with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Days before he is set to take office, Joe Biden is setting up a bigger White House climate team than any president before him.

As Juliet Eilperin and I report, the president-elect announced the planned hiring of more than a half-dozen new climate staffers to join his West Wing. The crew is drawn from the ranks of green groups, environmental justice advocates and former Democratic administration officials to grow an inner circle that will help him try to slash the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

And outside the White House, Biden plans to add one of the architects of Obama's plan for cutting emissions from the power sector to the Environmental Protection Agency, a sign of more environmental regulation to come. 

That team will be tasked with executing a wide-reaching plan to embed climate action across government agencies and in legislation on Capitol Hill. Biden has also pledged to address the disproportionate pollution burden carried by poor and minority neighborhoods.

Biden's incoming climate team is a mix of new faces and old hands.

The hires announced Thursday include David J. Hayes, who served as Interior deputy secretary under both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and will now be a special assistant to the president for climate policy. 

Hayes spearheaded Interior’s renewable energy development plans and its efforts to address climate change impacts in the Arctic under Obama, before joining the New York School of Law’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. From that perch, he helped organize several legal challenges by Democratic attorneys general to the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda.

"The role of farms, forests and public lands in clean energy production and climate protection has generally been underappreciated," said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate advisor, now at the Progressive Policy Institute. "The appointment of David Hayes signals that the Biden administration intends to make those issues more central."

Another is Cecilia Martinez, one of the country's most prominent environmental justice advocates. Martinez, who advised the transition team, will play a major role in tackling pollution disparities as senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

In an interview in July, Martinez said addressing the acute impact poor and minority neighborhoods often face from pollution needs to be “a central focus of CEQ.” The Biden administration’s initiative on environmental justice “needs to really have some teeth to it so that the different federal agencies not only develop their plans and collaborate, but there is accountability,” she added.

Janet McCabe, currently a law professor at Indiana University, will join the administration as the second-ranking official at the EPA, the transition team announced Friday morning. Under Obama, she led the agency's Office of Air and Radiation and helped develop the Clean Power Plan. 

Back at the White House, Stef Feldman, a longtime Biden aide who started as his policy intern when he was vice president and rose to become his 2020 campaign’s policy director, will serve as deputy assistant to Biden.

During the presidential race, she helped get the buy-in of young climate activists, union leaders, environmental justice advocates and former Democratic rivals when writing Biden’s proposal to eliminate carbon pollution from the electric sector by 2035 and to spend $2 trillion over four years to boost clean energy.

And Maggie Thomas, a former climate adviser to two of Biden’s former rivals for the presidency, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), will serve as chief of staff in the Office of Domestic Climate Policy.

Thomas helped found a green group, Evergreen Action, which pushed Democrats to adopt pieces of Inslee’s comprehensive climate plan and lent policy chops to the burgeoning youth climate movement.

Biden is signaling he is not done with building up the climate team. He is bringing on Jeff Marootian, who directs the D.C. Department of Transportation, to help oversee future hires as special assistant to the president for climate and science agency personnel.

The White House is set to serve as a center of gravity for environmental policy in the incoming administration. 

Heading up the White House team are two bigwigs from the Obama administration — former secretary of state John Kerry and former EPA chief Gina McCarthy — who are set to be his international climate envoy and domestic climate czar, respectively. Their hirings were announced shortly after Biden's victory.

That familiar White House group will work with several incoming Cabinet officials new to Biden’s orbit, including North Carolina environmental regulator Michael S. Regan, picked to run the EPA, and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), set to serve as interior secretary.

When Obama first came into office, he brought on former EPA chief Carol Browner as a senior climate adviser with just minimal staff. John Podesta, who helped spearhead Obama’s second-term climate agenda as senior counselor to the president, also operated informally during his time in the White House, using long-established relationships and his access to the president as a way to mobilize action in several departments.

Biden has assembled more expertise on climate change than any of his predecessors on both the international and domestic sides, according to Podesta, “It shows how central climate change is to Biden’s foreign and security policy, just as it is to his domestic and economic policy,” he said.

American Clean Power Association CEO Heather Zichal, who joined Browner in the Obama White House at its start and stayed until November 2013, added in a phone interview, “Between the hires in the executive office of the president and across the agencies, it underscores the commitment that President-elect Biden has to tackling climate and creating clean energy jobs. Their diversity of viewpoints on the clean energy agenda is only going to make him stronger.”

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2020 rivaled the hottest year on record.

Measurements from several scientific models suggest that 2020 rivaled or possibly equaled 2016, the previous hottest year on record, according to records from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United Kingdom’s Met Office and Berkeley Earth. 

“Experts said that another year as hot as 2016 coming so soon suggests a swift step up the climate escalator. And it implies that a momentous new temperature record — breaching the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming threshold for the first time — could occur as soon as later this decade,” our colleagues Chris Mooney, Andrew Freedman and John Muyskens report.

Particularly striking is the fact that the record heat of 2020 occurred during La Niña, a climate phenomenon that usually leads to cooler temperatures. 

The year was characterized devastating fires in Australia, the western United States and Siberia. It also saw the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, with warmer water temperatures leading to more intense and less predictable storms.

“It’s no longer a question of when the impacts of climate change will manifest themselves: They are already here and now. The only question remaining is how much worse it will get. And the answer to that question is up to us,” Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University, told The Post in an email.

Power plays

Tom Vilsack’s nomination for agriculture secretary reopens old wounds.

Many African Americans had hoped that Biden would nominate a Black candidate, like Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, our colleague Laura Reiley writes. Instead, Biden tapped Tom Vilsack, who held the position during the Obama administration.

“But many Black farmers believe Vilsack failed them in his first stint as secretary by not increasing their access to land or capital, two crucial areas,” Reiley writes. “The amount of farmland under Black ownership has fallen by 85 percent over the past century, according to USDA census data, with people forced off their land by discriminatory government and business policies that made it harder to get loans, buy equipment or qualify for USDA financial assistance programs.”

Some Black farm advocates say that Vilsack did not do enough to right those historical wrongs. The former Iowa governor also faced criticism for demanding the resignation of Shirley Sherrod, the first Black director of rural development in Georgia, after she was quoted out of context by conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart.

Vilsack told The Washington Post that he has been holding calls with Black farmers in various states to hear their concern. “The calls were a start, and if confirmed, I will go to USDA with the understanding there is a lot more that needs to be done and accomplished at USDA to respond to the concerns and needs of Black farmers and other socially disadvantaged producers," he said.

Environmental groups sued to stop Florida from taking control of wetlands oversight.

The advocacy groups claim that the Environmental Protection Agency rushed its decision last month when it granted Florida authority to issue permits for development in certain wetlands, the Tampa Bay Times reports. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers typically has control of such decisions, and some conservationists worry that the state will allow for a faster and less rigorous permitting process.

Oil check

The U.S. banned exports to China’s state-owned oil company.

The Commerce Department added the China National Overseas Oil Corporation, known as CNOOC, to its blacklist of foreign entities that threaten national security, Politico reports. The department cited the oil company’s role in building artificial islands in the South China Sea in order to bolster China’s territorial claims there. It is the latest in a series of actions by the Trump administration that have escalated tensions with China ahead of Biden’s inauguration.

“CNOOC acts a bully for the People’s Liberation Army to intimidate China’s neighbors, and the Chinese military continues to benefit from government civil-military fusion policies for malign purposes,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

The move could have implications for U.S. oil projects. “A U.S. CNOOC subsidiary operates about 400,000 acres of oil and gas fields in Wyoming, Colorado and Texas. It also owns stakes in oil development projects in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico,” Politico writes. 

Shell and ExxonMobil are requesting subsidies for a carbon capture project in the Netherlands.

The major oil companies are part of a group that plans to capture carbon dioxide from factories in the Rotterdam port area and store it in empty Dutch gas fields in the North Sea, Reuters reports. The group, which also includes industrial gas suppliers Air Liquide and Air Products, has requested $2.55 billion in subsidies from the Dutch government. The Netherlands, which has one of the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in Europe, has committed to spending 5 billion euros, roughly $6 billion in U.S. dollars, in subsidies this year for technologies that help it reach its climate goals.

Extra mileage

Researchers discovered a new bat — and it's orange.

Nancy Simmons, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was startled when she received a text from a research expedition in Africa.

“It was a picture of a bat. But not just any bat. This one was orange with striking black wings, like an ambassador for Halloween. It was also fluffy with big pointy ears,” our colleague Darryl Fears writes. “And one more thing: It was new, never seen, discovered by a research crew sleuthing in caves on a mountain range on the border of the Ivory Coast and Guinea searching for an entirely different species of bat.”

On Wednesday, the journal American Museum Novitates confirmed that the bat, Myotis nimbaensis, named for the Nimba Mountains where it was discovered, was in fact a new species.