with, like purchasing you know.

One of the biggest things that executive orders do is they shape how the federal government does its purchasing and the federal government has a lot of market power that can help them to make technologies viable that otherwise would struggle to get immediate market share.

Markham Hislop: I’ll make this, the last question. I suppose in the rolling back of many of Trump’s actions,…he fired key bureaucrats, left departments understaffed it’s kind of a mess in the federal government down there, and it’s going to take them a little while to, rebuild those key institutions so that he can implement his plan.

Ryan Kennedy: It’s going to take a lot of time for him to go through and get the bureaucracy back to the point that it was for Trump. Yeah, like understaffing, underfunding, confusion about guidance.

In addition, I have alluded to this before is that he’s going to have to re-litigate a lot of the things that they were starting litigation on under Obama, right? So a number of the environmental policies and particularly climate policies that were enacted in the final years of the Obama administration were stuck in court and then got repealed by Trump. And so now when Biden puts them back into place, you know, there are going to be Republican-controlled States that are likely to sue about those policies. And now we’re going to have to get back into the litigation frame, probably be about two years or so before you see certain policies make their way through and actually get implemented.

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