From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
Today: In the first days of his presidency, Joe Biden has ordered that the U.S. rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, abandon the Keystone oil pipeline and end energy exploration on federal lands. But the real work of reducing America’s biggest sources of emissions has just begun. My colleague, Coral Davenport, assesses Biden’s long-term plan to combat climate change.
It’s Tuesday, February 2.
You’re looking well.
Is this your work from home set-up? You look like you have a nice little—
It’s pretty good. Yeah. My husband gets the basement, so he gets more privacy. But that’s all right.
Yeah, so you have the sunlight and he has the darkness.
He has privacy. Yeah, he has a door.
I really appreciate you making time for us.
Coral, this is a policy discussion ultimately about Joe Biden’s climate plan, but just to start, I wonder if you can conjure the Biden climate agenda as a kind of vision that people will experience themselves. Let’s say it’s 2035, and everything that this new administration wants to get done on climate has actually gotten done, what does life look like?
OK, given that— that’s a big if, if everything really gets done, then here’s what life would look like. You would wake up in your home as regular American, turn on your lights, turn on your coffeemaker. You’d make your breakfast. And all of your electricity would now be coming from wind, solar, nuclear. None of it would be coming, none of it, from coal, natural gas, fossil fuels. And if you were to follow those electric wires to the power plant where they came from, it would look nothing like the electric power plant that you grew up with in the 20th century. It would look like a gigantic battery that was not emitting anything, that was sucking in wind and solar power that was generated from mountaintops or sunny deserts hundreds or thousands of miles away, coming into that big battery storing there and coming into your house.
So basically the way the lights turn on would be completely different and then you would get into your car, which if the Biden vision is implemented, would almost assuredly not be powered by a combustion engine. It would be an electric car, but it wouldn’t be a fancy Tesla or Prius. Ideally, it would be something big enough that you can put your family in and go for weekend camping trips and haul stuff around and take your kid to college. It would be a big regular American car probably made by G.M. or Ford, and you would drive to work. Perhaps you’d realize, oh, no, I’m not charged up, and you’d pull over, you’d plug in, you would charge it in the same amount of time that it once took you to pump the gas, and maybe there would be these new charging stations where you would go in, and you would buy your Doritos and your newspaper if, you know, I hope to God newspapers will still be around. Who knows? Maybe not.
Well, Coral, that is a hell of a different morning that you have described than what I think most of us have experienced in the past.
It is. And here is the other thing that would be profoundly different— and this is really important because this is the reason why they’re doing all that. It’s not to promote electric cars. It’s not to promote wind and solar. The other thing that would be different is that maybe your basement wouldn’t be flooding because of stronger storms and rising sea levels.
If you live in the West, maybe you’re not looking out the window at thick black skies as another record wildfire sweeps through the mountains near your neighborhood. Maybe you’re not paying two and three and four times as much for your food because we’re having extreme droughts that are hurting our agriculture sector and making it harder to get crops.
Those are the impacts of climate change of more fossil fuels in the atmosphere that science is saying is also going to be coming down the pike in 10 or 15 years if these policies aren’t put in place. So those are changes that if the fossil fuel emissions really are stopped, you won’t be experiencing those.
Right. And of course, this is a very different vision than the one put forth by the previous president.
Yes. President Trump openly mocked the science of human caused climate change, withdrew the United States from the International Paris Agreement, which is the global accord in which pretty much every country in the world said that they would act to reduce their carbon emissions, and rolled back over 100 federal environmental protections during his four years in office. Biden is essentially doing a sharp U-turn from that, and the goals that he is setting are incredibly aggressive, and I should say it’s not just a U-turn from Trump. He’s going way further than Obama tried to go.
So Biden’s objectives are to eliminate all CO2 from the U.S. economy by 2050. That is an incredibly aggressive goal. And then the other goal that he has set is zero emissions from the electricity sector from power plants by 2035, 15 years from now. That is saying 15 years from now, we will no longer see fossil fuel fired power plants in the U.S. Again, that is an incredibly ambitious goal. It is also exactly in line with what scientists say is required to avoid the most devastating effects of a warming planet, and I should say, not to avoid the impacts of global warming. Those have very clearly already started, and they’re here to stay, and they’re going to get worse. This is talking about keeping the planet safe for people to live in at all.
And who has President Biden put in charge of trying to turn this very aggressive vision into reality? Who has he put in place?
So President Biden has done something new here. He has created kind of a double-pronged White House climate czar position. He has tapped two sort of superstars of the climate policy world to do it. In one position, you have John Kerry who, of course, was the Secretary of State in the Obama administration. He was basically the central negotiator of the 2015 Paris Climate Change agreement. That is the role that he will play for President Biden. He will be kind of an international climate envoy whose job is to go around the world, say, look, the U.S. is acting. We’re cutting our emissions. We’re working hard. You guys have to do it, too. Here’s how we have to do this together. He will also— and this is very important. He will have a seat at the White House national Security Council. That’s new. That’s never happened.
What that means is that climate change will now be an integral part of every major White House decision on national security and foreign policy. It will have a seat at the big boys’ and girls’ table. And John Kerry, who is a serious player, and in many ways, has more policy chops than a lot of the other people at that table will be the one speaking for climate change. So I think that’s a big deal. The other sort of piece of that, John Kerry’s partner, the domestic climate czar will be Gina McCarthy. She was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration.
And she actually was the author of the E.P.A. regulations to cut CO2 emissions from all the biggest economic sectors. Gina McCarthy will now be in charge of basically making sure that her legacy gets put back and strengthened. This time, she won’t just be head of the E.P.A. She’ll be in the White House, and she will have the authority to deliver these domestic policies to hand over to John Kerry, so he can go around the world and say, look, this is what we’re doing. We’re serious. We’re getting it done. You’ve got to do it, too.
OK, so now that we’ve met these climate czars, let’s talk about how they are going to be putting this agenda into place.
Sure. So you know, Biden likes to talk about the sort of whole of government approach to climate change and all these things that different agencies are going to do. Really, at the end of the day, though, it comes down to three things. There are three main sources of planet warming greenhouse gases in the U.S. economy, three pieces of that pie. And if you want to solve the problem, you have to drastically cut each one of these, and that is pollution from cars. That is a number one contributor to greenhouse gases in the U.S. It’s a little over a third. Number two, pollution from power plants, how we turn on the lights, and number three, weird, but it’s a big deal is leaking methane emissions from oil and gas wells. That sounds sort of obscure.
And here’s the reason why. Methane is like a super power, supercharged CO2. It has over 50 times the heat trapping power of carbon dioxide. And if you get at that, you’ve actually taken a really big bite of the greenhouse gases, the heat trapping gases that are coming from the U.S. economy. Those are the three things. If the U.S. federal government can put in place policies that can drastically cut those three emissions, that’s the solution. That’s how we cut our emissions and reach these goals, and there’s a lot of other stuff that sounds really nice and that will help, but if you don’t do those, you won’t get there.
OK, so let’s talk about these one at a time, cars, power plants, methane leaks, and how the Biden agenda will address all of them. And let’s start with cars. What is the Biden agenda on cars?
So to talk about the Biden agenda in so many ways, and I think Biden probably doesn’t love this, but you have to first talk a little bit about the Obama agenda.
So Obama put in place an incredibly aggressive regulation to drastically cut fossil fuel emissions from cars. He put in place fuel economy standards that would have required automakers to build and sell cars that reach an average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. That is a very aggressive goal, and basically, once they put that in place, it meant that every automaker who wants to sell in the U.S. had to immediately start investing in building and selling electric vehicles. That was the vision. And then the Trump administration came in, and as soon as Trump was elected, the C.E.O. of G.M. went and met with Trump in the Oval Office and said, hey, can you roll these back for us? Which they did. So the Biden plan is essentially to put that back in place.
The numbers might not be exactly the same. One difference is that regulation was put in place 10 years ago. It applied to cars in 2025. They’re going to have to go out a lot further than that. The timing is different. The economy is different. One really big thing that is very different for the Biden administration as it prepares to reimpose these tough, tough fuel economy standards for cars is the auto industry. The auto industry fought tooth and nail against the Obama administration putting those rules in place. But what has happened now and actually in the news of last week is that same C.E.O. of G.M., Mary Barra, announced that G.M. is now getting ready to do a total U-turn and go to 100 percent electric vehicles, and even stop producing combustion engines.
This is a huge, huge tailwind for the Biden administration, and several other auto companies are also on board and are kind of expected to publicly come out in the next week or so saying, we will do this, and that’s partly because the global auto market has transformed so much in the last decade. This is where the market is going. Other countries now have standards like this in place. The automakers have to sell to a global market. So the difference is that this time when Biden goes to put those car rules back in place, he will actually have all the auto companies at the table with him working prepared to sign on to something from day one.
So interestingly, the auto industry is on board with this vision, the one you described at the start of our conversation that includes electric cars, and cars are the biggest source of emission, and therefore, the biggest obstacle to starting to lower the biggest source of emissions, which would be car companies saying no way. That has started to melt away.
Yes. This is a really big deal. I think that that will probably stand as the biggest thing that the Biden administration will end up doing on climate change.
We’ll be right back.
So Coral, let’s talk about the second major source of emissions that you had mentioned, power plants. What is the Biden plan for those?
They don’t know. With power plants, it gets really murky, and here is why. Obama tried to do regulations on power plants. He did a whole big regulation that required states to shut down coal plants, build wind and solar. That was going to be it. Even before the legal fight got to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court justice, Justice Roberts, put a stay on that plan, which essentially meant this plan does not get implemented until all of these lawsuits about it get legally resolved. That is a very clear sign that the Supreme Court thinks it’s a loser. And so it was never implemented. And so now it’s kind of stuck in the courts, but as the Biden administration goes back and tries to do this again, they know that already the legal outlook is not good, and very, very importantly, this Supreme Court is even more conservative than the Supreme Court during the Obama administration.
So if you can’t do it with regulation, well, can you do it through Congress? That is a very tough sell as well. As you know, Democrats have a 51 vote majority, including the tie breaking vote of Vice President Harris. We need a 60 vote majority just to get anything onto the Senate floor. And if you were to bring a bill to Congress that essentially said, we’re going to shut down coal plants and replace them with wind and solar, it’s very hard to see how you even get all of the Democrats to vote for that. And the particular Democrat who you’d be looking at is Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, a major coal state, who is a huge opponent of the Obama Clean Power Plan and has supported the Trump rollbacks of regulation.
It’s very hard to see how you get it simple Democratic majority for some kind of legislation in Congress that would shut down coal plants. So that one, at this moment, you know, unless they can do some really amazing legal tap dancing in reproducing this regulation, or unless there is some kind of very interesting breakthrough in Congress, it is hard to see how this administration is able to meaningfully do a big policy that takes a bite out of power plant emissions.
So the second largest source of emissions, coal plants, is kind of a fly in the ointment of the Biden vision here. They don’t really know exactly what to do about it.
They’re trying to figure it out. But right now, there is not a clear legal or legislative path for them to put a policy in place.
And finally methane, what is the plan for that?
So once again, just like cars and just like power plants, Obama put a rule in place saying companies have to inspect leaks, plug them up, keep them under control. Trump rolled it back. When Trump rolled back the rule, he actually said the federal government doesn’t have to regulate methane at all. Basically, in this case, I think it’s almost cut and paste. The Biden people can go back in, take that Obama rule, and put it back. It’ll probably take a year or two before it is implemented, but the expectation is there’s a pretty clear path to do it, and it won’t be too hard.
And the Supreme Court won’t stand in the way of it.
This is one where the law is pretty clear about giving the executive branch the authority to do this. The chances appear favorable before the Supreme Court, even this very conservative Supreme Court. So that’s one where they’re moving ahead fairly confidently.
Coral, if Biden gets done what he wants to get done on these three areas, what will be the economic cost of having done it? Specifically on jobs. I know that Biden is very sensitive to that question, and that, of course, is the leading objection from Republicans and moderate Democrats in some of these key states, where, for example, there are coal fired power plants, and there is gas drilling, and there is oil exploration.
So Biden is being very candid about this, that aggressive environmental and climate policies will cost jobs. He has acknowledged that essentially what his plan will do will ultimately end the coal industry, shrink the oil industry down to a fraction of its former size, and that that necessarily costs jobs and hurts communities. In being candid about that he also says that he believes that the jobs created in wind and solar manufacturing in installation, that there will be an equal or greater number of jobs created by these regulations, and I should say, he’s backed by economists in that.
Economists do generally say that when you lose a certain number of jobs in fossil fuel or polluting industries, you do tend to gain about an equal number of jobs in environmental mitigation and cleaner industries. The problem is, how do you match those skills and people up? Can you necessarily take a coal miner who has lost his job in Appalachia or Wyoming and move him in his family to a solar plant manufacturing place in Nevada?
You know, what Biden is doing is he’s saying that the government is here to help. We’re going to have funding to go into these communities to figure out how to retrain, to figure out how to bring the manufacturing of the new technologies to the places where the old jobs are going. He is making a good faith effort to try to match those up. I think that’s a very hard challenge. It’s not necessarily clear that it’s always going to work. But the fact is that climate change, it has already wreaked a significant economic cost on our economy as well. Biden and his appointees are trying to make the point that like you pay one way or the other. And we’re already starting to pay.
It feels like a lot of what we are talking about here in the Biden climate plan is restoring regulations from the Obama administration that were reversed by the Trump administration. And by definition, that means that once put in place, they can be reversed by the next president if that happens to be a Republican because— we talked about this a lot on the show in the last couple of days— the only real permanence in American government comes from laws passed by Congress, and like you said, this does not seem to be a Congress, especially the Senate, that is likely to pass sweeping environmental programs at the moment. So where does that really leave the Biden administration?
They know that so well, particularly in this space of climate regulations. They just watched exhibit A, all the rules in place, they all went away, they’re all putting them back. They had that at top of mind. And I think that what President Biden would like more than anything else would indeed be any kind of permanent law. And I think that what the rest of the world is really looking for from the U.S. is any kind of permanent law.
I mean, if John Kerry is going to be going around the world saying, oh, look, we’re going to do all these regulations, they’re going to be like, wait a minute, didn’t you guys do a bunch of regulations and they went away? Like, we need to see something from you that will stick, and they know that. And they also know, as you said, that the goal is permanent legislation. The goal is a law that will outlast Democrats and Republicans and not just administration but the lives of the presidents and the legislators who enact them. And right now, it is not looking like that is in the cards for climate change.
Right. Which I’m sure is pretty depressing to John Kerry and to Joe Biden. So is the reality that we are going to be left with a kind of sweeping and ultimately impermanent Biden climate change vision? Is that just where we are going to be?
The answer to that is it depends. I think if the next administration is Republican, certainly there will be a powerful drive to deregulate, and certainly, these regulations that affect the fossil fuel economy will come under scrutiny. Absolutely. But even under those Republican administrations, I do think that there is likely to be a moment because there has been this significant shift from some major corporations— and here I’m thinking very much of these big auto companies, of G.M. and Ford, these big iconic essential American manufacturers.
Once these regulations really are put in place and these companies have invested in the kinds of cars they’re going to build 10 and 15 years out, as much as they don’t like regulations, they hate even more the uncertainty. They don’t want that whiplash. And I think in some cases, some of these rules, and I think the car rules are a good candidate for this, once they get in place, and the industry just gets fully on board, and they get baked in, if the industry is not going to the White House and saying, hey, make these go away, that is something that could help keep them baked in.
In other words, the permanence of this vision may rest with industry as much as with government.
Yes. The reality is that climate change is here, and it affects those industries, too. They see it. They get it. And that would be less about altruism than also just about kind of baking things in for the way in which climate change has changed economic reality for us in a completely new way.
Well, thank you, Coral. We appreciate your time.
Always a pleasure.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today: During a meeting at the White House on Monday night, 10 moderate Republican senators led by Susan Collins of Maine presented President Biden with a plan for a narrow $618 billion economic stimulus plan that they said would garner bipartisan support.
- archived recording (susan collins)
His view is that the size of the package needs to be commensurate with the dual crises we’re facing, hence why he proposed a package that’s $1.9 trillion.
But even before the meeting, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki warned the senators that the president was committed to a plan that would cost more than three times as much and that Biden may choose to push it through without Republican support.
- archived recording (jen psaki)
The risk is not that it is too big, this package. The risk is that it is too small, and that remains his view, and it’s one he’ll certainly—
And the fallout from the stock market frenzy over GameStop spread on Monday. Robinhood, the online training platform used by many investors to purchase the stock, said it had raised an additional $2.5 billion to meet its financial requirements to support record trading volumes, and new data showed that the volume of short bets against shares of GameStop, which had motivated many small investors to purchase the stock, had fallen by half, as losses from those early bets mounted. But as of Monday afternoon, GameStop shares had fallen $100 or more than 30 percent to $225.
Today’s episode was produced by Michael Simon Johnson, Eric Krupke, and Luke Vander Ploeg. It was edited by Marc Georges and M.J. Davis Lin, and engineered by Chris Wood.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.