Governing from the White House by executive actions – whether by executive orders or variations thereon – has its pluses and minuses.
Executive orders, for instance, can help get past rigid partisan opposition and around the steep Senate filibuster requirements of at least 60 votes for passage. Some require action, but others are intended to signal the incumbent’s perspectives and preferences.
Whatever form they take, however, they lack the gravitas and the staying power of actual legislation passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed by the president. So what’s the point, given that they often are overturned by the next administration from the opposing party? It’s a fair question.
Use of presidential powers independent of congressional approval continues under both parties, so there must be a good reason. In part, it’s that those actions need not be – and they should not be – perceived simply as “one-off” pronouncements born of a transient political agenda. Instead, they can communicate support for policy actions that reflect societal, economic and/or cultural trends having significant and stable popular support.
Under President Trump, a number of executive actions were intended to dismiss the scientific evidence about the causes and effects of human-caused global warming. Many were, in fact, undertaken with the express goal of reversing actions by the previous Obama/Biden administration.
In stark contrast, the early Executive Office actions undertaken by the Biden/Harris administration often point to undoing those Trump actions – a practice Washington Post White House and environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin has characterized as “the unraveling of the unraveling.”
Rowing downstream surely beats rowing upstream
Unlike the situation during the Trump administration, public survey data continues to suggest broad public support for the Biden climate change actions, such as re-entering the Paris climate agreement and reviving more restrictive regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power plants. Metaphorically speaking, the Trump administration was rowing upstream in many on its climate change stances against a clear and ever-growing tide of public support; the Biden administration, in contrast, is enjoying the advantage of paddling downstream with that support strongly at its back.
In addition, one can reasonably argue that the currents of public opinion increasingly are in sync with private-market strategies that support positive climate action. Here are a few examples during Trump’s term in office:
– The Trump administration took office touting its plan to put coal miners back to work by reopening coal mines. Even early in his only term, though, energy companies were already closing their existing coal-fired plants, and so miners’ hopes for more and more jobs went unfulfilled.
– Buoyed by one of the provisions in the 2017 tax bill, the Trump administration three years later took executive action to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR, for drilling. Disappointingly for supporters of that action, the December 2020 auction netted barely $144 million, not even 20% of what was expected and with most of it coming from the State of Alaska. Three major oil companies working in the state wouldn’t bite on spending billions to find new oil they concluded has little market appeal, especially in the long run.
– The Trump administration’s EPA efforts to relax mileage and emission standards for vehicles and performance standards for oil companies were both greeted by resistance from many large automakers and oil companies who had already spent vast sums to comply with the more rigid Obama era rules. They had thereby created a competitive advantage in their markets that they were not at all keen to see evaporate.
Now, contrast those examples with more recent experiences showing that the downstream current is growing stronger and more persistent. Here are a few more indicators:
– Legacy automakers like Ford and General Motors have joined many others in investing heavily to move their fleets more quickly to electric power.
– A growing number of countries, states, and communities are committing themselves to achieving net zero carbon emissions over the next few decades;
– Having recognized the potential of climate change risks and opportunities to shape significant reallocations of capital and thereby reconfigure the world’s financial system, the world’s largest assets manager, BlackRock Inc. has announced that it will make accounting for climate change a central factor in its investment strategies.
– The Federal Reserve Board in its November Financial Stability Report introduced an entry on reporting climate risks as part of its financial stress testing procedures.
– Facebook has decided to add labels and links to climate change postings with the goal of winnowing-out climate disinformation and elevating accurate climate coverage originating from widely trusted government and academic interests.
For a conventional start-of-year “What’s In, and What’s Out” column, it is now hard to find among 2021’s “Ins” those rowing upstream against the current support for profits and jobs associated with clean energy. The heydays of buggy whips, iPods, single-edge shaving razors, and more are far behind us.
Instead, visions of higher economic values from employment-friendly CO2 reduction efforts, cleaner and more secure renewable energy options, and a healthier environment are coming into clearer and clearer focus every week.
Put simply, while there for sure is more paddling ahead in the fight to manage climate change, we’re at least now headed downstream – with the current and with the winds at our back.
Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He served as convening lead author for multiple chapters and the Synthesis Report for the IPCC from 1990 through 2014 and was vice-chair of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment.
Henry Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus, in the MIT Sloan School of Management and former co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, which is focused on the integration of the natural and social sciences and policy analysis on threats to the global climate.
Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He served as lead author for multiple chapters of the IPCC in the areas of mitigation, impacts, and adaptation from 1992 through 2014. He also served on the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the first U.S. National Climate Assessment.
Ben Santer served as convening lead author of the climate change detection and attribution chapter of the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report and has contributed to all five IPCC assessments.