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‘Damn It Feels Good to Win’: Historic Diversity, Serious Climate Expertise as Biden Cabinet Takes Shape

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As U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet and senior White House appointments take shape, a picture is emerging of an administration that will be keenly focused on climate action and environmental justice—not only in the key portfolios traditionally responsible for environment and natural resources, but in important related areas from treasury to health, from transportation to trade.

“The climate movement isn’t used to this feeling,” tweeted [1] UC Santa Barbara climate researcher Dr. Leah Stokes. “Damn it feels good to win.”

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Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have repeatedly promised [3] an historically diverse administration that “looks like America”, while simultaneously appointing old policy hands with experience from the Obama and Bill Clinton administrations to project an air of stability after a traumatic four years of relentless Oval Office chaos. At the moment, the balance appears to be working, with a series of announcements this week that combine some historic firsts for diversity with serious expertise in environmental policy and regulation.

Click here [4] for our Special Report on climate and the U.S. election.

“Taken together, Biden’s picks emphasize economic as well as environmental experience, reflecting the need to jump-start the ailing economy through clean energy and infrastructure investments,” said [5] Clinton-era climate specialist Paul Bledsoe, now an advisor to the Progressive Policy Institute.

Veteran climate journalist Emily Atkin captured [6] some of the Twitter buzz from U.S. campaigners in yesterday’s edition of her Heated newsletter [subs here [7] and, c’mon, what are you waiting for??].

“I think @GinaNRDC as climate czar is an inspired choice—she knows bureaucracies, and she knows the issues, and she’s funny and tough and I’m pretty sure she understands we’re out of time,” 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben said [8] of incoming White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy. “And Ali Zaidi as deputy is no slouch either.”

“@GinaNRDC is a great choice for climate czar,” agreed [9] Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell. “She’s tough and funny and totally gets the urgency of the crisis.”

“The next Secretary of Energy has said, ‘we ought to be doing everything we possibly can to keep fossil fuel energy in the ground and developing the renewable side,’” tweeted [10] Fossil Fuel Media Director and #CleanCreatives instigator Jamie Henn, after Biden appointed ex-Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm as his nominee. “This is a very good thing.”

“YESSSS! @JoeBiden please appoint @RepDebHaaland as Interior Secretary,” tweeted [11] marine biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a couple of days before Biden did exactly that. “She’d be the first ever Native American cabinet member, bring integrity and leadership to the agency, protect our public lands, and address the climate crisis.”

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” tweeted Haaland, a House of Representatives member from New Mexico, after her long-rumoured nomination was confirmed. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”

Biden’s announcements yesterday also included Michael Regan, head of the North Carolina Council on Environmental Quality, as the first Black man to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and veteran environmental lawyer Brenda Mallory as the first Black woman to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality. His earlier nominee for transportation secretary, former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, would the first openly LGBTQ member of a U.S. federal cabinet.

“This brilliant, tested, trailblazing team will be ready on day one to confront the existential threat of climate change with a unified national response rooted in science and equity,” Biden said in a statement yesterday. “They share my belief that we have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water, and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms.”

“While the picks represent a concession to progressives in Biden’s party, who publicly campaigned for an American Indian at the helm of Interior, they were also chosen to personify Biden’s plans to address the long-standing burdens low-income and minority communities have shouldered when it comes to dirty air and water,” the Washington Post writes [12]. “All three nominees will play a central role in realizing his promises to combat climate change, embrace green energy, and address environmental racism.”

“We have individuals coming to these positions who have seen what it’s like on the other side, in terms of communities that have suffered,” said U.S. environmental justice pioneer Bob Bullard. “They have been fighting for justice. Now they are in a position to make change and make policy. That, to me, has the potential to be transformative.”

• Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, will take over a “171-year-old institution that has often had a fraught relationship with the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes,” the Post says.

“At 15, she worked at a bakery, and later attended law school with the help of student loans and food stamps, occasionally experiencing homelessness as a single mother,” the paper writes. “Now, after serving a single term in Congress, she will oversee a department that manages roughly one-fifth of land in the U.S.,” after promising “to transform the department from a champion of fossil fuel development into a promoter of renewable energy and policies to mitigate climate change.”

• As EPA administrator, Regan “would play a central role in realizing Biden’s promises to combat climate change, embrace green energy, and address environmental racism,” the Post writes [13], after a four-year span in which Trump reversed or rolled back more than 130 environmental protections and regulations. “He also would be responsible for crafting fuel efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and trucks, overseeing emissions from power plants and oil and gas facilities, and cleaning up the country’s most polluted sites.” 

As North Dakota’s top environmental regulator since 2017, “he forged a tough multibillion-dollar settlement over a coal ash cleanup with Duke Energy, established an environmental justice advisory board, and reached across the political divide to work with the state’s Republican legislature.”

“Right away, he prioritized climate change, environmental justice, and coal ash cleanup,” said Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the U.S. Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter.

“Regan realizes that America’s environmental laws and policies must, first and foremost, protect the most vulnerable,” another transition observer told the Post. “Growing up with asthma in eastern North Carolina, Regan saw toxic pollution, agricultural waste, and environmental destruction being concentrated near communities of colour and low-income communities.”

• McCarthy, currently president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, was EPA administrator during former president Barack Obama’s second term. She “spearheaded the Obama administration’s efforts to curb greenhouse gases from power plants and vehicles,” the Post recalls [14], and will now be responsible “for implementing Biden’s plan to weave climate policy throughout the federal government.”

As head of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, “McCarthy will oversee a broad interagency effort to leverage the federal government’s powers to cut greenhouse gas emissions. While traditional players such as EPA and the Interior and Energy departments will regulate climate pollutants directly, departments including Treasury, Transportation, and Agriculture will also use policy to try to tackle climate change.” McCarthy’s deputy, Ali Zaidi, is currently state deputy secretary for energy and environment in New York.

“We have high expectations for McCarthy in the White House,” said Greenpeace USA senior climate campaigner Lisa Ramsden. “Voters gave Joe Biden a clear mandate to boldly pursue solutions to racial injustice and the climate crisis.”

• Granholm’s appointment to the energy portfolio signals the Biden administration’s seriousness about electric vehicle development, the Post says [15].

“The relationship that Granholm, the former two-term governor of Michigan, has with Detroit automakers may prove crucial to the incoming administration’s effort to cut climate-warming emissions spewing from the millions of cars and trucks on American roads,” the paper writes. “Biden, the son of a car salesman, pitched no- and low-emissions vehicles not only as a way to combat climate change, but also to create domestic manufacturing jobs. To preserve Michigan’s industrial base undercut by foreign competition, Granholm has also become a vocal proponent of building electric vehicles at home.”

“She knows the automobile industry intimately,” said Dan Reicher, a former assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy in the Clinton administration. “That will be a major focus of a department and of a country that is trying to bring down emissions.”  

• Mallory served as general counsel to the Council on Environmental Quality in the Obama administration, and is now director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). In her new role, she’ll “play a central role in more robust scrutiny of the environmental consequences of agency decisions on oil drilling, gas pipelines, and other projects,” Bloomberg Green reports [5]

“Under Biden, the council is likely to rewrite a rule governing agency reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, following Trump administration changes limiting the scope of the analysis as well as what projects warrant the scrutiny.” In a post last year for the American College of Environmental Lawyers, she argued that NEPA is supposed to foster government decisions that take environmental consequences into account, and is “not intended to be a process for rubber-stamping government decisions.”

“President Biden is going to be taking over at a time where there is just unprecedented destruction at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency,” she added [16] in a recent video on the SELC website. “You can’t just walk in on day one and roll back the rollbacks. Undoing the actions of an administration takes time, and they take a lot of effort.”

• Buttigieg, one of Biden’s rivals in the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year, received the appointment as transportation secretary after progressives pushed back hard [17] against the president-elect’s plan to name combative former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as secretary.

“The Transportation Department helps oversee the nation’s highway system, planes, trains, and mass transit, and is poised to play a key role early in the incoming administration,” The Associated Press reports [18]. Infrastructure spending sometimes shows up as a bipartisan issue in the U.S., the news agency notes, and “Biden has pledged to spend billions making major infrastructure improvements and on retrofitting initiatives that can help the U.S. battle climate change.”

With such a strong focus on green investment, “the DOT could effectively become the new Commerce Department, as infrastructure spending, smart cities construction, and the rollout of drone delivery programs take on increasing economic weight,” Axios adds [19]. “You’re talking about 20 to 25% of the economy,” Obama-era transportation secretary Ray LaHood told the publication.

• The administration’s focus on climate is also expected to get a strong push from the Treasury Department, where former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen received the nod [20] last week. 

Yellen “has already endorsed a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and urged countries to set up independent councils that can pursue aggressive climate policies without political interference,” Bloomberg Green reports [21]. “Advocates are appealing for her to go even further if confirmed, seizing her role as one of the most powerful people in finance to wield fiscal policy in the campaign against global warming.”

Those measures could include tighter regulation of oil and gas company finances under an existing law, the Dodd-Frank Act [22], up to and including requirements for fossil assets to be sold off.

“Yellen will have the power to help move trillions of dollars out of fossil fuels and trillions more into renewables,” said Fossil Free Media’s Jamie Henn. “She could do more for the Green New Deal than nearly any other cabinet position.”

• Biden’s nominee for health and human services (HHS) secretary is another climate hawk: Xavier Becerra, California’s first Latino attorney general, who filed more than 50 environmental lawsuits against the Trump administration, Grist reports [23]. Becerra’s first priority as secretary will be to lead the new administration’s strategy to gain the upper hand over a devastating COVID-19 pandemic that has raged out of control under Trump. 

But “once he’s done with that, Becerra could turn to an even trickier crisis: the public health effects of climate change,” the publication notes. “The Biden campaign hinted that it may be the first White House to address climate change as a public health issue,” and Grist has an initial list of suggestions for how Becerra can build on that commitment.

“The climate crisis is a threat multiplier set to exacerbate every existing public health disparity,” stated a recent report from Evergreen Action, a climate policy and advocacy group set up by former presidential campaign staffers to Washington Governor Jay Inslee. “HHS must treat climate like the health crisis that it is.”

• The U.S. solar industry is keeping an eye on Katherine Tai, Biden’s nominee as U.S. trade representative, to see how she handles Trump-era tariffs on imported solar panel components—an issue on which the industry itself has been split. The appointment is consistent with Biden’s “strong signals that he intends to be tough on China,” consultant Jeff Navin, a former energy department staffer during the Obama administration, told [24] Greentech Media.

Tai “knows China, and she knows enforcement, and that’s going to be helpful in making sure that American manufacturers and their workers are protected,” he said. “In terms of solar, she will vigorously enforce the rules that are on the books, and I wouldn’t think she would be in any hurry to wipe away existing rules…without putting something in place to protect manufacturing jobs.”

• Meanwhile, former secretary of state John Kerry, appointed [25] late last month as Biden’s international climate envoy, is promising to approach his new role in a way that balances “ambition” with “humility,” National Public Radio reports [26].

“We have to raise the ambition of every nation in the world in order to get this job done, and our task—my task specifically—will be to help negotiate that,” he said. But he acknowledged the assignment will be tougher after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, making it the only country ever to withdraw from the landmark 2015 deal.

“It’s simple for the United States to rejoin,” Kerry said, “but it’s not so simple for the United States to regain its credibility.” NPR has details on the issues Kerry expects to face as envoy.