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HLS Professor Discusses How Congress and SCOTUS Could Stall Biden’s Climate Agenda

Harvard Law School professor Jody Freeman discussed the Biden administration's climate agenda and the potential legislative and judicial difficulties it could face at a virtual talk on Monday.
Harvard Law School professor Jody Freeman discussed the Biden administration's climate agenda and the potential legislative and judicial difficulties it could face at a virtual talk on Monday. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Dekyi T. Tsotsong, Crimson Staff Writer

Jody Freeman, a professor at Harvard Law School and the former energy and climate change counselor for the Obama administration, discussed the major legislative and judicial barriers to the Biden administration’s climate agenda during a virtual talk Monday.

Throughout his time in office, President Joe Biden has attempted to reverse the Trump administration’s climate deregulation and restore signature climate policies from the Obama administration, such as the Paris Climate Accords.

The Biden administration, however, still faces legislative and judicial challenges to progress on climate issues such as regulating carbon emissions from the power, oil, and gas industries, Freeman said.

Freeman said that one major obstacle to reducing carbon emissions is the political feasibility of implementing a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system.

“You want to make carbon costly,” she said. “I’m not an economist, but I’m pretty confident that if you don’t price the thing you’re trying to reduce, it makes it harder to reduce.”

A carbon tax is a fee imposed on the burning of carbon-based fuels, while a cap-and-trade system places a limit on the overall level of carbon emissions a firm can release. Each policy aims to reduce pollution by regulating the price or quantity of carbon emissions.

Freeman said the Supreme Court could also create barriers to climate regulation.

“The Court will not be shy about its skepticism toward broad government regulation,” Freeman said.

Freeman explained how the Court’s ruling on a case involving the Clean Air Act of 1970 — which authorized the federal government to enforce greenhouse gas emission limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency — could limit the EPA’s regulation authority.

Though the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the EPA’s authority to limit pollution under the Clean Air Act, a ruling in favor of power plants could hamper the Biden administration’s efforts to curb emissions.

“In the world of climate change, we’re waiting to see what the Supreme Court may do to clip the wings of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Freeman said.

“If that were to happen, we'd be left in a world, in the United States anyway, where the Congress is largely inactive on climate change,” she added.

Though judicial and legislative roadblocks could thwart Biden’s climate agenda, Freeman said it is important to pay attention to new university-led initiatives such as the Roosevelt Project.

MIT’s Roosevelt Project aims to plot “a path to a low carbon economy in a way that promotes high quality job growth, minimizes worker and community dislocation, and harnesses the benefits of energy technologies for regional economic development,” according to the project's website. The project’s team includes administrators and researchers from MIT, Harvard, Boise State, and Carnegie Mellon.

Freeman said that she expected “big things” from Harvard as well.

“It's an amazing amount of productivity, scholarship, research, and concrete solutions being developed across Harvard University,” she said.

—Staff writer Dekyi T. Tsotsong can be reached at dekyi.tsotsong@thecrimson.com.

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