How Trump Could Slow Down Biden’s Climate Agenda

Donald Trump shouts at members of the media in October 2019.

Donald Trump shouts at members of the media in October 2019.
Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)

Noted presidential-election loser Donald Trump is having a hard time coming to grips with reality. After losing bigly in both the Electoral College and the popular vote, Trump is refusing to concede, waging baseless lawsuits, sending bad tweets, and generally doing his best to corrode democracy.

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Trump’s regime has also followed suit, blocking President-elect Joe Biden from accessing resources for the transition. The two-plus-month transition always felt like it was going to be a white knuckle experience for the U.S., but there’s also a very real risk Trump’s tantrum could delay Biden’s efforts to get down to business on Jan. 20, 2021. That’s particularly true on climate, which Biden has said will be an animating force over the next four years.

The presidential transition is overseen by the General Services Administration, and this is where the biggest sticking point currently is. The Trump administration appointee in charge of the agency, Emily Murphy, has refused to sign off on the reality that Biden has won and the transition should begin. Without her doing so, Biden’s transition team doesn’t have access to the $9.9 million set aside or the other resources that come with building a new administration, including office space at federal agencies. It’s the most obvious roadblock that stands between Trump leaving office and Biden taking over.

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“It’s not just money and office space, it’s a really a problem if you can’t get into the agency to talk with people and the briefing books,” said Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Biden will need to prepare a president’s budget pretty quickly. Trump is going to prepare his budget. Those things are all problematic.”

Despite Trump refusing to acknowledge Biden’s win, the president-elect has already set up transition teams to craft plans and vet potential political appointees even without access to agency staff. But the Trump administration has other means to slow down Biden or inflict environmental harm. Even prior to the election, Trump continued with his deregulatory campaign that’s been the hallmark of his time in office. That includes opening the Tongass National Forest to logging, which went into effect in late October.

Trump could very well push through more executive orders over the next two months, though many if not all are likely to be overturned by Biden once he assumes office. But doing so will still sap time and resources that could have been put to use enacting new rules that benefit the climate rather than harm it. James Pfiffner, an emeritus professor of government at George Mason University, said in an email that it’s unlikely any flurry of climate executive orders along with the more than 75 others already signed by Trump over the past four years will jeopardize Biden’s agenda in the long haul. (Though, as your resident climate person, I have to point out that the climate crisis is a race against time to decarbonize everything.)

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Yet another way Trump could have a more meaningful impact is personnel, specifically installing bad people in certain positions or firing others. On the putting-unqualified-people-in-place list, the top has to be at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, where David Legates has reportedly been appointed to lead it. Legates’ was brought on at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just a few months ago and has expressed laughably outlandish climate views, including that more carbon dioxide leads to bigger crabs so everything is going to be OK.

Yet Legates is now in a position to shape a landmark federal climate report and could select authors who could shape the report for the worse and launder in denialist talking points. He could also find other ways to gum up the works. So while a Biden administration is likely to sweep Legates out pretty quickly, his imprint could last.

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“In the next few months, he could nominally be in charge of National Climate Assessment and cause an enormous amount of damage or slow things down,” Rosenberg said of Legates.

Trump also recently signed an executive order making it easier to fire federal employees. That, coupled with his ability to move people around into less desirable positions, could make them want to leave. This could essentially hollow out the government even further than it already has been over the past four years. The pandemic has shown what a hollowed government on top of a party uninterested in governing looks like. It’s horrific.

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While Biden might eventually overcome these challenges and even lure those wary of government service back into the fold by setting an aggressive and exciting climate agenda, there are still risks associated with Trump’s actions. They extend well beyond Biden’s agenda and the climate, too.

“The main danger the longer this goes on is the confidence of the American people in the legitimacy of the election,” Pfiffner said. “Trump is attempting to do serious damage to the U.S. polity by his irresponsible actions.”

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