Whitehouse moving truck
Historical image of another presidential transition, scheduled in January to be repeated at least figuratively.

Now, alas, comes the hard part. The really hard part.

Action on climate change for well more than a decade had been stalled at the national level by ongoing debates spurred by climate “skeptics” dismissive of the steadily accumulating scientific evidence that 1) Earth is warming and 2) virtually all of that warming over recent decades is attributable to human activities and combustion of fossil fuels.

Much of the cause of the resulting inaction, it’s fair to conclude, derived from questionable claims and over-statements and mischaracterizations of “uncertainty” advanced by industry-supported policy activists and the “think tanks” they inhabited and frequented. Due credit and blame here: They succeeded in helping delay meaningful action.

But over much of the past two decades, in particular, the public and the scientists they turn to on issues like this one became increasingly confident and concerned: confident on the science on human causation, and concerned about the inevitable dangers of a warmer world. At the same time, however, political partisanship in Washington, D.C., was increasing by leaps and bounds, and climate change has been a poster child in and a victim of that partisanship.

From Obama to Trump and now to Biden

The Obama-Biden administration, between 2009 and 2016, was a high-water mark of climate concern, its appointees clearly convinced of the science and concerned about the impacts. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, involving nearly all of the world’s countries, was the symbolic show horse of that period, but there were numerous other steps reflecting increased climate concerns, many going well beyond just the symbolic or “messaging” element.

So skip forward now to what appears to be the beginning of the end of the Trump-Pence administration, clearly the most hostile toward climate action of any administration since NASA scientist James Hansen put the term “global warming” on the map in his 1988 congressional testimony.

With the near-certain inauguration of Democratic President-Elect Joe Biden now about seven weeks away, it’s time to ask what can and will come next. The answers are three-fold: 1) a lot; 2) not nearly so much as the collective scientific evidence suggests may be needed, and likely not fast enough either; and 3) too early to tell, much still to be determined.

Return of commitment to bedrock science

There is little doubt that the incoming Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration will usher back in a standing respect for quality scientists and high-quality climate science. That’s a given, as is the point that such allegiance to science will clearly distinguish the new administration from its immediate predecessor. That itself is critically important.

The new administration, upon taking office on January 20, 2021, for sure will early set itself apart from the Donald Trump-Mike Pence era on climate change: early steps to re-enter the Paris accord and executive orders to reverse many of those issued by President Trump. Foremost among Biden’s likely early steps will be a reversal of Trump efforts to prevent California from setting its own stricter vehicle emission standards and vehicle mileage rules; increased support for renewable energy; and another tough look at emissions from power plants and long-term federal miles-per-gallon requirements.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the top national political leaders’ commitment to being guided by the “best” scientific evidence, whether on climate, on COVID-19, or on vaccines or much more: Without that commitment little else good can flow, and with it the door is at least ajar for more to pass through.

Early sign of things to come: ‘People are policy’

What exactly that “more” will be and what will easily pass through – and what might pass through even if not so easily – remain key parts of the puzzle. Earliest hints likely will come in the form of the new administration’s top cabinet and sub-cabinet appointees at places like the Departments of Commerce/NOAA, Energy, Interior, State, Transportation, CDC, and EPA. Keep an eye too on the Executive Office’s own positions, such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “People are policy,” the well accepted meme holds, and they’ll likely be the first indicator of things to come.

Whether those “things” will primarily take the shape more of Executive Office actions – and in particular of Executive Orders – rather than major legislative action is another piece of the puzzle, one certainly of great importance and warranting close interest.

A coming two-month focus on Georgia Senate runoffs

The big unknown and unknowable on this point, and at this stage, involves the U.S. Senate, and whether the Democrats capture control or Republicans retain their majority. That riddle can become solvable only after the two early-January runoff elections in Georgia: A Democratic sweep of both would result in a 50-50 split, with then Vice President Harris able to break ties. Anything short of Democratic victories in both Georgia runoffs will leave Republicans, and with them Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in charge. That’s critical because only the Majority Leader can schedule which measures do, and do not, reach the Senate floor for final consideration. No one seriously doubts McConnell’s ability – nor his likely commitment – to prevent significant climate legislation from getting to a full Senate floor vote.

So it all appears to come down, from the standpoint of serious climate legislation, to the outcome of those two January 5, 2021, Georgia run-off elections. For the Democratic leadership in the White House and their colleagues on Capitol Hill, nothing short of a sweep of both runoffs will suffice: Those wanting to stymie climate action need win only one of them; proponents need both.

A half a loaf and not a whole one so far? In many ways, but maybe that’s going a bit too far. There is much an Executive Branch can do, and the incoming one likely will do, to re-engage domestically and internationally in the global climate change efforts to address – how else to say it? – global climate change. Whether it’s a full-throated all-ahead-full effort, or one with its legislative arm held unwillingly behind its back … that’s in the hands of Georgia voters. It’s a hard reality that applies no less to Biden-Harris climate efforts than to their other top agenda items in so many areas.

Lots of different issues will compete for priority attention

Which is another point that has to be weighed in crystal-balling what lies ahead: Notwithstanding its widespread acceptance as a critically important concern and issue, climate change will itself be competing for attention with a daunting gamut of other matters also deserving priority attention: of course the COVID-19 pandemic and its infections and quarter-million-plus U.S. deaths; the economic needs stemming from that pandemic and the U.S.’s inability so far to control it; the remaking of a large number of once-thought-inviolable democratic (small d) institutions and issues ranging from the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to health care, criminal justice, principles of fairness and equity, the role of the news media, systemic racism, and much more.

As noted, now comes the hard part. No one ever said it would be easy. The real significance of the 2020 election results at this point is that the federal government will again mount a serious federal effort to address the climate crisis. That’s critically important and cannot be overstated.

None should conclude that it’s “enough” given the scale and timing of the increasing risks. But lacking that revived effort would be no one’s idea of a day at the beach.

Also see: Inaction on the climate threat is NOT an option

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...