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Biden's Climate Change Plans Could Face Serious Challenges In A Divided Congress


Climate change is one of the top four crises President-elect Biden says he'll tackle first, but his ambitious plans could meet serious challenges if he faces a divided Congress. Nathan Rott is part of NPR's climate team and joins us now.

Hi, Nathan.


SHAPIRO: Biden's climate plans were the most aggressive ever put forth by a major party candidate. How much do they depend on congressional support?

ROTT: Quite a bit to accomplish everything that he's pledging to do because, yeah, I mean, as you said, he set some very ambitious goals, though we should say they are goals that - targets that are very much in line with what the scientific community has been saying for years that we need to do, which is cut greenhouse gas emissions fast to avoid worst-case climate scenarios. And that's what Biden's plan would do. He wants to cut all carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035. He wants to make America carbon-neutral - so it's not adding any greenhouse gas emissions to the planet - by 2050.

And to do that would require massive changes in not just our electrical sector but industry, transportation, massive investments in new technology. And obviously, that's a lot easier to do financially, politically, lawsuit-wise if it's done with congressional support.

SHAPIRO: With congressional support, you said. So what happens if Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate, as looks likely? How much of this can he still get done?

ROTT: You know, that's a good question. I think there are - you know, obviously, there are parts of the Republican Party, the current president included, who do not see climate change as much of an issue. But that is not universally true. And, you know, remember; there's also this big and growing movement of businesses, utilities, cities, states that are taking their own aggressive actions to reduce emissions themselves.

So I've heard some environmental groups and also some more conservative folks in recent days, you know, suggest that Biden reach out and try to engage Republicans on this issue. Scott Segal, for example, is a partner at the lobbying and law firm Bracewell, which represents some fossil fuel companies. And he says there is an appetite on both sides for technological advancement - so better batteries, hydrogen fuel, carbon storage. And he thinks that's an opportunity.

SCOTT SEGAL: A lot of where we've seen bipartisan legislation in Congress has married an innovation agenda to expansion, frankly, of regulatory authority. So there might be the makings of a deal there. And I think that the Biden administration would be well-placed to try and pull that deal off.

ROTT: And by that, he means, you know, Biden has a history of working across the aisle and being in Congress, so that should help.

SHAPIRO: So what if Mitch McConnell says, not going to happen? What could Biden accomplish with executive actions?

ROTT: He could still do quite a bit. You know, he could roll back rollbacks that the Trump administration undertook on, you know, everything from methane emissions to clean water rules. He could use existing laws like the Clean Air Act to direct agencies to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. That's what the Obama administration did before. You know, maybe one of the easiest goals that he set for himself to accomplish is just to make the U.S. a big part of the global conversation about climate change again. He can do that by rejoining the Paris climate agreement, which he says he's going to do, and just by being a part of international talks.

SHAPIRO: What are you going to be looking for between now and January 20, when he's inaugurated?

ROTT: You know, I think it's going to be really telling to see who he nominates to some of these key agencies that deal with environment and climate issues. He's being urged by more progressive parts of his party to not give leadership roles to people who have ties to fossil fuel companies. That is something that no modern administration has done before. It's something that Biden has not committed to. But if he does go that route or he nominates folks who are viewed as more progressive to lead the EPA or Interior Department, that could be a signal of how ambitious he might try to be on climate action. You know, but also, if Republicans maintain a Senate majority and they fight those nominations tooth and nail, that could be telling of how much resistance he's going to run into on his broader climate agenda as well.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Nathan Rott.

Thanks, Nate.

ROTT: Yep. Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.