Dec 17, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Liberal senators set to pressure Biden on climate change

Animated illustration of a pressure gauge sticking out of the Earth.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some Democratic senators are threatening to obstruct President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees if he’s not aggressive enough on climate change, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told Axios.

Why it matters: Whitehouse is a leader on climate change in his party, but he has also shown to be a bipartisan dealmaker when he wants to be. So, what he says suggests broader support among other Democrats.

What they’re saying:

“I think there are quite a considerable number of senators who keenly believe that we missed huge opportunities in the Obama administration, that the Trump administration was a wasteland in which we went backwards and that the urgency of this moment is incredibly compelling and we just won’t tolerate a casual, insipid approach to dealing with this vital issue.”
— Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, in recent Axios interview

In a statement to Axios, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), struck a similar tone. “Part of what propelled President-elect Biden to his resounding victory was his commitment to addressing the climate crisis head on, and I will be strongly encouraging the incoming administration to deliver on that promise in every way possible.”

Driving the news: Whitehouse said he’s calling on the incoming Biden administration to have the Justice Department investigate organizations that fossil-fuel companies have in the past funded and may continue to that are propagating “climate denialism and climate obstruction and political ownership of the Republican Party.”

  • An example Whitehouse cited would be the Heartland Institute, an organization known for pushing false information on climate change.
  • The institute’s, president, James Taylor, dismissed the threat and said the group “welcomes free and fair discussion of climate change” in an email to Axios.
  • Whitehouse noted that he’s shared his ask with John Kerry, Biden’s incoming international climate envoy, and “I get good feedback,” Whitehouse told me. “We’ll see once they actually get in and once they actually start governing.”

The intrigue: So what happens if Biden doesn’t move as aggressively as Whitehouse and others want? “We’ve got a lot of officials who are going to need to get confirmed by the Senate,” Whitehouse said.

  • It’s less common, but not unprecedented, for senators of the same party as the president to hold up Cabinet nominees due to disagreements on policies or even specific parochial issues.

For the record: In a statement to Axios, Jamal Brown, a spokesperson for Biden’s transition team, echoed Biden’s plans to pursue an aggressive climate agenda. He didn’t respond to Whitehouse’s comment regarding holding up nominees or investigating specific organizations.

  • Biden said in 2019 he would seek to hold companies accountable if they knew and misled the public about climate change, which is a related issue Whitehouse is pushing.
  • Whitehouse is supporting state lawsuits on that matter, but his focus for now at the federal level are organizations like Heartland.

Go deeper: Why Biden and Democrats went big on climate change

Go deeper