Campaign Promises, Cabinet and Senate Leadership Put Climate at Centre of Biden Agenda
Opinion & Analysis
When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are sworn in later today as the 46th president and 49th vice-president of the United States, they’ll take office with a raft of campaign promises and a team cabinet nominees and committee chairs that hold the potential to deliver fast, decisive action on the climate crisis.
News reports over the weekend indicated that Biden will open a “10-day blitz” of executive orders later today with Day One measures to rescind the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and bring his country back into the 2015 Paris Agreement. And in a speech last Thursday, he promised early action on a key plank of his election platform—an ambitious infrastructure and work force training program with strong green emphasis, aimed at rebooting an economy deeply shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic and the incompetent response from the previous occupant of the White House.
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Citing independent analysis by Moody’s Investors Service, Biden said his Build Back Better Recovery Plan will create more than 18 million jobs while making “historic investments in infrastructure and manufacturing, innovation, research and development, and clean energy.” Along with a US$1.9-trillion pandemic relief bill, he called the measure a “two-step plan to build a bridge to the other side of the crises we face and to a better, stronger, more secure America.”
Climate at the Centre
Biden has signalled repeatedly that climate change will be a top priority for his administration—that his climate plan will be his economic recovery plan will be (at least a big part of) his health plan. Last week, incoming National Economic Council Director Brian Deese confirmed that new technology investments to solve the climate crisis will be at the top of the new government’s job creation agenda, Reuters reports.
“I think what you are going to see across the president-elect’s rescue-and-recovery strategy is an approach that puts solving the climate crisis at the centre of creating jobs,” Deese said.
“We need to undertake a strategy that couples investment…with clear certainty for the market, so that we can pull the massive quantities of private capital that we ultimately will need,” he added, suggesting that clarity on environmental standards will trigger trillions of dollars in investment and create millions of jobs.
Deese also acknowledged that rejoining the Paris Agreement later today is “just the first” step in bringing the U.S. back into the process of ratcheting up countries’ carbon reduction targets. “Part of…our diplomatic strategy and our economic strategy has to be to work with other countries to push them, push their ambition, even as we have to demonstrate our ability to come back on the stage and show leadership on this issue that has been absent for the last couple of years,” he said.
While Biden’s transition team is already warning that Trump-era program and budget cuts and staff losses on the climate file have gone even deeper than they feared, multiple news reports point to a swift pivot. Last week, White House climate envoy John Kerry announced a senior staff team that draws heavily on past experience in the Obama administration, including veteran negotiators Susan Biniaz and possibly Jonathan Pershing, Politico reports. Attention is focusing on US$40 billion in unused loan authority, dating back to the country’s last economic crash in 2009, that Biden’s Department of Energy will be able to use to jump-start the new administration’s climate and infrastructure program.
And even an announcement on a Day One overhaul of U.S. immigration law included a nod to climate change impacts, with “a heavy focus on addressing the root causes of migration from Central America,” the Washington Post writes.
A Climate Cabinet
As 2020 drew to a close, Biden was earning positive reviews for his nominees to the key cabinet posts responsible for climate policy, including White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, and Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory.
“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 Bill Clinton-era climate specialist Paul Bledsoe, now an advisor to the Progressive Policy Institute.
“The climate movement isn’t used to this feeling,” tweeted UC Santa Barbara climate researcher Dr. Leah Stokes. “Damn it feels good to win.”
News reports since have mostly reinforced that feeling.
“I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet, and all of our protected land,” declared Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribal nation in New Mexico, in her acceptance speech as the first Indigenous person appointed to lead an agency responsible for a huge swath of U.S. public lands. “This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former Secretary of the Interior once proclaimed it his goal to, quote, ‘civilize or exterminate’ us. I’m a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology.”
Haaland told The Guardian that representation and diversity matter, Grist reports. “We don’t need people who all have the same perspective,” she said. “We need people from various parts of the country, who’ve been raised in different ways, who bring that history and culture with them, and employ what we’ve learnt from their parents and grandparents, and bring all of that to bear in the decisions that we make.”
As Energy Secretary, Granholm “could mean trouble for Alberta’s oilpatch,” CBC headlined earlier this month. “My commitment to clean energy was forged in the fire,” the former Michigan governor said in December, referring to her state’s tortuous recovery after the 2008 economic crash. “Clean energy remains among the most promising jobs and economic growth sectors in the world.”
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, a carbon tax and dividend supporter whose involvement in climate policy dates back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is planning to form a climate team within her highly influential agency, in what Politico reported yesterday as a “victory for advocates”. She told the Senate Finance Committee the new Treasury “hub” would “examine financial system risks arising from climate change and on related tax policy incentives. She also intends to appoint a ‘very senior-level’ official to lead climate efforts,” the news story states.
Last month, Smart Cities Dive reported on the juggling act then-Boston mayor Marty Walsh was performing as he took over the chair of Climate Mayors, which describes itself as a “bipartisan, peer-to-peer network” with more than 470 members in cities across the U.S. A month later, that problem is solved. He’s Biden’s new nominee as Labor Secretary.
“Climate action has been a top priority for Walsh since he became Boston’s mayor in 2014, leading that city to invest in a number of initiatives including a zero net carbon standard for buildings, an urban forest plan, and a recently-unveiled zero-emission vehicle roadmap,” the profile states.
While U.S. progressives have been nervous about Obama-era agriculture secretary and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack returning to the agency under Biden, Inside Climate News says he’ll be part of a climate plan looking for “buy-in from farmers who are often skeptical about global warming.” The farm sector “has not historically received the sustained political attention of other agencies that play a role in climate policy,” the Biden transition team said in a policy roadmap released in November, but will become “a lynchpin of the next administration’s climate strategy.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland—who was famously denied a Senate hearing for 293 days after then-president Barack Obama nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016—brings “rare environmental chops” to his new assignment, writes Bloomberg Law. He’s spent more than two decades as an appeals judge on the DC Circuit, which “carries a heavy load of environmental cases”. Past attorney general nominees of any political stripe have had “nothing comparable on environmental and administrative law” in their past work experience, said Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan H. Adler.
With the new administration setting out to unwind four years of relentless environmental deregulation under Trump, Garland’s past experience “really puts him in a unique position to understand what kind of cases are going to withstand scrutiny at the DC Circuit and more broadly,” added Benjamin Driscoll, head of the judiciary program at the League of Conservation Voters.
The State of Play in Senate
Despite the awesome power routinely ascribed to the U.S. presidency, the White House can’t pass or fund durable policy without support from the Senate and the House of Representatives. That’s why it was a crucial moment when Democrats won a razor-thin Senate majority in two run-off elections in Georgia January 5.
With each party holding 50 seats, ties will be broken by Harris in her role as Senate President. It’s a dynamic that calls for a degree of collegiality and negotiation that has long been missing from the institution that fancies itself the “world’s greatest deliberative body”—at least since 2009, when now-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declared it his sole priority to limit Obama to a single term as president. (Which worked out about as well for him as the Senate run-offs.)
The shift to a Democratic majority brings a new group of Senate committee chairs, with the power to set agendas and rule on procedural points that can be crucial to any piece of legislation. One of those incoming chairs, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), “has been Democrats’ most fossil fuel-friendly senator,” Inside Climate headlines, remembered for shooting a hole through his party’s last climate bill in a 2010 campaign ad. He’ll take the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the country’s second-biggest coal state, becomes ranking Republican.
“Usually, discussions of climate change are dominated by people on the East and West coasts of this country,” Ted Boettner, a West Virginia-based senior researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, told ICN. “But they are going to have to drive through Sen. Manchin to get anything done.”
The West Virginia senator “has made a career out of defending his state’s coal industry, and he promotes a regional petrochemical buildout,” Inside Climate writes. But he’s “no ideologue. People who have followed his career closely note that he’s moved to where he no longer supports blowing up mountains to mine for coal and accepts mainstream climate science.”
He also “likes to make deals, has friends who care about the climate in both parties, and says he wants to bring Democrats and Republicans together around a cleaner energy future,” ICN adds. “Still, his ascendance could be the latest political reality check for Americans who have for years wanted Congress to adopt major legislation to tackle the climate crisis, but so far have been left waiting.”
Last week, Manchin told Politico that many West Virginians “feel like returning Vietnam veterans” as the country moves off coal, but downplayed the power position he’s moving into.
“Well, let me just tell you about power: I’ve been around long enough—state legislator, I’ve been secretary of state of my state, governor of my state, now senator for 10 years,” he said. “I’ve watched people that either had power or thought they had it and abuse it. One thing about power is how you use it. And I can tell you, whatever position I’m in, people know me. Nothing’s gonna change. I am who I am.”
The incoming chair of the Senate Commerce, Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), has already signalled his plans to map out a new surface transportation bill for adoption this fall, replacing earlier legislation negotiated by the Trump administration, Politico reports. “Senate control gives Democrats the opportunity to significantly build on that bill’s climate title and other key priorities,” a spokesperson said.
A week earlier, Bloomberg CityLab said transit and climate advocates were hoping for “big changes in U.S. transportation policies” in light of the Georgia Senate results.
The powerful Senate Budget Committee will be helmed by none other than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), to the consternation of Republicans like former South Carolina governor and Trump cabinet member Nikki Haley. The two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination said he plans to “push through a robust and deficit-financed economic stimulus package” once Biden is in office, the New York Times writes.
“Underline the word aggressive,” Sanders said. “Start out there.”
The Times cites climate as one of the areas where Sanders is “expected to exert heavy influence”, and explains the congressional process of “budget reconciliation” that allows a party to pass legislation with a simple majority of votes, rather than having to troll for a super-majority of 60. “The nature of the process effectively gives Mr. Sanders a leading role in deciding how expansive—and expensive—Mr. Biden’s ambitions for new taxes and spending will be.”
At the Senate Banking Committee, incoming chair Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is a long-time fan of climate action, racial justice, and “the dignity of work,” the Times reports. He told E&E News he will “demand and push regulators, the administration, and the entire financial services industry to account for climate change’s impact on the economy”.
Poor Prospects for Trump Enablers
While Democrats consolidate power in the White House and Congress, former Trump enablers hoping for a soft landing in corporate jobs may be in for a rough ride, after their now-former boss incited the January 6 riot that led to five deaths and put legislators’ lives in imminent danger, leaving the Capitol in a shambles and the country and the rest of the world traumatized. In the aftermath, U.S. fossils were decidedly skittish about hiring former administration personnel.
“Trump’s goading his supporters to attack the Capitol to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory has tarnished many of his energy staffers’ resumes—even among oil and gas companies long accustomed to taking heat from Democrats, climate change activists, and investor groups,” Politico Morning Energy reported last week. “The outlook for finding a job in the [fossil] energy industry was already bleak, but last week’s violence may have put a stain on people who chose to remain with the administration.”
“We have discussed this explicitly,” said one fossil executive. “We’re not going to hire any Trump people. We’re just not going to do it.”
And that unidentified fossil company wasn’t alone.
“Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie,” wrote Editor Randall Lane, in an extraordinary warning to any businesses that might be inclined to hire a former Trump communications staffer. “We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet.”
He even went so far as to name names. “Lane called out by name Trump’s press secretaries Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham, and Kayleigh McEnany, as well as Trump’s former White House counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, a group to which he referred as ‘Trump’s fellow fabulists’,” Business Insider reports.
“The easiest way for American democracy to recover from the insurrection, he wrote, is to ‘create repercussions for those who don’t follow the civic norms’.”