By Tanja Srebotnjak, Zilkha Center Director
The win of the presidential election by Joseph R. Biden Jr. brought about a new phase in federal climate change policy. The issue gained strong prominence during the 2020 campaign with several Democratic party contenders prioritizing it, the party itself declaring climate change a global emergency in its 2020 Party Platform, and Biden releasing his $1.7 trillion Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice in June 2019. The plan, among other things, aspires for the US to transition to 100% clean electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
As we approach the first 100 days of the Biden Administration, we want to take stock of how the President is following through on his campaign promises and highlight some of the positive actions that are taking shape at the federal level.
Built into these and other climate actions by the Administration is a visible and unprecedented prioritization of environmental and climate justice. This includes directing funding to environmental justice communities, prioritizing climate and environmental mitigation and adaptation actions in disproportionately impacted communities, and to include environmental justice in federal project reviews and permitting decisions.
Beginning on Inauguration Day, President Biden initiated multiple climate actions using his executive power. As promised, the President formally brought the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Agreement, an important step with additional symbolic power that sets the groundwork for renewed U.S. involvement and leadership in international climate negotiations, financing, and technology transfer.
Domestically, several executive orders initiated the rollback of some of the fossil fuel friendly policies of the Trump Administration, a return to science-based policy-making and a “whole-of-government” approach to climate change. Two of those orders are worth mentioning in more detail.
Executive Order 13990 titled “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis” and signed January 20, 2021 directs “all executive departments and agencies (agencies) to immediately review and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, take action to address the promulgation of Federal regulations and other actions during the last 4 years that conflict with” Biden’s national climate policy goals “and to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.” It revoked the contentious approval for the Keystone XL Pipeline as well as the opening of Arctic waters for offshore drilling. Importantly, the order also institutes an Inter-agency Working Group co-directed by the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, on the Social Cost of Carbon (CO2, N2O and CH4) with the request for a preliminary report after 30 days.
Executive Order 14008 “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” and signed January 27, 2021 establishes several high-level positions and offices to lead and coordinate the President’s climate agenda. Specifically, it appoints a new Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (to which President Biden appointed former Senator, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate John Kerry) and establishes the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy with former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at the helm. It also creates a pathway for the formation of a Civilian Climate Corps and requires “aligning the management of Federal procurement and real property, public lands and waters, and financial programs to support robust climate action.”
In addition to Kerry and McCarthy, President Biden also nominated and got confirmed a diverse slate of experienced and highly qualified candidates to federal cabinet and agency leadership positions. Examples include Deb Haaland for the Interior Department, Michael S. Regan for EPA Administrator, Pete Buttigieg for Transportation Secretary, and Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture. Their publicly stated commitments to ambitious and fast climate action supports not only the “whole-of-government” approach favored by the President, but also the competent vertical implementation of climate change objectives.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and in a departure from previous Democratic attempts to take large-scale federal action on climate change, President Biden emphasizes the interwoven challenges of socio-economic inequities and racial justice, economic recovery, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. His three most significant legislative proposals, part of his “Build Back Better” agenda, are an affirmation of the role of government in securing public health and wellbeing:
- The American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, 2021, is a massive economic stimulus plan to support the COVID-19 recovery that is enhanced with substantial climate, anti-poverty, and social and racial equity measures.
- The American Jobs Plan, introduced on March 31, 2021, aims to redress decades of disinvestment in US infrastructure with the goal to enable the ambitious decarbonization goals specified in the climate plan, while emphasizing the economic benefits of green jobs, innovation, and global leadership in the trade of green goods, technologies, and intellectual property.
- The forthcoming American Families Plan, which is anticipated to support and rebuild America’s middle class in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts associated with the clean energy transition.
Last week, the White House also released the first details of a $1.52 trillion fiscal year 2022 discretionary budget request, which includes substantial funding increases for several departments, agencies, and programs in support of Biden’s climate agenda. Among the big winners are EPA with a 21% increase ($2 billion), Interior with a 16% increase ($2.4 billion), and Energy with a 10% growth ($4.3 billion). The request, among other, smaller actions also asks for funding for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency – Climate (ARPA-C), a new sister agency for ARPA-Energy. It is, of course, Congress that controls the purse strings and that will determine which and how much of the funding request it approves.
Overall, President Biden has clearly used his first three months in office to go big on climate, if not adopting then at least substantially approaching the level of ambition called for by progressives like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Jay Inslee. He has used the Democrats’ slim majority in the House and the Senate to advance his objectives, but anyone looking ahead knows that hurdles remain.
First and foremost, new legislation generally requires 60 votes in the Senate and climate bills will confront considerable headwinds from solid Republican opposition and potential defections by moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin (WV). Even if legislation passes, it is likely that some will face legal challenges and President Trump appointed as many judges to federal appeals courts in his four year as President Obama did in eight years in office. In addition, the current Supreme Court is one of the most conservative courts of the last 60 years.
On the international stage, the US is beginning to rebuild weakened alliances but will walk a tightrope with China. With COP26 in Glasgow this fall, it remains to be seen if progress can be made on raising national carbon reduction goals (Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs) and advance discussions on carbon offsets, carbon border adjustments, and climate finance. President Biden has also invited the political leaders of 40 countries to a Leaders’ Summit on Climate later this month.
In conclusion, nearly three months into his term, President Biden is sticking with his campaign promises and is receiving largely positive marks from the environmental, climate and environmental justice movements. Building on lessons learned from earlier efforts he is avoiding an ideological battle over carbon taxes while reframing climate action as a jobs, competitiveness and infrastructure issue and taking advantage of executive powers and favorable rules in senate legislative procedures. While considerable hurdles remain at home and internationally, there is room for pragmatic optimism for the future.