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Q&A: What Joe Biden can do to "reverse the trajectory" of the U.S. on climate change

What can Biden do on climate change?
What can Biden do on climate change? 05:41

As the extreme impacts of climate change continue to escalate, the Trump administration has spent the last four years denying the evidence and pursuing its agenda of repealing environmental regulations. The U.S. has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement signed by every country on Earth, and in doing so, abdicated leadership on the issue.  

But if President-elect Joe Biden has his way, the tide is about to turn. Mr. Biden's climate agenda is among the most aggressive set of plans any nation has laid out. Questions remain, however, about how much can the Biden administration can get done on this issue, especially if Democrats do not gain control of the Senate.

CBS News spoke with Professor Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who says there's a lot Mr. Biden can do even without much cooperation from Congress. (This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Jeff Berardelli: So, I was beginning to read the recent Climate Reregulation in a Biden Administration document that you helped write for Columbia University. Assuming that Democrats don't take the Senate, what substantial steps can Biden take on climate change? What is the number one thing on your list?

Michael Gerrard: There's a great deal that Biden can do on his own to fight climate change without Congress. Number one on my list is strengthening the motor vehicle standards. Under President Obama, the standards for passenger cars were made much stronger to reduce their emissions and improve their fuel economy. Trump is repealing those. Biden can restore the prior levels and go beyond them to have even cleaner cars, lower emitting cars, in the years going forward.

What about California's waiver, a state that traditionally has been permitted to set higher standards than the federal vehicle emissions standards. The Trump administration has been fighting California on that waiver. So, Biden could just drop the suit and let California lead the way? 

Well, the California waiver would have to go back through the formal rulemaking process, but the California waiver is not needed if we have nationally uniform strong clean car standards. California won't need to have its own stronger standards. We can have uniform national standards, which is what the auto industry really wants. 

Would the clean car standards be done through executive order? Because if so, it could be abandoned four years later under a new administration.

No, it's more than an executive order. It's a regulation that went through the notice and comment rulemaking process, and anything that did that has to go back through the notice and comment rulemaking process. There are many things Biden can do with the stroke of a pen on Inauguration Day. This is not one of them. He has to start a process that will take a few months. He'll get through it, but it will take a few months. 

Meanwhile, the auto industry already knows that this is coming. And so the auto industry, as it is planning for its future model years, is reflecting the fact that the new president will call for stronger standards. So, the delay in the rulemaking is not going to have much of a negative impact.

What else do you feel like [Biden] could do on Day One? 

Well, on Day One, he'll rejoin the Paris climate agreement. He will revoke the executive orders that Trump issued to encourage fossil fuel use. He will put back in place the executive orders of Obama, that Trump repealed, that call for more adaptation to climate change, more preparation for floods and other kinds of extreme events. Biden will put into office Cabinet officers and subcabinet officers who believe as he does that climate change is an existential threat and not a Chinese hoax. So it's going to make a complete difference in the way the government operates.

By rejoining the Paris Accord but not actually having legislation in the United States, how forceful is that really? 

The U.S. was an international leader in the fight against climate change in the lead-up to the Paris agreement. Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement was a drag on international action. It allowed other countries to say, 'Well, look, the U.S. is historically the largest greenhouse gas emitter and the richest [and it] isn't acting, why should we poorer countries do anything?' This dynamic is going to completely change. The U.S. is going to become again a leader. China had taken up the mantle of climate leadership. The U.S. needs to get back in the game and I think that will have a major effect on mobilizing global action. 

How about a clean energy standard requiring utilities to generate a certain amount of power using renewables — Is that something Biden can do on his own or is that something that he needs the legislature for?

No, I think a national clean energy standard would require Congress. I don't think that can be done through executive action. 

Biden obviously wants to do a lot of work on climate change by pouring a lot of money and resources into renewable energy. Is there much that he can do without the cooperation of the legislature?

Yes, the private sector is ready, willing and able to make major investments in renewable energy if they get the government go-ahead. There are a lot of offshore wind projects that are poised to go. The Trump administration has been holding them up because these are all in federal waters and require federal approval. The Trump administration has been slow-walking them. I'm sure that once Biden is inaugurated the government will move much more quickly on approving these projects. There are lots of other renewable energy projects that need federal encouragement, not necessarily federal money. Now, federal money would be wonderful and would help them move along much faster, but the cost of wind and solar has been declining so rapidly that it is competitive with natural gas — that is actually cheaper than coal and nuclear. So a lot of this development of wind and solar is happening on its own.

You say federal encouragement … Do you mean providing a level of market certainty so that these companies can move forward?

Certainly for these companies knowing that the federal government is going to buy the electricity from these renewable energy sources for military bases and the other massive consumption of the federal government. The federal government also has a great deal of public land that could be made available for wind and solar and other large projects. The government could also improve the process of making that land available for these renewable energy projects.

How about leases on fossil fuel exploration?

In his last year in office President Obama put a moratorium on leasing of federal lands for coal extraction. Trump rescinded that. I expect we will see that moratorium come back. We may well see a federal moratorium on offshore leasing of land for oil and gas extraction. I think that Biden will stop the plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in other precious areas like that. 

Biden will be president for four years. Of course, we don't know what's going to happen after that. But is four years enough to re-kick-start our effort on climate change such that it has so much momentum that it couldn't be stopped by the next incoming administration if they're anti-climate?

A kick-start of 4 years will create a great deal of momentum, but I can't say that it's unstoppable momentum. If the government changes again in four years, there's lots that an anti-environmental regulation president could do to slow it down. However, all the signs we are seeing is that climate change itself is getting worse. We'll see more storms and worse floods and wildfires. So I think the public pressure for more action on climate change is going to intensify together with climate change itself. 

Just how many just how many regulations did Trump roll back and how quickly can Biden reverse them? 

There are about 150 actions that we've counted that the Trump administration took to roll back environmental regulation. Some of them were executive orders and those can be eliminated with the stroke of a pen. Some of them went through a more formal process called notice and comment rulemaking which took several months. They'll have to go back through that process; that will take several more months. But nothing was irrevocable. All of these actions can be undone.

Michael, what other important steps can Biden take to make a big impact?

One of Trump's worst actions was to squelch science, to disregard what scientists were saying, first with climate change then tragically with COVID. Biden has indicated that he's going to put science in a central place in the White House and the government at large. That will be a 180 from the attitudes of the Trump administration. Years ago, Congress required all of the federal agencies to come up with a joint report called the National Climate Assessment every four years to look at what's happening physically with climate and its impacts on the U.S. Trump just fired the head of that and program and put in place a climate skeptic. I'm sure that will be very quickly reversed and will see a report that presents a genuine scientific picture of what's happening with climate change. 

Yes, I wanted to discuss that. In recent weeks Trump has replaced longtime NOAA scientists with climate skeptics who are now in key positions. Can they be revoked very quickly? 

Yeah, I think that all of these are appointments that can be very quickly revoked. The Trump administration has been profoundly disheartening to scientists in government. Many of them have fled the government. Bright young scientists have decided not to make their careers in the federal government. This is going to immediately change all that, but it will take some time to reverse, to make up for the brain-drain that we've seen. 

Are you optimistic about what a President Biden can do in the next four years to reverse our trajectory? 

I'm very optimistic that President Biden and Vice President Harris will be able to reverse the trajectory of the United States. Whether they're able to reverse it enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the enormous scale that is necessary to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, that remains to be seen. 

When you look at leaders around the world congratulating Biden on the win, most of them mention climate change in their statements. So while we've been asleep here in the United States, a lot of other countries are moving forward fast, and this has become a top-tier issue in a lot of these countries, right?

Every country in the world signed on to the Paris climate agreement. The U.S. is the only country that withdrew. … So there has been jubilation among leaders around the world in knowing that we're finally again going to have a U.S. president who is with them on fighting climate change. We are all in this together. There's no way that we're going to solve the climate problem unless the U.S. and China and India and Europe and everyone else pull together and fight climate change.

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