While environmentalists might despair that major climate legislation, such as economywide carbon pricing or a Green New Deal, isn't likely to pass, the new administration can still accomplish a lot. President Barack Obama's mistake on climate — trying to get a bill through Congress in his first term and not taking up executive action until his second term — is one his former vice president has signaled he will not repeat.
After the EPA, the most important agency for climate policy is the Interior Department. It controls 483 million acres and oversees U.S. coastal waters. Its mission is to manage natural resources, and historically it has used that writ to permit ranching, logging, mining and drilling by private corporations. Because of loopholes, subsidies and a lack of competitive bidding, taxpayers receive billions of dollars less in royalties and leasing fees than they should from those companies, according to reports by the Center for American Progress, Greenpeace and other organizations. Most important, these programs do not charge fossil fuel companies for the social costs of carbon pollution. More than 40 percent of coal mined in the United States comes from federal land, and in 2016, the Obama administration hit pause on coal leasing there, pending a review of the program. A year later, under President Donald Trump, federal coal leasing was restarted and the review was shelved.
In 2020, Biden campaigned on a pledge to end new leasing for fossil fuel extraction in federal lands and waters, and he has picked a progressive interior secretary, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), to implement it. The Trump administration issued a last-minute spree of leases to oil companies for drilling rights, and although Biden cannot undo these, he can remove unsold parcels from the auction block.
The Interior Department could also change policies to fortify carbon sinks — the natural environments that reduce global warming by absorbing carbon emissions — such as restoring wetlands or instituting rules to prevent logging in national forests. It could promote wind and solar leasing on federal land and offshore.
While Interior can combat climate change in rural America, two other federal departments — Transportation and Housing and Urban Development — can address it in urban and suburban areas. Obama established an interagency office called the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which enabled coordination between HUD, the Department of Transportation and the EPA to ensure that they were investing in ecologically efficient programs. For example, instead of building a housing project in a transit desert or constructing a highway to nowhere, the agencies began giving preference to projects that would have a lower carbon footprint, such as transit-oriented, walkable urban developments. Those agencies can also favor low-carbon projects when doling out grants. For example, DOT can require more bicycle and pedestrian access on some federally funded roads. "Everything DOT does to make it safer, more welcoming to move around outside your car is a climate project," says Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, an advocacy organization promoting progressive transportation and land use policy.
The Trump White House did not have an Office of Sustainable Communities, and Trump administration agencies pivoted away from Obama's integrated approach to infrastructure investments, reverting to formulas that ignored sustainability and directed more money to sprawling development. But sustainability is easy enough to revive. When assessing projects, for instance, HUD could define "affordability" to include transportation costs, not just the cost of housing. "Instead of pushing affordable housing to remote locations where land is cheap, but everyone will need a car to live there, HUD could recognize that isn't really affordable" and shift resources to transit-accessible locations, Osborne said.
In some ways, the most important climate job of all is secretary of state. Just as Kerry, in that role, led global climate diplomacy efforts, multilaterally through the Paris agreement and bilaterally with other large economies such as China's, Biden's nominee to run the State Department, Antony Blinken, will do the same. Biden already rejoined the Paris agreement. Climate hawks hope he will go even further to put climate change at the center of American foreign policy, for example by incorporating climate action into trade agreements, such as making any future free-trade deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership contingent on stronger environmental safeguards in member nations. Jobs like ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. trade representative could also be instrumental in global climate diplomacy.
Even the Defense Department's work has climate implications: Analysts there have foreseen threats to national security from climate change, including wars over natural resources and flooding on bases. And the U.S. military has a large carbon footprint. "If it were a country, it would have been the world's 55th largest greenhouse gas emitter, with emissions larger than Portugal, Sweden or Denmark," political scientist Neta C. Crawford wrote in 2019. The next secretary of defense, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, could order the military to dramatically reduce the 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide it emits, through measures such as installing solar farms on bases and replacing gas-guzzlers like Humvees (which get four to eight miles per gallon) with more fuel-efficient vehicles.
And at the EPA, task No. 1 for Administrator-designate Michael Regan will be reinstating the regulations on carbon emissions from power plants that Trump repealed and setting more ambitious targets than the agency originally did, since the decline of coal relative to natural gas and renewable energy has made greater emissions reductions possible. Other possible moves include tightening rules on the conventional pollutants that come from coal burning, such as mercury, and imposing strict new limits on methane emissions from fracking and on tailpipe emissions from cars.
Ironically, the Energy Department — as former secretary Rick Perry was surprised to learn — has little to do with the U.S. energy portfolio and mainly is focused on safeguarding the nuclear stockpile. Nonetheless, incoming secretary Jennifer Granholm is expected to accelerate research and development on clean sources of energy and other essential technologies, such as longer-lasting batteries for electric vehicles.
One exception to Biden's generally pro-climate picks is former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, nominated to return to the job he held under Obama. Vilsack has been working for the dairy lobby, and animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases. The Sierra Club and other leading environmental advocacy groups have come out against him.
Based on Biden's other Cabinet choices thus far, though, it seems his administration's climate achievements will be limited less by a lack of ambition than by outside constraints. The largest is that Republicans in Congress will try to block any effort to dedicate new taxes or spending to climate action.
Some things can be done directly through executive authority, such as rescinding a key permit for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. But under laws like the Clean Air Act, most administrative action isn't as simple as signing a proclamation. The federal rulemaking process is full of procedures, such as public comment periods, that can delay new policies for years. In the meantime, the last administration's actions are still taking effect. And any rule that costs polluters a penny is likely to be challenged in court.
A lack of new legislation will probably hamper climate efforts in other agencies. For example, most of the money doled out by DOT goes to states via formulas that end up building new highways. And the gasoline tax hasn't kept pace with inflation, meaning federal transportation investment is underfunded. With a progressive majority in Congress to pass an ambitious transportation bill, the federal government could discourage driving and favor mass transit by raising the gas tax and revising transportation spending formulas. Without that, Transportation Secretary-designate Pete Buttigieg will be able to direct spending on only a minority of projects, through some competitive grant programs. (At a confirmation hearing this past week, Buttigieg suggested raising the gas tax, but then a spokesman said that wasn't under consideration.) But he can still set stronger fuel-efficiency standards and tweak some rules to promote alternatives to private cars. His newly announced deputy, Polly Trottenberg, focused on this as New York City's transportation commissioner.
Climate change is an economywide problem requiring economywide solutions. If the Biden administration thinks about it in those holistic terms, it can still accomplish a lot to address on the biggest crisis facing the planet.