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If Democrats win control of the Senate with twin victories in the Georgia runoffs, that shift will hand President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s administration significant additional power to address climate change.
Both Democratic candidates in the Georgia Senate runoff on Tuesday — Rev. Raphael Warnock, who defeated Senator Kelly Loeffler; and Jon Ossoff who held a narrow lead early Wednesday afternoon over Senator David Perdue — have spoken out about climate change and environmental justice. In an N.P.R. interview this week, Rev. Warnock said of both issues, “There’s work we need to do.”
Activists say there is no time to lose. Already, they are leaning on Democrats to use their broad power — assuming they win Senate control, the Democrats would have the White House along with both arms of Congress — to move boldly.
“The Decade of the Green New Deal has just begun,” the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate group that has championed the ambitious plan for both cutting emissions and addressing economic inequality, said on Twitter.
Yet the two runoff victories in Georgia would grant Democrats only the narrowest of majorities. If Mr. Ossoff’s lead holds, the Senate will be split 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaking vote.
One of the most immediate areas where Democrats would have the upper hand would be in reversing many of Mr. Trump’s last-minute policies using a statute known as the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to disapprove recent rules by a simple majority vote.
That would be significant, because Mr. Trump’s top officials have worked overtime recently to tie their successors’ hands with a flurry of new regulations.
They could include a measure finalized this week to restrict the type of scientific studies the Environmental Protection Agency can use to develop new air and water protections, and another granting liability protection to companies that accidentally kill migratory birds.
The Trump administration has also rushed in recent weeks to lock in weak pollution rules.
One such action kept in place Obama-era standards on smog-causing emissions that, even when originally issued, fell short of the standard recommended by public health experts. Another imposed the federal government’s first regulation to control planet-warming pollution from airplanes but did not require airlines to go beyond emissions limits that they had set for themselves. And a third updates regulations around lead pipes in a way that environmental critics said falls far short of an overhaul needed to ensure safe drinking water.
The new balance of power would also make it easier for Mr. Biden’s cabinet appointees to win confirmation, as well as for Democrats to increase the budgets of federal agencies and pump money into clean energy research and development. It also would greatly increase the likelihood that Congress would incorporate portions of Mr. Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan into new economic stimulus legislation as well as an infrastructure package.
Passage of much major legislation, however, requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, so Democrats would still be forced to compromise with Republicans and would be limited in their ability to pass sweeping new laws, said Robert Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Victories in both Georgia runoff elections would be “important across the board, but it doesn’t bring them the ultimate freedom they would have if they had a supermajority” in the Senate, Dr. Stavins said.
The Biden team, meantime, said this week that it had underestimated the damage that the Trump administration had done to climate and environment policy and was keeping all options on the table to bolster federal agencies and the work they do.
“There is hard work ahead to rebuild agencies and our capacities from the ground up and reposition the federal government to be a partner to our workers and communities again — rather than advancing policies that hurt our environment and economy,” Gina McCarthy, whom Mr. Biden has tapped to lead a new White House Office of Climate Policy, said in a statement.
Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House, said in a statement that Mr. Trump had made “incredible strides” in environmental protection and criticized “Washington bureaucrats” who he said would rather “whine to transition officials about getting back to their preferred policy agendas.”
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