Paris Agreement architect John Kerry was appointed White House climate “czar”, a half-dozen other senior appointments signalled stability and continuity, and a few glass ceilings were shattered as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announced nominees for senior administration positions Monday.
By appointing Kerry, the Obama-era secretary of state who helped shepherd the 2015 Paris deal to completion, Biden “has tapped one of the biggest names in his government so far, a veteran politician adept at drawing attention to himself and his causes since he led opposition to the Vietnam War as a decorated young veteran,” the New York Times reports. “The appointment of Mr. Kerry not only as a roving diplomat but also as a sitting member of Mr. Biden’s National Security Council elevates the issue of climate change to the highest echelons of government.”
“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry tweeted.
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U.S. Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp called Kerry “one of the world’s most effective climate champions, both in the U.S. and abroad,” and his new position “an important sign that President-elect Joe Biden is making climate change central to U.S. foreign policy.”
Krupp added: “With the increasing devastation of climate impacts around the world, and the opportunities for expanding U.S. climate ambition and encouraging others to do the same in the lead-up to next year’s climate talks in Glasgow, Secretary Kerry is well-positioned to get the U.S. acting aggressively on climate change once again. As he well knows, we have no time to lose.”
Kerry’s appointment received a less fervent response across much of the U.S. climate community. “This is a huge sign that Biden will favour a moderate climate policy approach that hinges on GOP support,” tweeted veteran climate journalist Emily Atkin, publisher of the daily Heated newsletter.
It’s “totally fair to assume that past is prologue for a lot of people,” Sunrise Movement co-founder and political director Evan Weber told Atkin in yesterday’s edition of Heated. “I think it’s no secret that Sunrise, for example, shares a pretty different theory of change than John Kerry does. We do not think the way we’re going to mobilize to fight the climate crisis is by listening to more of what people like [ex-Ohio governor] John Kasich or [Obama-era energy secretary] Ernest Moniz have to say, for example. We think we should listen to those people much less, and listen to grassroots activists, scientists, and front-line communities more.”
But “that being said, I think there are also reasons to be encouraged by the fact that his position even exists in the first place, and that someone with the political weight of John Kerry is being put in this position on the international stage,” Weber added. “Kerry already has relationships with top diplomats and leaders of many countries around the world.”
Kerry is also “committed to engaging and listening to young voices—even when we might not always agree—and ensuring we have a seat at the table,” Sunrise Executive Director Varshini Prakash told National Public Radio.
In his new role, Kerry “will need to convince skeptical global leaders—burned by the Trump administration’s hostility toward climate science and its rejection of the 2015 Paris Agreement—that the United States not only is prepared to resume its leadership role but will also stay the course, regardless of the Biden administration’s future,” the Times says. “But Mr. Kerry’s powers of persuasion on the world stage will only be as strong as the domestic policies that back up his promises. If Republicans continue to hold the majority in the Senate next year, he could face considerable headwinds at home.”
On the same day as the Kerry announcement, Biden nominated long-time foreign policy advisor Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Avril Haines as the first woman to serve as U.S. director of national intelligence, Alejandro Mayorkas as the first Latino homeland security secretary, and foreign service veteran Linda Thomas-Greenfield as United Nations ambassador, and was said to have decided on Federal Reserve veteran Janet Yellen as the country’s first-ever female treasury secretary. All will require Senate confirmation.
There was no immediate word on the climate attitudes or policies the new appointees will bring to the cabinet table, though Blinken and Thomas-Greenfield both signalled an end to the swaggering isolationism the rest of the world experienced through the four years that Donald Trump occupied the Oval Office.
“I think you’d see the Biden administration acting on the one hand with some humility, because most of the world’s problems are not about us, even though they affect us,” Blinken told an Axios digital event in October. “We can’t just flip a switch and solve them. But also, with confidence, because America, at its best, still has a greater capacity than any country on Earth to mobilize others in positive, collective action.”
“My mother taught me to lead with the power of kindness and compassion to make the world a better place,” Thomas-Greenfield tweeted Monday. “I’ve carried that lesson with me throughout my career in Foreign Service—and, if confirmed, will do the same as Ambassador to the United Nations.”
Politico Morning Energy says U.S. climate organizations are focusing on the treasury secretary appointment “as crucial to tackling climate change amid concerns about the risks it poses to the financial system. Yellen, who is not the first choice of many environmentalists to head Treasury, has been more outspoken in recent weeks on the role that central banks and other financial regulators must play.”
Some of this week’s news analysis has Biden pursuing a “dull-by-design” transition strategy, turning to tried and true policy veterans to restore his country’s battered credibility on the world stage while continuing to signal early and assertive action on climate.
“The most remarkable part of President-elect Biden’s campaign and early picks for positions of true power is the unremarkable—and predictable—nature of his big moves,” all of which “fit with Biden’s penchant for sticking to comfort foods when it comes to people, policies, and political techniques,” Axios writes. “He is approaching this—in part—like an experienced mechanic intent on repairing something that’s been badly broken,” one transition insider said.
As Biden began naming his senior team, a new report by the Asia Society Policy Institute and Climate Analytics showed the U.S. could still reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 38 to 54% from 2005 levels by 2030, depending on how far an often recalcitrant Congress is prepared to go. “The report also finds that China’s recent commitment to reach carbon neutrality before 2060 would be directly in line with the long-term goal of the Paris Agreement if it covers all greenhouse gases, but this would require much deeper cuts in the short term, including emissions peaking as soon as 2025,” the two organizations said in a release last week.
Biden’s campaign promise to decarbonize the U.S. energy system by 2035 “will represent by far the most significant contribution to his efforts to reduce emissions,” the release added. “And while there is a large degree of uncertainty, the report also finds that around half of President-elect Biden’s plans could be achievable through executive authority alone.”
“President-elect Biden’s victory is clearly a massive shot in the arm for the international fight against climate change, notwithstanding some of the limitations he is likely to face from the Senate in implementing his domestic agenda,” said former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, now president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Nevertheless, an early demonstration of his determination will be the development of an ambitious and far-reaching NDC [the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement] in the lead-up to COP 26, especially one which provides the U.S. a strong arrow in its diplomatic quiver for encouraging other major emitters to also raise their short-term ambition.”
“The U.S. and China were instrumental in bringing the Paris Agreement to life,” added Climate Analytics CEO and Senior Scientist Bill Hare. “Now, with their ambitious new climate goals, these two powerful countries are in a position to bend the emissions curve towards global net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, bringing the Agreement’s objective of limiting global warming to 1.5°C within reach. However, for these targets to be compatible with this objective, we need to see urgent short-term action from now to 2030.”
Some of those actions have been coming into focus over the last week to 10 days, with the Washington Post pointing to the practical challenges of implementing one of Biden’s signature campaign promises.
“The incoming administration will face several legal and political hurdles if it seeks to halt new oil and gas permits on federal land and waters, given existing laws and the enormous sums that drilling royalties generate for the federal and state governments—including Democratic-leaning states such as New Mexico and Colorado,” the Post writes. “But failure to do so is sure to become a flashpoint with environmental and youth activists within the Democratic Party, who helped elect him and have made climate a priority.”
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is rushing to “help its allies in the oil and gas business before it leaves office” by auctioning off drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico and the environmentally fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—although the offer of 79 million acres in the Gulf last week found buyers for only 518,000 acres. “If their intention is to end all leasing and permitting, they will find that that’s rife with conflicts, opposed by Democratic governors, and not perpetually legally sustainable,” Trump Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told the paper in a recent interview.
That’s not what U.S. climate hawks expect from the new administration they helped elect. “The Biden campaign made a clear and unequivocal campaign promise to end fossil fuel leasing on public land,” U.S. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told the Post. “That’s a big reason why we had Sierra Club members write more than a million letters to undecided voters, make more than five million phone calls to undecided voters, and send 20 million text messages.”
“Climate change as a voting issue has soared in the past five years, particularly among Democrats and among independents,” added Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication, in an interview earlier this month with E&E News. “This absolutely was a crucial issue for constituencies he needed to carry him over the top,” including young and suburban women who “care more about climate change than other groups.”
Climate Nexus cited that comment in a post that showed Biden winning 20 crucial electoral votes in fossil-dependent Pennsylvania in spite of—or possibly because of—his commitment to drive a transition off oil and gas. While Trump won areas of the state with significant fracking operations, Biden outperformed former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote count in eight of the 10 top gas-producing counties.
Climate hawks are also calling on the new administration to cancel three contentious pipelines, at least two of which got a new lease on life during the Trump years. “Climate activists say the clearest path for Biden to stop Dakota Access, Keystone XL, and Line 3 and deliver on his promise to deliver a transition off fossil fuels would be to issue an executive order requiring all fossil fuel projects to undergo a ‘climate test’, mandating that federal agencies consider a project’s contribution to climate change and essentially use it as a litmus test for any permitting decisions,” InsideClimate News writes.
Kendall Mackey, Keep It In The Ground campaigner at 350 Action, called for “a full reversal of Trump’s approach to permitting,” adding that “it’s common sense that Biden must stop all of these toxic and unnecessary pipelines and transition to a 100% renewable, regenerative economy that puts our communities first.”
The U.S. renewable energy industries are also laying out their initial wish lists for the new administration. The Solar Energy Industries Association is looking for an extension of the federal Investment Tax Credit as the “most measurable relief” that would help it weather the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Greentech Media reports. “We have continued to grow, but we have not grown at the rate we anticipated,” said SEIA President Abigail Ross Hopper.
The solar industry is also looking to Biden to reverse Trump-era tariffs on imported solar gear, and has laid out a 100-day policy agenda that “revolves around three main objectives: investing in clean energy infrastructure and jobs, opening electricity markets to renewable competition, and establishing ‘comprehensive carbon policy’ as support,” Greentech says.
The American Wind Energy Association is out with four pillars it sees for a clean energy transformation: clean energy targets and carbon policies, expanded interstate transmission, expedited federal permitting for renewable energy projects, and removing competitive barriers to renewables as a way to reduce the cost of decarbonization.
“America begins this new decade with the chance to shape an affordable, thriving energy future defined by clean electricity,” said AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan. “Our country’s leaders must now move forward with bold, sensible policies to create that future or risk leaving hundreds of thousands of new jobs and hundreds of billions in investments behind.”