President-elect Joe Biden is gearing up to run perhaps the most ambitious effort to fight climate change that the United States has ever seen. A welcome development, as the outgoing Trump administration spent four years undermining environmental protections and slashing regulations designed to curb emissions and limit pollution. Given what he's inheriting, and the rapidly shrinking window to adequately address the crisis before the damage becomes irreversible and insurmountable, Biden has his work cut out for him. But he appears genuinely intent on tackling climate change and getting the US on a path to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Here's what we know so far about the Biden-Harris administration's plan to address climate change, including early actions that the administration is likely to take, officials who will head up the efforts, and plans to turn ambitious campaign promises into policy.
Biden's 'climate administration' takes shape
All indications suggest that Biden plans to staff his administration with people who believe that climate change is real and needs to be addressed, which is the kind of thing you wish you didn’t have to explicitly point out, but here we are. That starts at the Environmental Protection Agency, which has suffered significant cuts under the Trump administration and has been run by fossil fuel lobbyists for the last four years. Environmentalists have already started floating their favorites for the position, including Mustafa Santiago Ali, the founder of the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice, and Jay Inslee, arguably the biggest influence behind Biden's proposed plan to address climate change.
Beyond the EPA, Biden has apparently had climate at front of mind when making other staffing decisions. According to the New York Times, his inner circle has developed a question that they ask when considering a person for a post within the incoming administration: "Is this person climate-ambitious?" They are reportedly applying that standard to just about every position, from defense secretary to lower-profile roles in places like the White House's budget and regulatory offices.
Leading the way in making these staffing decisions are Biden's agency review teams, which the incoming administration announced last week as part of their transition process. At the head of the EPA transition is Patrice Simms, the vice president of the environmental law organization EarthJustice. Simms has served as a former counsel to the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Justice Department under the Obama administration and has led efforts in pushing back against the Trump administration's attempts to weaken the EPA and environmental protection laws. EarthJustice has filed 50 lawsuits against the administration and has won more than 80 percent of those challenges to Trump policy. Meanwhile, Biden has tapped Dr. Cecilia Martinez, the co-founder of the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy to head up his Council on Environmental Quality. Martinez has been a prominent voice in the fight for environmental justice and has highlighted how polluters disproportionately harm communities of color, low-income households, and indigenous people. She will help staff the executive team that will coordinate environmental efforts between the White House and federal agencies.
That strategy is a marked departure from the Trump administration, which has placed climate change deniers in basically every position imaginable. Most of these folks will be sent packing, but Trump's anti-science rhetoric has seeped into the ranks of these agencies and it will take the Biden administration time to remove that institutional rot. Trump's team has reportedly not been particularly gracious in working with the Biden transition team, either. According to the AP, EPA employees were told by administrators following Joe Biden’s electoral college victor that there was no information available yet on how to handle the transition process.
With Trump's team likely to muck up the process, the Biden administration can't really afford self-inflicted errors that set back their agenda, which is why Biden's decision on Tuesday to offer a senior adviser position to Cedric Richmond, a Congressman from Louisiana, drew such harsh criticism. Richmond, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, is viewed as being too friendly with fossil fuel interests. He accepted nearly $113,000 in campaign donations from the oil and gas sector, which was the most any interest group gave to his campaign, according to data compiled by Open Secrets. He is also one of the lone Democrats who voted in favor of authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline.
Biden has barred anyone with ties to the fossil fuel industry from consulting on his transition team, keeping them from having influence over staffing decisions in the administration. But it does not appear that the same commitment extends to the administration itself. Richmond may be an outlier, and the rest of Biden's efforts appear entirely focused on staffing the administration with folks who believe climate change is real and must be addressed, but the hiring will be viewed as a smudge on his record and a reason to have skepticism about his commitment to environmentalism.
Creating new positions focused entirely on climate change
In addition to staffing existing roles throughout the federal government with folks on the front lines of the fight against climate change, there is speculation that Biden may create new positions dedicated solely to tackling the issue. The New York Times reported that Biden's transition team is considering creating a new White House office that would be devoted entirely to climate change or potentially staffing a team similar to the national security and economic councils that would consult on the topic.
New roles are expected throughout other agencies, as well. Biden is expected to task the Pentagon with treating climate change as a national security risk, giving it the ability to speed up research and development of clean energy technologies. Likewise, Biden is reportedly ready to make climate change the focus of the State Department, and is expected to tap folks with experience addressing the issue to help coordinate international efforts.
Biden's plan to act once in office
Once Biden takes office on January 20, 2021, the real work of addressing climate change will start, and it's going to be an uphill battle no matter how equipped the administration is for it. Though two Senate positions in Georgia are yet to be decided, Republicans will have at minimum 50 seats in the Senate creating a blockade for any real, sweeping policy changes that Biden may want to push through.
That means the incoming president will be leaning heavily on executive orders to make changes to how the US addresses climate change, much like how the Trump administration used the power of the executive to undermine environmental protections over the last four years.
Legal experts and environmentalists have been pushing for Biden to aggressively address climate change through executive action as soon as he takes office, and it appears that Biden is likely to take that route. According to the New York Times, one of the first executive orders that Biden has planned would require every federal agency, department, and program to start preparing to address climate change. Biden has also signaled that he intends to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office.
There may be some ground for bipartisan legislation, as well, though it is expected that Republicans will not be on board with many of Biden's plans to address climate change. Republicans are interested in exploring carbon capture technology and expanding nuclear energy, while the Biden administration has its eyes set on moving away from fossil fuels and potentially unstable power sources and instead embracing clean energy alternatives like wind and solar.
Perhaps some of the most aggressive changes might come from within the offices of the EPA and other agencies, which have a significant amount of leeway in the rules writing process. According to the Times, Biden is expecting the Transportation Department and EPA to work together to craft new, stricter rules on automotive pollution and fuel efficiency, with the goal of promoting electric vehicles and getting away from gas-guzzling cars. The EPA is also expected to see its budget expanded, increasing its ability to enforce rules already on the books. The incoming EPA administrator will also likely be tasked with writing new rules that will help to shrink the amount of greenhouse gases the country emits. Experts have suggested that the EPA could go so far as to create a cap on carbon emissions for the country and task states with enforcing the restrictions.
The Biden administration may turn to unconventional places to gain leverage in creating climate-related rules, as well. The New York Times suggested that Biden could look to financial regulators to create new rules for assessing climate risks in the financial system, including requiring companies to disclose how climate change may affect their operations in the future.
It’s clear that the next four years under the Biden administration will be a drastic departure from Trump's campaign of environmental destruction. We expect people at just about every post who are dedicated to dealing with the very real risks of climate change. Politics will threaten to derail those efforts, of course, with gridlocks in Congress and pressures from outside influencers. But at least we’ll know that this administration believes climate change is real. That's already an improvement.