The White House Deals with the Climate

The largest climate team ever, a flurry of executive orders, an approach that ties together national security and foreign policy, economic growth and employment. Joe Biden’s new strategy is prompt, clear and straightforward: wasting no time in addressing the climate crisis and making the USA an influential actor in global negotiations once again.

Just one week after Biden’s inauguration the effort to roll-back Trump’s environmental legacy is already in full swing. On his very first day in office, President Biden proceeded to sign a multitude of executive orders of which two specifically targeting environmental issues. Whether these directives make a meaningful difference remains to be seen but what is certain is that they have sent a clear message on the new administrations climate intentions.

Furthermore, in a testament to the seriousness with which the new administration regards climate change, on January 27, Biden signed more climate-related executive orders, this time targeting new oil and gas leases on public lands and doubling offshore wind-produced energy by 2030. Making climate change a defacto national security and foreign policy priority in the US. 

Within a day of the new Administration taking up residence in the White House, the US is already officially on course to re-join the Paris Agreement, which President Trump withdrew from on November 4, 2020, put a stop to the and Keystone XL pipeline and told agencies to review and reverse more than 100 Trump actions on the environment. US diplomats are in the process of filing official paperwork with the United Nations, 30 days from which they will re-join the agreement and once again take part in negotiations for the implementation of the Paris Accord.

And the new administration didn’t stop there. On Wednesday 27 January Mr Biden inaugurated a White House office of domestic climate policy and announced a summit of leaders to be held in April on Earth Day, as well as instructing federal agencies to purchase “zero-emissions” vehicles, called on the director of the Office of Management and Budget to identify and then eliminate federal fossil-fuel subsidies, and established a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. “Today is climate day at the White House,” Biden declared.

A strong team

Biden has selected the largest climate team ever to grace the White House in an effort to bring the US back on track and into the foray of climate diplomacy. Standout names include  John Kerry as special envoyGina McCarthy, former President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, as White House National Climate Advisor; and Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve as Treasury Secretary.

The team has proven credentials in forwarding climate goals. Ms Yellen, for instance, was one of the authors of an influential paper for the G30 in October that looked at how to shift economies to net-zero emissions, including the use of climate-friendly policies such as carbon-pricing, a surge in green-infrastructure spending and the delegation by governments of some environmental decisions to independent councils.

Kerry is also a widely respected figure. As secretary of state under former President Barack Obama in 2015, he was influential in bringing China to the table at the U.N. climate conference in Paris. 

In his first speech as US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Kerry advocated for the world to cut out coal five times faster than it has been doing in recent years, boost renewable energy six times faster, and transition to electric vehicles 22 times faster, thus applying pressure on other countries to improve their climate pledges.

Kerry also iterated the need for the US to do even better than net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, indicating that the way forward may be promoting emerging technologies including carbon capture and storage.

“We’ve already sent signals on the things that we don’t like that we’re going to roll back, but this week you’re going to see us move forward with what’s the vision of the future,” McCarthy told a virtual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Executive orders

Possibly the biggest change in climate policy compared to the Trump administration is the US’s return to global negotiations, which President Biden set in motion on his very first day in office. A powerful signal that demonstrates not only a willingness to follow the rules on climate set out by the international community but also a desire to influence the direction of those rules.

The first part of adhering to the rules will be improving on the commitments (NDCs) made by President Obama in 2015 in Paris. A new target is likely to be net zero emissions by 2050, which would influence the direction of the US economy for decades to come.

Not least of which in terms of energy reform. It is no coincidence that the second executive order on environmental issues signed by President Biden concerns the oil industry. By targeting the Keystone Pipeline XL, Biden is sending a clear message on how he intends to power this transition.

A message that was further reinforced on Wednesday with executive orders that target the extraction of oil and gas from federal lands. A decisive break from the previous administration that had expanded the number of energy leases on environmentally sensitive national lands.

In fact, federal drilling provides around 22% of US oil production and 12% of gas, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API) and according to the New York Times, fossil fuel extraction on public lands accounts for almost a quarter of all US carbon dioxide emissions.

Clean energy transition

One of the campaign promises brought forward by Biden was to boost electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, build high-speed railways, and improve energy efficiency in homes and offices. With a 2 trillion USD plan to reach 100% clean electricity by 2035.

Getting to a 100% clean energy economy is not only an obligation, it’s an opportunity. 

The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution

A key player in ensuring the clean energy transition could be Jennifer Granholm, who Biden nominated as his pick for Energy Secretary. The former Michigan governor has worked extensively with car manufacturers to develop electric vehicles and implemented Michigan’s first renewable energy portfolio standard notwithstanding a divided legislature.

The main objective is to link climate change solutions with economic growth and employment.

“The good news is that so many of the climate solutions can boost the economy, can generate jobs […] It’s not a trade-off between tackling the economic situation and tackling the climate crisis, in fact, they have to go hand in hand.” said David Waskow from the World Resources Institute when talking to the BBC.

“When I think of climate change, I think of jobs,” claims President Biden, whilst arguing that “modernising our water systems, transportation, our energy infrastructure – to withstand the impacts of extreme climate” will create millions of new jobs.

However, Biden’s plan to link climate policy with economic growth has had a mixed reception, which are often divided along party lines and reflect the fraught political context in which he will have to work.

On the one hand, “His latest plan, 2 trillion USD over four years, is getting a much more enthusiastic reception, including from groups like the Sunrise Movement, which endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and have viewed Mr Biden with scepticism,” writes BBC reporter Anthony Zurcher.

On the other, Republican Senators such as Ted Cruz have been openly critical of the plan. One analysis touted by the Republican Senator, stipulates that even simply sticking to the original commitments made by the Obama Administration under the Paris Climate Agreement would result in the loss of 400,000 American manufacturing jobs and would cost families of four $20,000 in lost income over a nearly 20-year period.

From the corporate world, there is a growing consensus among large companies that renewable energy is an engine of job creation. CNBC reports that although the overall number of foreseen job cuts are relatively small compared to the overall economy — 1.7% of the labor force — these are by far inferior to the new jobs being created for the energy transition. However, a key concern is ensuring that the transition is enacted in a just manner and that those people and communities most impacted by a shift away from fossil fuels are not left behind

The path to success

Success in addressing the climate crisis will revolve around Biden implementing a comprehensive climate bill that uses mechanisms such as a clean energy standard, that sets a cap, or limit, on emissions and tightens it over time.

This will require the return to science as the guiding principle in decision making. To this end, Biden has already directed government agencies to only make “evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.”

Keeping track of the administrations progress and making sure promises are met with results is also extremely important. The Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law at Columbia University has set up a Climate Reregulation Tracker that looks at “the measures taken by the Biden-Harris administration to reinstate and expand federal climate mitigation and adaptation measures that were rolled back or eliminated in the preceding four years, as well as new policies to address previously unregulated areas of climate law.”

In his victory speech, Biden vowed to: “marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time. The battle to control the virus, the battle to build prosperity, the battle to secure your family’s health care. The battle to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country. And the battle to save our planet by getting climate under control.”

“The new administration may or may not find creative ways to break the logjam that has prevented ambitious national climate change policies from being enacted (or, if enacted, to be sustainable). My greatest source of optimism is that the Biden-Harris team, in sharp contrast to the Trump-Pence administration, gives every indication that it will embrace scientific and other expertise across the board—whether that means the best epidemiologists and infectious disease experts designing an effective strategy for the coronavirus, or the best scientists, lawyers and economists designing sound climate policies that are also politically feasible,” concludes Robert N. Stavins, A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development and Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.



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