Last week Biden released his “Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future.” If what Biden proposes is enacted into law, the United States will be well on its way to zero net emissions by 2050. Simultaneously, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its comprehensive 538 plan entitled, “Solving the Climate Crisis -The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America.” Despite differences, it appears that these two plans can be reconciled . Most importantly, it is clear that if Democrats take the reins in 2021, major action on climate will be possible.
However, there are headwinds to enacting these policies into law that strong grassroots support will help to overcome: a short window of opportunity, Senate electoral structure, conservative federal courts, and huge quantities of corporate money in politics.
Assuming Democrats are successful in November and are in control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2021, there is reason to believe that Democrats will have a short window of opportunity to enact major legislation. Clinton and Obama only enjoyed a friendly and united Congress for the first two years of their respective eight years in office. If that pattern is repeated, it will leave precious little time to enact such an ambitious legislative agenda, especially when one considers that Congress goes back into election mode in 2022.
Secondly, no one is predicting a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate. That is because Democrats have a structural disadvantage there. Even the most sparsely populated states are awarded two Senators, and most of these low-density states are Red. As a result, even in the most advantageous of circumstances, Democrats cannot achieve a filibuster-proof majority. There is talk of Democrats invoking the “nuclear option” and eliminating the filibuster, but that is by no means assured and may have serious undesirable consequences.
Though not structural in the same way, the composition of the Federal judiciary now presents another major stumbling block. Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans in the Senate have been hard at work confirming hundreds of conservative judges to the federal courts. Any federal legislation that mandates new government programs will assuredly be challenged in the courts and may very well find a conservative-friendly hearing from the newly minted conservative federal judiciary.
Perhaps most distressingly, the Citizens United Supreme Court case that was decided in favor of unlimited corporate money in U.S. politics has created a political environment in which corporations exert disproportionate political power. Fossil fuel corporations are lobbying hard for the status quo. A new grassroots campaign of students and NGOs called #ChangeTheChamber calls out companies for their membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the key climate obstructor in Washington. They are putting pressure on Chamber member companies to either leave the Chamber or change the Chamber’s stance on climate action. Rebuild Climate fully supports their efforts.
How then should those of us passionate about addressing climate action focus our energies? First and foremost, we must ensure that Biden and the Democratic candidates for Senate and House are successful in November. At the same time, we must make our collective voices heard and let our elected officials know that we demand that they put our country back to work by making the transition to renewable energy a top priority in 2021!