Policy News: November 9, 2020

In This Issue:

Join an ESA Webinar Today about the 2020 Election Results
Join the Public Affairs Office at 3:00pm eastern for a discussion of the implications for scientific and environmental policy.

Vice President Joe Biden Wins Presidential Election
Democrats retain majority in the House of Representatives, Senate races in Georgia go to runoffs.

ESA Statement on the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Accord
The Trump administration’s choice to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement is an irresponsible and environmentally disastrous decision

Rep. Gerry Connelly (D-VA) introduces the Saving Civil Service Act.

Executive Branch
The US Department of Agriculture finalizes rule exempting Alaska’s National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule.

IPBES releases report about biodiversity and pandemics.

Colorado voters approve ballot measure to reintroduce gray wolves.

Scientific Community
Day One Project is crowdsourcing a list of the top 100 science and technology leadership positions in the executive branch.

ESA In the News
View an up-to-date list of ESA’s media coverage.

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

Join an ESA Webinar Today about the 2020 Election Results

Join the ESA Public Affairs Office today, Monday, November 9, at 3:00pm eastern for a discussion of the 2020 elections results and implications for scientific and environmental policy.

Register for the post-election webinar here.

Vice President Joe Biden Wins Presidential Election

Former Vice President Joe Biden won the presidency in the 2020 election, unseating President Donald Trump and drastically changing the outlook for scientific and environmental policy over the next four years.

See graphic: Biden Defeats Trump

Democrats underperformed expectations in the Congressional elections, with House Republicans gaining five seats. Notably, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson (D-MN) lost his bid for re-election. Democrats are still expected to retain their majority in the House of Representatives, with 23 seats still too close to call.

See graphic: 2020 House Election Results.

On the senate side, vulnerable Republican incumbents Susan Collins (ME), Steve Daines (MT) and Joni Ernest (IA) all retained their seats. Democrat Mark Kelly unseated Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who was appointed to the Senate after John McCain’s death in 2018. Former Colorado Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper (D) defeated incumbent Cory Gardner (R-CO). The Associated Press has not called the Senate elections in North Carolina and Alaska, but incumbents Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) are ahead in their races.

Overall control of the senate remains unclear. Races for both Georgia senate seats going to a runoff election in January 2021. In those races, Democrat Raphael Warnock is challenging Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA). Georgia Governor Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler in early 2020 after Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) resigned for health reasons. Democrat Jon Ossoff is challenging incumbent Sen. David Perdue (R-GA).

If Republicans retain control of the senate, they could block parts of Biden’s environmental and scientific policy agenda. They could also push Biden to nominate more conservative picks for top environmental positions that require senate confirmation like Secretary of the Interior and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the first 100 days of his administration, Biden is expected to push Congress to pass another coronavirus stimulus bill, which will likely include investments in green instrastructure. Congress may also act to pass a coronavirus relief bill before Biden is inaugurated — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told press last week that he wants pass another coronavirus bill and bills funding the federal agencies before the end of 2020.

Biden is also expected to start announcing his picks for Cabinet-level officials in the coming weeks. Politico has compiled a list of rumored Biden appointees and frontrunners for various positions. ESA will update its Transition Tracker as nominations are announced. 

See graphic: 2020 Senate Election Results.

Still, Biden could use Executive Orders and the regulatory state to push for climate action and environmental regulations. The president-elect’s campaign promised to start reversing Trump rollbacks on “Day 1” of its new administration. This could include reversal of the Trump administrations’ replacements for the Obama era Clean Water Rule and the Clean Power Plan, as well as Trump’s changes to the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act regulations. These regulations have been finalized by the Trump administration, so the Biden administration would have to re-start the lengthy rulemaking process.

The Trump administration could act to finalize its “Transparency in Science” rule before the inauguration. This proposed rule would prohibit the EPA from using scientific studies where the underlying data are not publicly available.

See graphic: 80 key rollbacks that define Trump’s environmental record.

President-elect Biden vowed to immediately re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, which would not require Congressional approval.

Biden’s campaign vowed to issue a climate executive order “establishing a new regime for urgent federal action to address the climate crisis.” This would include embedding climate and equity mandates into all regulatory analysis, budgeting and procurement. Biden has also signaled support for conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030 and strengthening a Clinton-era environmental justice Executive Order (EO 12898).

See also: Venable LLP has analyzed the likely impact of the election on energy and environmental policies coming from both the White House and Congress.

State Elections

On the state level, Republicans retained control of 29 state legislatures and hold both the state legislature and the governorship in 22 states. Republican Greg Gianforte won the Montana governor’s race, replacing Democrat Steve Bullock, who was term limited. Republicans also took the majority in the New Hampshire state legislature.

This election is especially important because state governments will re-draw most Congressional districts after the 2020 Census. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight from late October 2020 estimated that 117 congressional districts (27% of the entire House) will likely be drawn by Republicans, while 11% of House districts are likely to be drawn by Democrats. The remaining 30% will be drawn by independent commissions or by bipartisan groups. The potential for gerrymandering in favor of the Republican party is high, which would significantly give an advantage to electing Republicans to Congress beginning in 2022.

See graphic: Republicans control most state legislatures & 2020 Governor Election Results

Of the ten Attorney General position up for re-election, Democrats won five and Republicans won five. The partisan make-up of these positions remains the same. State Attorney Generals have played an important role in environmental policy during the Trump administration. For example, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson is leading a lawsuit challenging a Trump administration Clean Water Act regulation that limit states’ ability to veto infrastructure projects like oil and gas pipelines within their border. Ferguson won re-election. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey (R) has been an enthusiastic supporter of Trump’s repeal of the Obama administration’s Waters of the U.S. rule. Morrissey also won re-election.

See graphic: 2020 Attorney General election results

ESA Statement on the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Accord

Oct. 29, 2020

How we address climate change is a defining issue for the country, the planet and the well-being of all people now and in the future. The Trump administration’s choice to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord is an irresponsible and environmentally disastrous decision that can legally go into effect Nov. 4-the day after the general election.

More than 190 signatory nations pledged in the Paris accord to take actions toward reducing future temperature increases and addressing the serious threats posed by a warming planet. The U.S., once a leader in confronting climate change, now stands alone as the only country to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Abandoning the Paris accord is but one action in the administration’s efforts to systematically dismantle American commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reverse the catastrophic impacts of a warming climate.

In reneging on its commitments, the Trump administration ignores decades of scientific research pointing to our current situation. Climate change is not the future; it’s the present. Current climate trends bring disruption to the ecosystems on which humanity, and all biodiversity, rely. Wildfire, drought, and storms occur with greater frequency and intensity. Increasing ocean acidity and warming temperatures lead to fishery losses, destabilize coral reefs and other critical marine ecosystems and reduce the critical function of carbon storage that the oceans provide. The inexorable rise of sea levels and the inundation of heavily populated coastal cities and infrastructure threaten homes and industry for a large portion of the global society.

Along with clean energy solutions, healthy ecosystems improve soil, filter water, store carbon and cycle nutrients. They buffer communities from urban heat waves, floods, erosion and storm surge. Ecosystems provide many benefits, but climate and other global changes are overwhelming their capacities to protect us. This U.S. withdrawal will also delay development of ecosystem-based adaptation strategies critical to sustainable stewardship of the services ecosystems provide to humanity.

Despite U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord, there is independent, science-driven action that continues in the United States. Business leaders and leadership in state and city governments across the country have forged ahead to curb emissions by cleaning up their supply chains, electrical grids and transportation infrastructure. They have also invested heavily in mitigation and adaptation to the environmental consequences of climate change.The science is indisputable: humans are driving climate change. ESA remains committed to ensuring that science helps us understand the drivers and consequences of climate change and informs and guides policy and management efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon and drive sustainable adaptation to changing ecological conditions.

The United States is facing a global challenge that requires a global solution based on the best available science. It is time for our leaders to honor the nation’s commitments to the Paris accord and re-join the rest of the world in the global climate effort.

Kathleen Weathers, President
Osvaldo Sala, Immediate Past President
Dennis Ojima, President Elect
Catherine O’Riordan, Executive Director


Federal Employment: Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) introduced the Saving the Civil Service Act (H.R. 8687). This bill prohibits federal agencies from spending funds to implement an executive order from President Donald Trump to create a “schedule F” employment category. Federal employees in this category would be easier to fire. It not yet clear what employees would be sorted into this category. Federal scientists fear that this category would include scientists, who could then be fired if their conclusions do not support political appointees’ preferences. House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) are co-sponsors for Connolly’s bill.

Meanwhile, Rep. Fred Keller (R-PA) introduced a bill (H.R. 8711) to codify Trump’s executive order into law. This bill has no co-sponsors

Legislative Updates:

  • Reps. Grace Meng (D-NY) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) introduced the Global Wildlife Trade Biosecurity Act (H.R. 8678). This bill calls for an end to the commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption. It also authorizes an integrated zoonotic diseases program within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USAID programs to reduce wildlife consumption demand.

See ESA’s Legislative Tracker for more updates on legislation relevant to the ecological community.

Executive Branch

Forest Service: The U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized a rule exempting Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule. This rule opens over 9 million acres to logging and road construction. The agency’s preferred alternative in the environmental impact statement reverts 168,000 acres of old-growth forest and 20,000 acres of young-growth forest to suitable timber lands.

The State of Alaska petitioned the Department of Agriculture to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule in 2018. In late 2019, the Forest Service released the draft version of this environmental impact statement and ESA submitted comments opposing the Forest Service’s proposal to exempt the Tongass National Forest from Roadless Rule. The comments note that the Tongass stores a large amount of carbon and fuels productive and commercially important marine ecosystems.

National Climate Assessment: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy selected Betsy Weatherhead to be the director of the next National Climate Assessment. Weatherhead is a senior scientist at Jupiter Technologies, a consulting firm that provides advice to businesses and government agencies about the impacts of climate change and climate risk. During this assignment, she will become an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey. Weatherhead holds mainstream views about anthropogenic climate change.

USGS: A Department of the Interior Inspector General report concludes that U.S. Geological Survey Director James Reilly retaliated against a whistleblower who filed a complaint about Reilly’s conduct by re-assigning the whistleblower employee to a new position. The Inspector General found that the Department of the Interior failed to prove that the re-assignment would have happened if the employee had not filed a whistleblower complaint. This is a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) issued a statement calling for Reilly to be removed from his position in response to the report.

USFWS: The agency finalized a rule removing the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list in the continental United States, turning responsibility for managing gray wolves to state and tribal agencies. This rule exempts the Mexican wolf subspecies and retains protections for that subspecies.

In May 2019, five independent peer-reviewers of the USFWS proposed rule to remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered species largely contested the science in the rule. Some reviewers questioned the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to treat gray wolves in the continental US as a single population, rather than determine distinct population segments for wolves, calling this determination “an extreme oversimplification.”

Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental groups have vowed to challenge this decision in the courts.

The agency finalized another rule allowing the use of electronic bicycles in national wildlife refuges. The rule enables managers at individual wildlife refuges to allow the use of electric bicycles on a case-by-case basis.


IPBES: A new report from the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) concludes that future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases. IPBES estimates that there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in mammals and birds and 850,000 of these viruses could infect people. The report’s authors recommend launching a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best science and evidence on emerging diseases, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They also endorse institutionalizing a ‘one health’ approach to build pandemic preparedness and enhance pandemic prevention. The One Health approach links environmental, human and animal health.

Canada: A judge on the country’s Federal Court threw out a lawsuit from Canadian youth suing the government for failing to address climate change adequately. The case, La Rose et al. v. Her Majesty, the Queen said that the government had violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and failure to address climate disproportionately harms indigenous youth. The judge ruled that other branches of government should address this issue- lawyers representing the Canadian youth plan to appeal this ruling.

The case mirrored the Juliana vs. United States case. In that case, 21 youth sued the United States federal government for violating their right to a safe climate. In January 2020, the U.S. Ninth Climate Court of Appeals ruled that the youth in the case do not have legal standing to sue.


Colorado: Voters narrowly approved Proposition 114, which requires the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife to create a plan to reintroduce gray wolves to western Colorado by the end of 2023. With this measure, Colorado will become the first state to reintroduce wolves after a public vote. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission has opposed wolf reintroduction, citing wolves’ negative impact on farming and big game populations.

Scientific Community

Transition: The Day One Project, a nonpartisan initiative designed to project science and technology policy ideas for the next presidential term, is crowdsourcing a list of the top 100 science and technology leadership positions in the executive branch. Their goal is to ensure that all the critical science and technology leadership roles across the federal government are identified, tracked and filled as quickly as possible during the next administration. Submit your ideas here by Dec. 1.

What We’re Reading

ESA in the News

ESA regularly issues press releases to the media about journal articles and other Society news. Press coverage is kept up-to-date on our “In the News” page. Check out news stories here.

ESA Correspondence to Policymakers

View more letters and testimony from ESA here

Opportunities to get involved 

Virtual public meetings and conference calls:

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

Visit this page on ESA’s website for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register, including upcoming meetings and regulations open for public comment.

ESA’s policy activities work to infuse ecological knowledge into national policy decisions through activities such as policy statements, Capitol Hill briefings, Congressional Visits Days, and coalition involvement. Policy News Updates are bi-monthly summaries of major environmental and science policy news. They are produced by the Public Affairs Office of the Ecological Society of America.

Send questions or comments to Alison Mize, director of public affairs, Alison@nullesa.org or Nicole Zimmerman, public affairs manager, Nicole@nullesa.org

Visit the ESA website to learn more about our activities and membership.