System change or climate change: Why Biden must abandon his bipartisan instincts

Unless he somehow overhauls the regressive power structures forged by Trump, US president-elect Joe Biden’s progressive energy and climate agenda risks being undone by resurgent Trumpism in 2024.

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Since Joe Biden emerged as US president-elect, jubilant commentators on energy and climate matters have been falling over each other to highlight the many progressive climate measures that a Democratic administration could implement, even without control of the Senate. Tools at the president’s disposal include executive orders, appointing climate experts throughout his cabinet and to key regulatory positions, instituting stricter emissions rules, forcing listed companies to disclose their climate risk exposure, putting climate change at the heart of US diplomacy… the list goes on (literally, there’s a bunch of links below).

Suffice to say, there are endless avenues for a Democratic administration with a laser-beam focus on climate change to explore, even if the Republicans maintain their choke-hold on the legislature—as appears most likely to occur, pending a January run-off in Georgia.

Amid the cacophony of optimism and good advice, there seems to be less outward appreciation of the underlying weakness of a political strategy based upon skirting around the power structures that are not aligned with the incoming president’s climate agenda. Trying to engineer enduring real-world outcomes without altering the systems of power and governance that brought us the Trump administration in the first place (and kept the president in office post-impeachment) seems futile.

US constitutional experts and political commentators are confident that Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert the democratic process in the courts is unlikely to succeed, even after the president packed the Supreme Court. But Trump’s eventual departure does not mean Trumpism will simply fade away. An astonishing 72 million people voted to re-elect him; that’s more than any previous Republican candidate in history, and second only to Biden’s tally, thanks to historic voter turnout.

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The sheer volume of Trump votes “can’t all be explained away by ignorance and racism. There’s a rational Trump voter who we need to understand if we want to keep the forces of populism at bay,” writes Nesrine Malik in The Correspondent. Justified grievances, economic marginalisation and narrow self-interest all played a part, alongside the stereotypical tropes of arms-bearing nationalism and white supremacy that define the Trump core.

A significant majority of Trump voters believe the president’s unfounded claim of election fraud, and this contingent is now—rightly or wrongly—aggrieved. Unless a Biden administration somehow neutralises a counter-movement fuelled by bitter disenfranchisement, this sentiment could quietly fester for four or even eight years before roaring back to the fore at election time.

Should that happen in 2024 or 2028, it will propel either Trump or, more likely, an even scarier Republican presidential candidate into power. Since Trump demonstrated that the capacity for rational thought is no longer a prerequisite to leading the party, or indeed the country, anything is possible.

A pointed example of how far the Overton window has shifted in the US since 2016 was the election of a Republican QAnon conspiracy theorist to the House of Representatives in November’s poll. Meanwhile, the ‘Grand Old Party’ is waging war on science, and the Flat Earth movement is going from strength to strength. There is no telling where these regressive trends could lead the GOP while it searches for a route back to executive power.

The Hydra lives on

The power structures that Trump shaped during his four years in office remain intact—ready to undermine Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris at every turn. Left in place, these structures will enable the next Trumpist president to resume the attack on democracy whenever the Republicans re-take the White House.

Writing in The New Yorker, columnist Masha Gessen describes how “aspiring autocrats” concentrate power in the presidency by subjugating judicial and legislative authority beneath the executive, creating a “single vertical of vassalage”:

“For all the apparent flailing and incompetence of the Trump Administration, his autocratic attempt checks most of the boxes. He has appointed three Supreme Court Justices and a record number of federal judges. The Justice Department, under William Barr, acts like Trump’s pocket law-enforcement agency and personal law firm. Trump’s army of “acting” officials, some of them carrying out their duties in violation of relevant federal regulations, have made mincemeat of the rules and norms of federal appointments. Trump has preëmptively declared the election rigged; has incited voter intimidation and encouraged voter suppression; has mobilized his armed supporters to prevent votes from being counted; and has explicitly stated that he is changing the rules of the election.”

If the Democrats hope to implement the Biden-Harris plan to “create union jobs by tackling the climate crisis” without simultaneously dismantling the Trumpist power structures that now define the US polity, any changes they achieve will be only temporary. Executive orders and federal regulations can all be undone by the next president. Gessen continues:

“Autocratic structural changes are invariably harder to reverse than they are to institute. If the Senate remains in Republican hands, reversal—at least in the short term—is virtually impossible. If Biden wanted to expand the number of Justices on the Supreme Court, for example, he would be unable to get this through the Senate; even regular district-level judgeships may prove difficult to fill. All this increases the likelihood that, if he is elected, Biden will likely proceed as if politics as normal has been restored, because he and the Democratic Party treat Trump as an aberration—cured simply by being voted out of office.”

Similar pitfalls await any attempt to reform the electoral college voting system that is rigged to favour rural Republican-voting states, or to amend the US constitution—which has been subverted into a tool of regressive civic suppression by malign misinterpretation, under the guise of a school of thought known as ‘originalism’. Little wonder, then, that Big Oil bosses say they are not overly worried by a Biden administration‘a ability to tip the scales against fossil fuels.

A sceptical world watches

Biden is a career politician whose modus operandi is bipartisan deal-making at home, and multilateralism abroad. On the international stage, a return to consensus-based climate diplomacy presents the best and probably only means of cajoling other world leaders into taking more ambitious action on energy sector emissions.

If Biden’s strategy is to broker bipartisan domestic energy and climate legislation in the face of seething polarisation, this entails huge compromises. Watering down fossil fuel taxes or emissions standards will inevitably herald a return to the ‘all of the above’ energy policy of the Obama era that gave us the US shale revolution—and all the natural gas flaring and rampant methane venting that came with it, as previously described in Energy Flux.

The US has a lot of catching-up to do if it wishes to reclaim global leadership on climate issues. To gain international legitimacy, the Biden administration will have to demonstrably tackle rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at home. Re-joining the 2015 Paris climate accord is only a small administrative step on that long road.

The US will, in Biden’s first term, have to submit a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) explaining how it will help meet the goals of the Paris accord. The NDC will require approval by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, so enthusiasm over the US’ return to the Paris fold should not be overdone.

Republican lawmakers can hardly bring themselves to back an extension to the successful programme of tax credits for wind and solar projects, let alone any re-tightening of federal emissions regulations on fossil fuels that were rolled back by the Trump administration.

The efficacy of US international climate diplomacy will thus be determined to a large extent by domestic progress on energy and emissions. And if the changes Biden does achieve are to be lasting, he will also need to address the underlying socio-economic factors that drove millions of otherwise reasonable people to vote for four more years of Trump’s anti-climate, anti-science populism.

Big Oil’s ‘last hurrah’

What is at stake is the speed of the energy transition in the US, rather than the energy world’s overall direction of travel. Speed is of the essence due to the urgent need to prevent GHG emissions from spiking in the coming post-Covid economic recovery—whenever that might be. Pfizer’s recent announcement of promising Sars-Cov-2 vaccine trials indicates that that new era might dawn towards the end of next year.

In reality, some sort of post-Covid emissions spike is a near certainty. Pent up demand to travel will be released in either a steady flood or a gush, temporarily buoying oil demand and prices as the oversupplied crude market finally rebalances. The fact that many of these journeys will occur in pandemic-secure environs such as private cars and half-empty aeroplanes will further augment fuel demand.

Market commentators sympathetic towards incumbents threatened by the energy transition will be vocal, perhaps triumphant, during this period. So will oil ‘bulls’ on trading floors in New York and London. But their reinvigoration can only be temporary, if some of the more visionary energy thinkers are to be believed.

US and UK-based think tank RethinkX, which specialises in technology-driven disruption, argues that the transition towards renewable power generation will be significantly faster than predicted. This is because “mainstream analysts” produce “linear, mechanistic, and siloed forecasts that ignore systems complexity and thus consistently underplay the speed and extent of technological disruptions”. (It singles out the International Energy Agency’s repeat failure to accurately forecast the speed of collapse in coal-fired power in the US as an example of this.)

In its latest report entitled Disruption, Implications, and Choices—Rethinking Energy 2020-2030, RethinkX argues that the US power system could transition to 100% reliance on solar PV, wind turbines and battery storage (SWB) by 2030—five years earlier than Biden’s own ambition to build out a “carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035”. Report authors Adam Dorr and Tony Seba—RethinkX founder and renowned futurist—assert that:

“It is no longer a matter of if the SWB disruption of energy will happen, it is only a matter of when. But the timing matters, and the social, economic, political, environmental stakes could not be higher. The actual outcomes in any given locality, region, or country over the course of the 2020s depend on the choices we make today, and the benefits that accrue to those who lead the disruption rather than follow or resist it will be profound.”

Seba and Dorr coin the phrase ‘super power’ to describe the large quantities of excess renewable electricity generated in a 100% SWB system. This is because the generating capacity of solar arrays and wind farms must exceed average power demand by many multiples in order to ensure security of supply during high-demand periods when solar irradiation and wind speeds are low, for example on cold, still cloudy days in the depths of winter.

Regions that embrace 100% SWB will be bestowed with thousands of gigawatt-hours of excess electricity that, if captured by an adequately expanded grid rather than curtailed by the existing system, would retail at prices so low they could essentially subsidise new industries and economic activity potentially worth trillions of dollars.

Time to get with the plan

The RethinkX report describes only high-level technical possibilities and does not mention key parameters such as cost of capital, nor the internal rate of return of projects financed within an electricity system characterised by huge structural overcapacity. As such it is hard to judge whether, and on what terms, investors would bankroll these SWB projects.

Nonetheless, the US president-elect appears to share this vision of the economic potential of the energy transition. Biden’s campaign mantra became, “when people say climate change, I hear jobs”. Rising to the challenge poses “a once-in-a-century opportunity to jolt new life into our economy,” Biden said in July.

Biden and Harris have a four-year window in which to demonstrate to American voters the societal benefits of embracing systemic change in the energy sector. In reality this is not quite long enough, but some progress can be made. They also need to effect systemic change in the political arena and unify a deeply divided society to stymie the threat of resurgent Trumpism, without the tools needed for the job.

Energy transition evangelists argue that the US can either lead from the front and reap the rewards, or lose further ground to global rivals in the race to control the green recovery. The Republicans will almost certainly thwart the most radical elements of Biden’s climate agenda and use his failings to portray him as a weak and ineffectual leader, as they plot their return to power.

If this plan works and Trumpists are victorious in 2024, they will inherit a nation that failed to fully reintegrate with the global ‘net zero’ consensus; one with outmoded energy infrastructure that is falling behind in the unstoppable global transition to a clean energy economy.

Seb Kennedy | Energy Flux | 16th November 2020


Further reading:

  • Will Biden Repeat Obama’s Mistakes? (New Republic)

  • The 39 Things Biden Should Do First on Climate Change (Bloomberg)

  • Your Guide to the Clean Energy Implications of the 2020 Election (Greentech Media)

  • Joe Biden wins the White House, in pivotal moment for global climate action (Climate Change News)

  • Biden promised to expose ‘climate outlaws’. Here’s who could make his list (Climate Change News)

  • Biden declared winner of presidential race, faces challenges to energy agenda (Platts)

  • Biden’s Big Climate Opportunity (Bloomberg)

  • After cosy ties with Trump, Saudi Arabia faces Biden 'pariah' pledge (Bloomberg)

  • Biden wants to build on Paris accord (Argus Media)

  • Biden Iran stance could improve scrubber economics (Argus Media)

  • National REC market could be option for Biden (Argus Media)

  • Biden begins work on commodity trading oversight (Argus Media)

  • Oil market eyes Iran's return with Biden win (Argus Media)

  • Biden’s win creates conditions for US-Germany deal on Nord Stream 2, says expert (Tass)