President-elect Joe Biden has committed more explicitly than any nominee before him to dramatic steps against the climate crisis, but he faces the same geographic puzzle that has precluded congressional action on the challenge for years.
Although Biden won the popular vote by a margin well over 5 million and expanded the Democrats’ Electoral College map, he still confronted an impregnable wall of opposition from the states most tightly integrated into the fossil fuel economy, a CNN analysis of the results has found.
Biden dominated the largely post-industrial states, many of them along the two coasts, that generate the least amount of carbon emissions per dollar of economic activity, according to figures from the federal Energy Information Administration.
But as in 2016, President Donald Trump won almost all of the states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic output, a measure that tracks which states rely most on fossil fuels, either as producers or consumers. Equally important, those states overwhelmingly sent to the Senate Republicans who almost indivisibly oppose federal action to reduce the carbon emissions linked to global climate change.
After ousting one Democratic incumbent (Doug Jones in Alabama) and fending off well-funded challenges in several other states (including Montana, Iowa, South Carolina, Texas and Alaska), Republicans now hold 37 of the 42 Senate seats in the 21 states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic output.
Democrats, in turn, after beating Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado, hold at least 36 of the Senate seats in the 21 states with the least carbon-intensive economies, with two seats in Georgia yet to be decided in January runoffs. The eight states clustered around the national average for carbon emissions per dollar of gross domestic product split narrowly, with Republicans holding nine of their Senate seats and Democrats seven.
The GOP’s dominant position in the high-carbon states means that Republicans, even if they lose control of the Senate in the Georgia runoffs, can sustain a filibuster against climate action almost solely with senators from the states most invested in the existing fossil fuel economy – a dynamic that I’ve called the “brown blockade.”
This increasing alignment of red and blue with brown and green ensures an explosive collision as Biden takes office determined to reverse Trump’s dismissive approach to the climate crisis.
“I have no doubt that he [Biden] feels like he has a mandate to take climate action and his team does,” says Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environmental policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, who was a top environmental official under President Barack Obama. “He is coming out of the gate addressing the issue on day one.”
Even in the shadow of a once-in-a-century pandemic and the associating economic upheaval, Biden discussed climate change more than any previous nominee and certainly committed to the most ambitious plan of any President-elect to confront it.
At the second presidential debate, Biden forthrightly acknowledged, “I would transition from the oil industry,” as part of the long-term evolution to a carbon-free economy. Under intense fire from Trump and other Republicans, Biden clarified that statement to indicate that he was talking about a long-term change that would unfold over decades – and that he would not ban fracking for natural gas on private land in the meantime. But he did not renounce his commitments to the transition itself. And to experts that marks a new era in the long-stalemated debate over climate.
“We are far closer to taking climate change seriously, because for the first time one of our major political parties … now sees climate change as one of the absolute top issues,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “That simply was not the case 12 months ago. Period, bold, underlined, exclamation point. That will have consequences.”
The ‘brown blockade’
In particular, Biden will take the debate into a new stage by requiring virtually every agency in the federal government to factor it into its plans. Goldfuss, the managing director of the Council on Encvironmental Quality for Obama, recently helped lead the production of a report that underscored the opportunity for Biden to advance the transition to a low-carbon society across a wide spectrum of agencies.
“President-elect Biden will be the first president that pursues a whole of government approach to climate change from day one,” she says. “What we outlined in ‘Climate 21’ was a strategy where you organize your agenda on climate change out of the White House … and really make sure you are driving progress across your entire government. That is a very large body of work and there are a ton of tools at your disposal.”
Robert McNally, who was a White House energy aide to President George W. Bush and now advises energy companies, uses the analogy of the unexpectedly successful offensive from the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War in 1968 to measure how aggressively he expects the new administration to reverse Trump’s hands-off approach on climate. “Biden using executive powers can unleash a Tet offensive onslaught against the oil and gas industry, and he will,” McNally predicts.
But for all of the opportunities available to Biden, experts note he faces two large obstacles. One is that many of his most ambitious proposals – particularly to drastically increase spending on clean energy alternatives – will require congressional action. And there he faces the same intractable geographic divide that has shelved any serious discussion of climate issues, particularly in the Senate.
Just as in the 2016 election, the states most invested in the fossil fuel economy predominantly sided with Republicans. Trump carried 10 of the 15 states that produce the most coal, 11 of the 15 that produce the most natural gas and 12 of the 15 that produce the most oil, according to EIA figures.
The EIA’s analysis of carbon emissions per dollar of economic activity offers the broadest measure of states’ integration into the fossil fuel economy. The states at the top of that list tend to be large fossil fuel producers (such as Wyoming, West Virginia, Alaska and Texas) or to have robust agricultural and/or manufacturing sectors that are large consumers of those fuels (such as Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and Indiana). The ones at the bottom are mostly coastal states that produce little oil, gas or coal and have transitioned more rapidly into the post-industrial economy of services and high-tech jobs, such as Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Washington, Oregon and California (which does produce some natural gas).
Trump won 20 of the 21 states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic output, with New Mexico the sole exception. Biden won 19 of the 21 with the least emissions, with only Florida and North Carolina (narrowly) defying the trend. Biden made significant gains in the middle tier of eight states clustered around the national average for emissions per dollar of GDP, carrying five of them, including four that Trump won last time: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona. The Senate results, as noted above, largely follow these tracks, too.
Opportunities and challenges
Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is one of the relatively few Senate Democrats (along with colleagues from West Virginia, Montana and Colorado) representing a state with a substantial energy sector (Pennsylvania ranks second in natural gas production, with a large fracking industry around Pittsburgh). In an interview, Casey said he was confident that he could sustain support for Biden’s climate and energy agenda in the state, which the former vice president narrowly recaptured after Trump narrowly won it in 2016.
“I am comfortable with his approach and I think it’s where most of the country is and frankly where most of the state is,” Casey told me.
Especially valuable, Casey said, is that Biden has framed the response to climate change as an economic as much as an environmental imperative and has accepted an extended transition from fossil fuels – “when you have a state like ours where gas extraction is such a prominent part of the economy that people can hold two concepts in their minds at the same time: One that we have to address climate change directly and have a sense of urgency about it, but also that we can have responsible gas extraction.”
Gina McCarthy, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama and now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, also says Biden’s emphasis on the potential economic benefits of responding to climate change could help broaden the coalition for action.
“I think you are going to see Joe Biden move the climate agenda forward by not necessarily hitting people over the head with climate change,” she told me. “I think he’s looking at these as investment opportunities, not punishments, not sacrifices. … I think there’s an opportunity here to talk in a way the American public will understand and not to divorce it from our need to keep people working and grow more jobs.”
Biden’s discipline in linking climate action with economic opportunity – reiterated in his speech Monday on the economy – is likely to help him align the relatively few Senate Democrats from energy-producing areas behind his plans. His problem is that there’s no sign of cracks in the wall against climate action from the much larger number of Senate Republicans representing energy-producing areas. Biden’s leverage to pressure those Republicans may be extremely limited because all of them represent states that backed Trump in the election.
One energy lobbyist and former Trump administration official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal conversations, says most Republicans from energy-producing states see the Biden climate agenda as an existential threat to their local economies.
“That’s why the fault lines are going to remain where they are, if not harden,” the lobbyist said. “I don’t see why any Republican would want to go along with a big climate bill whose purpose is to put their home state or their constituents out of business.”
Plus, the lobbyist noted, after the success Republicans had tarring Democrats in energy-producing areas with the proposed “Green New Deal,” if the GOP maintains Senate control Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to favor a climate bill that would allow Democrats to claim credit for a moderate bipartisan compromise.
To many observers, the difficult Senate math facing Democrats – largely because of their inability to dent the “brown blockade” in the election – means that Biden is likely to lean heavily on regulatory action. McCarthy sees great opportunities to not only revive but also expand the two key Obama regulatory initiatives on climate that Trump has rescinded: the deal Obama reached with auto companies to significantly improve fuel efficiency, and his Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from electrical power generation.
McCarthy said a revised fuel economy standard could require the sale of only electric or other zero-emission cars by 2035 or 2040, and that an updated clean power plan, supported by complementary federal spending, could point the nation toward Biden’s 2035 goal of zero-emission electricity generation. States and utilities, she says, already “are recognizing that is the path to cheaper electricity and a healthier community and so that in combination with the budget can actually advance this [transition].”
Then there are the courts
But Biden faces a formidable obstacle in centering his climate agenda on regulation: the joint success of Trump and McConnell at confirming more than 200 federal judges, including three justices who have cemented a solid 6-3 Republican advantage on the Supreme Court.
That Republican court majority has signaled it may not only resist new extensions of federal regulatory power but also also seek to roll back existing authority long upheld under a legal precedent known as the Chevron doctrine. Many observers believe this Supreme Court may even seek to retrench the landmark 5-4 decision in 2007 that upheld the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.
“That new 6-3 Supreme Court is going to require Biden to play defense on foundational environmental law,” says McNally.
The Supreme Court might be even more ambitious in overturning environmental initiatives, some believe, if Republicans hold the Senate and effectively reassure the justices that Democrats could not enlarge the court in response to aggressive rulings.
Two long-term changes may soften the resistance to climate action in some of the big fossil fuel states. One is that they are facing more consequences from the changing climate – from hurricanes in the Southeast to wildfires in the West (though polling still shows most Republicans in those states do not attribute them to human-induced climate change).
The other is that renewable energy production is growing as an economic force in many of those same places, with Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas leading in wind production and solar output growing in highly contested purple states including Nevada, Arizona and North Carolina.
Today, “the fossil fuel industry holds … a stranglehold over the Republican Party particularly in those [high-carbon] states, but that is going to change,” says Leiserowitz. “Many of the same states that are fossil fuel-producing states are also blessed with the most wind and solar and geothermal resources.”
The question for Biden is whether those economic and political dynamics will change fast enough to loosen the Senate’s brown blockade against climate action. The question for the country, and the world, may be: What are the consequences if it does not?