A year ago, amid a crowded Democratic presidential primary, no one would have mistaken Joe Biden as the field’s biggest climate crusader.
Youth activists gave his plan to combat climate change a failing grade. Some in his own party wondered whether a self-described moderate could embrace policies bold enough to move the nation past the fossil fuel era.
But in recent days, the president-elect has demonstrated that he is prepared to deliver on his promise to pursue a more ambitious environmental agenda than any of his predecessors — one that aspires to rapidly shrink the nation’s carbon emissions, give voice to the vulnerable communities hit hardest by pollution and create solid jobs in industries helping to create a greener future.
“Folks, we’re in a crisis,” Biden said Saturday in announcing a diverse team of advisers focused on the problem. “Just like we need a unified national response to covid-19, we need a unified national response to climate change. We need to meet this moment with the urgency it demands.”
For Biden, the relentless pressure from activists within his party was not the only motivation to act aggressively. A warming planet has made the issue increasingly hard to ignore, as the litany of climate-related catastrophes has grown with each passing year.
At the current rate, Earth is on pace to warm more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, a threat that Biden has called “existential” and one of his central priorities — even amid the devastating coronavirus pandemic and a crippled economy.
Although his environmental picks won widespread praise — including the first Native American interior secretary and two former Cabinet members as White House climate advisers — it is clear that the Democratic climate policies of the past won’t satisfy many allies. They want Biden to take bolder steps to alter the nation’s long-term trajectory, instead of “Obama 2.0.”
Despite President Barack Obama’s support for climate action, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), it involved nowhere near the political determination required to curb climate change.
“After eight years, we were left with nothing. No statute, no regulation, no treaty,” Whitehouse said. “A whole different order of magnitude of seriousness and determination is required. The placid and often disinterested approach of those days is no longer an option.”
Already, Biden’s team is sketching out executive orders aimed at mobilizing the entire federal government to combat climate change and environmental injustice, according to three people familiar with his plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have not yet been announced.
Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris climate accord on his first day as president, and convene a climate summit of world leaders within his first 100 days in office. He has insisted that he will create a more ambitious national target for cutting emissions that would “put the country on a sustainable path to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050.″
At the same time, Biden plans to start a new round of negotiations between the federal government, the U.S. auto industry and California officials to significantly improve the fuel efficiency of cars, pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles — the largest source of the nation’s emissions. He will expedite federal permits for offshore wind projects planned along the Eastern Seaboard, and seek to stop the expansion of drilling on public land.
He has promised an unprecedented focus on environmental inequity, promising to invest 40 percent of clean energy funding in historically disadvantaged communities and ensure wider access to everything from safe drinking water to sustainable jobs in neighborhoods that have long lacked both. He has proposed creating a “Civilian Climate Corps” to help make communities less vulnerable to wildfires and floods.
“We will be driven by our convictions that every person in our great country has the right to clean air, clean water and a healthier life, no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin or the community that they live in,” Michael S. Regan, Biden’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, said on Saturday.
Although he has placed moderates elsewhere in his Cabinet, Biden’s environmental picks have been more progressive. His selection of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to head the Interior Department sparked an outpouring of support from Indigenous communities and environmental justice advocates. Obama administration veteran Brenda Mallory, an environmental lawyer and activist, will be the first Black chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality in its 50-year history. And Regan, who as North Carolina’s top environmental official has worked to clean up toxic coal ash near low-income areas, would be the first Black man to head the EPA.
Several picks that traditionally don’t focus on the environment — including treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen, Transportation secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg and National Economic Council director Brian Deese — have called for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
And in choosing former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and former secretary of state John F. Kerry as his top domestic and international climate advisers, respectively, the incoming president has surrounded himself with officials who view the Earth’s warming as a crisis.
Although Biden has vowed to move quickly and forcefully, his agenda faces obstacles.
He will be able to make some key changes with the stroke of a pen. But other efforts will undoubtedly face legal challenges that must wind through a federal court system now stacked with Trump appointees. And the most ambitious goals to curb climate change and fund clean-energy technologies will need the approval of a deeply divided Congress.
Harvard environmental policy professor John Holdren, who served as Obama’s top science adviser, said in an interview that the single most important task Biden could undertake early on is to begin rebuilding the corps of scientists and other experts who focus on climate and energy work across the government. He said many agencies, including the EPA and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, have been “hollowed out” of such expertise.
“There’s nothing as important to getting things done in a progressive administration as having a small army of the right people across the departments and agencies, working in common cause,” Holdren said. “That was the founding principle, if you will, in the Obama administration, and I think it’s going to be a founding principle in the Biden-Harris administration.”
Although President Trump has managed to finalize a startling number of environmental rollbacks — nearly 140 and counting — many remain mired in legal challenges. According to a Washington Post analysis, nearly 70 Trump administration actions, on issues including water pollution and weakened energy efficiency standards, face ongoing litigation.
Under Biden, Justice Department lawyers could ask judges to throw out some of those challenges if they make clear that the government no longer plans to contest particular lawsuits, effectively ending some of them.
In an interview before Biden nominated him to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that he and other Democratic attorneys general have been compiling a list of administrative actions that Biden could take quickly to reverse Trump policies, as well as a detailed accounting of pending legal challenges, including key dates by which briefs must be filed.
“It’s a long list,” Becerra said with a laugh, adding: “We’re making sure this new administration doesn’t get blindsided by some action the Trump administration had undertaken or was launching. We’re hoping to help identify land mines.”
In some instances, environmental advocacy groups are already trying to chip away at Trump’s environmental legacy, even as they press Biden to go further.
Although withdrawing drilling leases is notoriously difficult — one fight in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine area over a handful of leases dates to the early 1980s — attorneys from Earthjustice have successfully challenged hundreds of leases in the West on the grounds that Trump officials did not adequately analyze their effects on groundwater and wildlife.
In one case involving the imperiled sage grouse, for example, a federal judge has invalidated at least 381 leases, spanning more than 245,000 acres, that the Bureau of Land Management issued under Trump. The group is now challenging an additional 628 leases on 1,013,587 acres.
“I’m pretty optimistic about our ability to do something about the Trump leasing-Palooza,” said Drew Caputo, Earthjustice’s vice president for public land and wildlife.
Biden intends to restore the diminished boundaries of two Utah national monuments, although legal experts are divided on whether he should issue a new proclamation or whether the administration should issue a legal opinion saying Trump didn’t have the right to shrink them.
Still, Biden’s climate-focused wish list will face plenty of opposition. Some industries, particularly those that rely on fossil fuel production, are likely to oppose any far-reaching new environmental regulations. Republican attorneys general are eager to sue Biden if he oversteps his executive authority — an issue that led to numerous legal fights with Obama.
And even though control of the Senate remains unresolved, Republicans on Capitol Hill remain wary of any government mandates to reduce U.S. emissions.
“There are ways we can protect our environment without punishing our economy. Free market innovation — not government taxation or heavy-handed regulations — is the best way to deal with climate change,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “We have passed bipartisan bills that will promote carbon capture technologies, advanced nuclear reactors, and reduce emissions, while allowing our economy to grow.”
Some industries, meanwhile, are more inclined to forge deals with the incoming administration.
Mitch Bainwol, who headed a major auto industry trade group before becoming chief government relations officer for Ford Motor Co., had been trying to get the Trump administration and California to compromise on tailpipe emission standards. But the two sides have remained at odds, and the administration’s push to weaken fuel standards while trying to revoke California’s right to set its own air pollution rules fractured the auto market.
Biden plans to restore California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act within days of taking office, according to three people briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America agreed in July 2019 to boost their fleets’ average fuel efficiency to nearly 50 miles per gallon by model year 2026. That agreement could be a template for an industry-wide agreement, Bainwol said, while they negotiate longer-term targets.
“We all want regulatory certainty,” he said. “Everyone has an interest in figuring this out sooner rather than later.”
Fred Krupp, president of the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview that support for moving the U.S. auto fleet to all-electric “has more potential for bipartisan cooperation as part of a recovery act than almost anything else.”
Lawmakers from both parties also have an incentive to back the manufacturing of advanced batteries, he added, which could further Biden’s goal of curbing transportation emissions. “This could be a huge boon for jobs in the heart of the country, and we need jobs there,” Krupp said.
Striking a broad agreement with the power sector, which Biden has pledged to make carbon-free by 2035, could be more difficult. Utilities are already phasing out coal-fired plants and expanding their sources of renewable electricity, but not as quickly as the president-elect has outlined. And the EPA’s effort under Obama to impose stringent carbon cuts was temporarily stopped by the Supreme Court before the Trump administration reversed it.
Still, EPA could limit traditional pollutants that could pressure companies to shut down fossil fuel-powered operations anyway. John Walke, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Air, Climate and Clean Energy Program, said the agency could tighten restrictions of toxic ash and water discharge from coal plants, and reassess whether the cancer risk associated with such plants’ emissions justifies new pollution controls.
Using a 2007 law requiring all new and major renovations of federal buildings to have net-zero carbon pollution by 2030, the new administration can spur a wave of environmentally friendly construction.
Some Trump administration policies, however, will take years to undo. Justin Schwab, who served as EPA’s deputy general counsel from 2017 to 2019, said that the case law established during recent years makes clear that delaying or unwinding a regulation can’t be rushed.
“The next administration will also likely find there’s no quick way to roll back its predecessor’s legacy,” Schwab said.
Jody Freeman, a Harvard environmental law professor and former Obama climate adviser, agreed that Biden must temper expectations, which don’t always match the bureaucratic reality.
“If you get a few major greenhouse gas rules finished before the midterms, that would be a major accomplishment,” she said. “But you can’t push them too fast. There’s this balancing act, going fast enough to get things done, but not so fast that you create legal risk.”
At the same time, Biden will face unrelenting pressure from the left to move quickly, even if the new administration lacks the votes in Congress to lock in durable changes.
Xiye Bastida, 18, who is based in New York City and co-founded the Re-Earth Initiative during the coronavirus pandemic, said that although she and other young activists are encouraged by many of Biden’s appointments, the nation needs to move faster.
“We definitely want more ambition on the deadline,” Bastida said, adding that the world must make deep cuts to keep the planet from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). “We cannot spend the next seven years talking about what we need to do. We need to start doing it.”
It’s a pressure the new president is likely to feel from the moment he takes office until the moment he leaves the White House.
“The glass is simultaneously half-empty and half-full,” Holdren said. “There’s a lot he can do quite quickly, but what he can do quickly is not nearly enough.”