Biden Seeks ‘Climate-Ambitious’ Personnel as New Administration Takes Shape
With Inauguration Day for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris just 58 days away, and an initial round of cabinet appointments expected tomorrow, all eyes are on the transition process for signs of the level of ambition in the new administration’s climate policies and, crucially, the key personnel who will be in place to drive that work.
Much of the news coverage over the last week has been focused on cabinet appointments, with the New York Times identifying “is the person climate-ambitious” as one of the routine screening questions, “even for lower profile positions like the White House budget and regulatory offices”. The Times points to top candidates Michèle Flournoy for defense secretary and Lael Brainard for treasury secretary, both of whom “have long supported aggressive policies to curb climate change”. And Politico Morning Energy reports that 50 House Democrats are coalescing around Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe who would be the first Native-American woman ever nominated as interior secretary if Team Biden follows her colleagues’ advice.
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“You can make history by giving Native Americans a seat at the Cabinet table for the first time,” the legislators wrote. The letter was led by House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), and signed by progressives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) as well as centrists Jim Costa (D-CA) and Ed Case (D-HI).
Click here for our Special Report on climate and the U.S. election.
The Times reports that Biden is “eager to elevate climate change issues throughout his administration,” and “already drafting orders to reduce planet-warming pollution and seeking nominees who will embed climate policy” across much of the government structure. “Transition team members have been instructed to identify policies that can improve pollution levels in Black and Latino communities,” write reporters Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman. “And one of Mr. Biden’s early executive orders is expected to require that every federal agency, department, and program prepare to address climate change.”
“We have to re-establish American leadership globally on climate change, and re-establishing global leadership is going to require getting our house in order domestically,” ex-Obama energy secretary Ernest Moniz told The Times. “There’s no doubt that COVID is the issue of the moment which has to be addressed right out of the box,” he added. “But we’re going to see climate addressed right out of the box, as well.”
The Times digs into the gargantuan planning effort under way and the high political stakes involved, based on interviews with more than two dozen advisors and transition team members.
Mic has a shortlist of U.S. environmental groups’ four dream candidates for administrator of Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency, plus one anti-nomination: anyone but a fossil lobbyist. “When filling the absolutely critical EPA Administrator post, Biden must only consider people who have not taken money from the polluting industries they’re supposed to regulate,” said Climate Law Institute Director Kassie Siegel. “People who have served fossil fuel companies and other dangerous industries should not be considered.”
“There is no room for fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, or representatives anywhere in the executive branch,” Greenpeace USA agreed.
The Hill says Biden is looking at the federal agriculture and transportation departments as “key partners for achieving his climate goals”, with food security advocate Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) under consideration for agriculture and regular bike commuter Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus, on the short list for transportation. More than 130 groups, from Friends of the Earth to Farmworker Justice, urged the transition team to reject former North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp for agriculture, after she accepted donations from fossil companies and endorsed Donald Trump’s choice of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator.
“We urge the administration to select one of the many other highly qualified candidates—including several women candidates and candidates of colour—without ties to agribusiness and fossil fuels,” they wrote.
That same concern was front and centre after Biden chose Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) as senior advisor and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Richmond, who will handle liaison between the climate and business communities, received US$341,000 in fossil donations during his 10 years in Congress, EcoWatch reports.
“Today feels like a betrayal, because one of President-elect Biden’s very first hires for his new administration has taken more donations from the fossil fuel industry during his congressional career than nearly any other Democrat, cozied up to Big Oil and Gas, and stayed silent and ignored meeting with organizations in his own community while they suffered from toxic pollution and sea level rise,” said Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash. “That’s a mistake, and it’s an affront to young people who made President-elect Biden’s victory possible.”
The Guardian has more on Richmond’s history representing a district with seven of the 10 most air-polluted census tracts in the U.S., “largely due to the continued proliferation of oil and gas refineries and petrochemical plants.” The paper says Richmond only took a public position on the issue after a Guardian investigation last year shed light on “his extensive donations from oil, gas, and chemical industries, as well as his perceived indifference to local air pollution issues.”
Robert Taylor, president of Concerned Citizens of St John Parish, a group profiled in The Guardian’s Cancer Town series, told the paper he was cautiously optimistic about seeing his now-former member of congress join the White House staff.
“I think he’s in a position now to be able to better serve the constituents of his district,” Taylor said. “I’m happy to see him get the appointment. I just hope he uses it to help us.”
He added: “I would like to see him hold these chemical plants accountable because they are getting away with murder.”
In Congress, meanwhile, Politico Morning Energy reports that Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) is in line to take over the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee if his party retains majority control of the Senate. That would put the top two committee seats in the hands of the country’s top two coal-producing states, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in position as ranking Democrat.
With Senate control an open question until Georgia completes two run-off elections January 5, InsideClimate News says support for fossil fuels is a clear dividing line in one of the races, between Republican David Purdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. Perdue “has been among the biggest supporters of Trump’s agenda to promote fossil fuels and dismiss concerns about climate change,” InsideClimate writes. Ossoff “says the climate is changing in devastating ways. He has not endorsed the Green New Deal, but he has called for a major infrastructure program that includes clean energy, energy efficiency, and helping Georgia farm and coastal communities adapt.”
The Guardian adds that the fossil lobby is among the interest groups with the most on the line, as Trump’s desperate effort to hold on to power and as his claims of voter fraud in the early November vote veer from the futile to the pathetic.
“The longer the defeated president flirts with a coup, the more the oil and gas industry must take a share of the blame,” the paper states. “Fossil fuel firms are among the biggest donors to the defeated U.S. president and the Republican party leaders who have endorsed his legal challenge to overturn the election result.” And “they also have the most to lose if Joe Biden carries out his campaign promise to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and enact a $2-trillion Green New Deal that would make wind, solar, and other clean technologies far cheaper than petroleum.”
But much of the advice Biden seems to be receiving reinforces the initial sense that he can move quickly and achieve a lot, on climate change and a list of interlocking issues and crises, with or without Senate support. “No Senate? No problem, progressive group tells Biden,” Politico headlined last week.
New Consensus, a think tank led by a former chief of staff to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), acknowledged it would be great if Democrats could tip the two Senate seats early next year, and that it might be appealing to Biden to look for bipartisan compromise on the overlapping crises the new administration will confront. But in a memo, the group argues “that Biden could team up with the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department to provide trillions of dollars of low-interest loans to build the ‘industries of tomorrow’ and help small businesses suffering because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Politico says—whether Senate Republicans get behind it or not.
“The plan we’ve just outlined, again, can be pursued with or without formal legislation,” the memo states. “Should that not happen, as you know, the nation does not have the luxury of waiting for such perks before tackling its most urgent and indeed ‘existentially’ compelling needs. What can legally be done must quickly be done.”
Senate Democrats are also calling on Biden to lean heavily on the executive authority of the White House “to advance goals such as tackling climate change, relieving student debt, and creating a more progressive immigration system,” NBC News reports. “The push for executive action is also an attempt to nudge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) not to stonewall Biden’s agenda, by dangling the prospect of going around Congress, as President Donald Trump often did with Republican support.”
“The president-elect, beginning on January 20, should act as aggressively as possible to reverse the effects of the four years of Donald Trump, and to advance a more positive and effective agenda to make the United States the leader in fighting the climate crisis,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).
“I think President Biden has significant executive power,” added Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). “And anybody who doubts it? Look at his predecessor.”