Mar 2, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Big climate change policy unlikely no matter who wins the White House

Illustration of 4 men pulling and pushing a giant Earth with ropes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Don’t hold your breath for big climate policy changes — even if a Democrat wins the White House.

Why it matters: Congress is likely to remain gridlocked on the matter, leading to either more of the same with President Trump’s re-election or a regulatory swing back to the left no matter which Democrat wins — but far short of a legislative overhaul.

The big picture: Climate change is reaching a new high-water mark as a political concern for American voters, and Democratic presidential nominees are promising aggressive policies.

  • That in and of itself is a sea change from prior elections. Even still, these worries and pledges are unlikely to translate into any major new laws in the next few years (at least).

Here’s why, with potential scenarios mapped out.

Trump wins re-election

While Trump is uniquely unpredictable in presidential history, he's made it clear since moving into the White House that he’s not interested in pursuing any sort of actual climate legislation on Capitol Hill.

More of the same is most likely, in two important ways:

  1. More curtailing of environmental regulations — and defending them in court.
  2. More pressure on other actors — like companies, states and other countries — to take bigger action on their own as the void of U.S. presidential leadership grows.

Any Democrat wins

All Democrats have aggressive climate plans, but it’s an open question whether any would first push climate legislation over other priorities — especially health care.

  • Sanders, for instance, has campaigned more on Medicare for All than he has on the Green New Deal.
  • We could face a rerun of 2009, where newly inaugurated President Obama chose to first pursue a health care bill before climate change. Running out of political capital after that grueling fight was one of many reasons the climate bill failed.

Regardless of congressional priority, any Democratic president would swing Washington’s executive-action pendulum far back in the other direction.

  • This includes rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, but most candidates have promised to go much further with regulatory agencies.
  • Obama swung out aggressively in the pro-regulatory direction after Congress failed to pass a climate bill. He was responding to inaction on the regulatory front by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
  • Today, we have Trump swinging the pendulum back closer to where Bush was (and in some ways going further). And so the swinging goes …

Reality check: This pendulum dynamic is classic Washington. It’s inefficient and ingrains uncertainty for everyone involved, including corporate executives (who hate uncertainty), the environment itself and all of us affected by that environment.

A progressive Democrat wins

... like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

These senators are among the most progressive in the Democratic Party.

  • They have pledged to ban fracking and push sweeping legislation using the Green New Deal moniker.
  • They have endorsed the nonbinding Senate resolution that calls for drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions and incorporates broad socioeconomic measures, like federal guarantees for jobs and housing.
  • They portray oil companies and Republicans as the enemy, indicating bipartisanship and industry buy-in won’t be part of any dealmaking.

This type of all-encompassing and hyper-aggressive legislation is unlikely to get universal support among Democrats (to say nothing of universal Republican opposition) — which makes them extremely unlikely to get through the Senate.

  • This is because Democrats with more moderate ideologies or those representing energy-intensive states are unlikely to support the broader socioeconomic measures and such aggressive moves away from fossil fuels, partly because many of those jobs are represented by unions.
  • That means even in the scenario where legislative rules are bent or changed altogether to make GOP support irrelevant, relying on just Democratic votes is unlikely to be enough.

A more moderate Democrat wins

... like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar or Michael Bloomberg.

I anticipate these politicians would be (relatively) more open to trying to work with Republicans on climate change than their progressive counterparts.

  • Research shows that bipartisanship is almost always essential to pass big policy through Congress.
  • So this is the most likely scenario where a genuine climate bill could prevail, though the overall chances are still low.

The intrigue: A path to passage of, say, a clean energy standard or a carbon tax would require a grand bargain-type bipartisan compromise like we saw in 2015 when Congress paired renewing clean-energy subsidies with lifting a ban on oil exports.

  • Oil companies got access to global markets, and renewable-energy producers got tax breaks. Their respective congressional allies were correspondingly supportive.
  • A climate bill would require bargaining on a far bigger and more complicated scale.

Yes, but: The holdup comes from both sides.

What I’m watching: To what degree narrower policies, like a bipartisan Senate bill introduced last week, gain more congressional support given this landscape. Off the Hill, my focus is shifting to actions by states and corporations.

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