The incoming Biden administration needs to rebuild the federal government’s capacity to respond to the climate crisis after four years of denial by the Trump administration, a leading climate scientist from Rutgers University urged.
And the federal government must help universities advise communities on how to manage the effects of climate change, said Robert Kopp, who works with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But it will not be so easy to reverse some of the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental regulations because they are more likely to be upheld by newly appointed conservative judges than they were under previous administrations, Kopp warned.
Kopp predicted that the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, an important emissions-control measure scrapped by the Trump administration, would be difficult to revive. But he said the Trump rollback of car fuel-efficiency standards stands a better chance of reversal by the new administration.
“Executive orders can be reversed overnight but regulatory rollbacks can’t be reversed overnight because they have to go through a public notice period and a public comment period before a final rule,” he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News as President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office.
Still, he said there are some things that can be done on “Day 1” such as directing agencies to adopt climate adaptation plans or setting up a White House unit to coordinate agencies’ climate policies.
‘Hollowing out’ federal agencies
Although the Trump administration outraged environmentalists inside and outside the United States in 2017 by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement to cut global climate emissions, its biggest assault on climate policy was in fact its “hollowing out” of federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, said Kopp, director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.
After deep budget cuts that drove out many scientists, it won’t be easy to restore those agencies’ ability to advise the new administration on how best to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change such as rising temperatures, bigger storms and higher seas, he said.
The best opportunity the new administration will have to make climate policy a national priority again would be through economic stimulus that includes climate-related measures, Kopp said. He said the Biden administration should emulate the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which he called the country’s “single greatest advance in climate policy” because of its support for clean energy and research into energy efficiency.
Biden’s promise to rejoin the 2016 Paris climate accord — in which virtually every country committed to cutting carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels in an effort to keep the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius — is a crucial part of resetting U.S. climate policy because it will allow the country to rejoin the global discussion, he said.
“We are the only major country that’s not part of it. Participating provides a mechanism that holds us to account and holds other countries to account,” he said.
New Jersey, vulnerable
New Jersey is especially vulnerable to climate change, with its long, heavily developed coastline where seas are expected to rise by up to 2.1 feet from 2000 levels by 2050 regardless of any action before then to cut emissions, according to a 2019 forecast by the Science and Technical Advisory Panel, which was convened by Rutgers University.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is currently drafting new regulations to help the state mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. When formally proposed in the next few months, the regulations are expected to include new requirements for building houses in flood-prone areas, but they will not dictate where people may and may not build, officials have said.
In 2020, carbon emissions from all U.S. sources dropped by 10.3%, their largest decline since the Second World War, due to a decline in car use and the closure of some industries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report issued on Tuesday.
The report from Rhodium Group consultants, found emissions from the transportation sector plunged 14.7% below 2019 levels and those from power plants were down 10.3% — declines that would have allowed the United States to meet its earlier commitment to cut carbon emissions in 2020.
While some environmentalists have called for policy actions to prevent a resurgence in emissions, Kopp argued that the new administration’s economic stimulus plan will be more important than COVID-19 in determining the long-term climate effects of the pandemic.
“It’s the recovery act that will determine the long-term climate effects of COVID, not the fact that the economy slowed down this year,” he said.
The Biden administration should recognize the magnitude of the climate crisis by using economic stimulus to implement climate policy, Kopp said.
“The Biden-Harris administration should mobilize the entire federal government to tackle the climate crisis,” he said. “The single greatest opportunity will come with their stimulus proposals.”