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For Biden, ending U.S. climate retreat is just a start | Editorial

The Biden administration's climate change policies promise to be very different from those of President Trump. Whether a Democratic president can make a real difference remains to be seen.

In this May 12, 2020, photo, the construction on Shell Chemicals Beaver County ethane cracker plant in Potter Township, Pa. Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
In this May 12, 2020, photo, the construction on Shell Chemicals Beaver County ethane cracker plant in Potter Township, Pa. Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Read moreGene J. Puskar / AP

President-elect Joe Biden has made plenty of promises related to climate change and the environment. He has vowed to rescind or reverse some of the Trump administration’s moves to weaken regulations, which Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has numbered at 159. The president-elect proposes a $2 trillion “Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” plan that’s been described as historic, despite being far less ambitious than the ‘Green New Deal’ authored by progressive Democrats. And Biden plans to deeply embed what could be called climate change consciousness into federal transportation and infrastructure planning, spending, and construction.

Biden has also promised the United States will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. This non-binding international pact seeks to cooperatively fight climate change through individual national targets and benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gas and other emissions. Biden has repeatedly said he will take action on Paris on “day one” of his new administration; President Trump pulled the nation out of the accord in 2017.

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As positive as these changes are, reinvigorating American leadership in the battle against the existential threat of climate change at home is likely to be far more difficult — even if Democrats manage to defy the odds and win control of the Senate. A more likely scenario, with the upper chamber remaining under the sway of GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to help Biden and the Democrats accomplish much on the environment, or on anything else.

But the president-elect clearly intends to use the power of his pen, and the bully pulpit. A potential roadmap titled Climate Reregulation in a Biden Administration by the Sabin Center enumerates dozens of policy revisions and proposes 13 presidential executive orders to reverse or supersede Trump-era orders that methodically dismantled, delayed, or circumscribed environmental protections such as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Such “reregulation” also could involve the U.S. Departments of Environmental Protection and Transportation jointly supporting California’s effort, which Trump has bitterly opposed, to promulgate carbon emission standards on vehicles stricter than those set by the federal government. Biden could direct the EPA to grant a waiver allowing California its own regulations, which would free 13 states that follow California’s lead to enforce those same stricter standards.

Whether or not Democrats control the Senate, simply having a Democrat in the White House hardly promises a greener future. Gov. Tom Wolf has supported generous tax breaks for the petrochemical industry that turns natural gas into industrial chemicals used in plastics. And under the leadership of Wolf’s fellow Democrat, Gov. Phil Murphy, New Jersey is not even close to making progress on a scale needed to meet emission reduction goals, according to a recent report by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

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Biden surely will make more qualified choices to lead the government’s environmental efforts than has Trump, whose original appointee, Scott Pruitt, resigned under fire and whose replacement, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal industry lobbyist. The president-elect also will not cast doubt on the validity of climate change science or the existence of climate change itself. The tone the president-elect seems determined to set about environmental issues will be a welcome change. But tangible progress will matter more.