With a set of three sweeping executive orders Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden launched an abrupt shift from four years of climate denial and inaction. The orders included measures to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, increase its reliance on renewable energy, accelerate government renewables procurement and research, restore scientific integrity, and begin addressing the searing inequities and environmental justice issues that had been allowed to fester under his predecessor’s watch.
At a briefing from the White House press room, cast by Press Secretary Jen Psaki as an example of the Biden administration’s commitment to making experts available to media, National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and Special Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry elaborated on an integrated plan to make up for lost time on domestic action, while seeking to restore the country’s international credibility on the climate file. They said the U.S. would aim to submit a revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the 2015 Paris Agreement by April 22, Earth Day, when Biden plans to convene a global leaders’ summit to help accelerate ambition on the climate crisis.
“This is not a time for small measures,” Biden said. “We need to be bold.”
The “sprawling set of executive orders” instructed U.S. government agencies “to procure carbon-free energy and electric vehicles, spur commercialization of clean energy technologies, accelerate clean energy generation and transmission projects, and ensure that disadvantaged communities get a fair share of the ensuing economic and environmental benefits,” Greentech Media reports. At the press room briefing, McCarthy said 40% of program benefits would be earmarked for environmental justice communities.
The widest-ranging of the three orders sets out to “combat the climate crisis both at home and throughout the world” by centring climate change in U.S. foreign policy and national security planning, taking a whole-of-government approach to climate, using the government’s “footprint and buying power” to lead by example, and connecting climate action to the infrastructure renewal, conservation, agriculture, and reforestation, according to a detailed White House fact sheet. The order identifies McCarthy and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese as co-chairs of a new Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, with a mandate to clean up abandoned fossil infrastructure in those communities and “turn properties idled in these communities, like brownfields, into new hubs for the growth of our economy.”
The order also formalizes Biden’s commitment “to make environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency by directing federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities,” the fact sheet states.
“We’re going to make sure nobody is left behind,” McCarthy told the press room briefing. “We need to put people to work in their own communities. That’s where their home is. That’s where the vision is. So we are creatively looking at those opportunities for investment so that we can get people understanding that we are not trying to take away jobs.”
As expected, Biden also signed a presidential memorandum on scientific integrity, directing U.S. government agencies to “make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data,” and re-established the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
The overarching purpose of the three orders was to “ensure that we are tapping into the talent, grit, and innovation of American workers, revitalizing the U.S. energy sector, conserving our natural resources and leveraging them to help drive our nation toward a clean energy future, creating well-paying jobs with the opportunity to join a union, and delivering justice for communities who have been subjected to environmental harm,” the White House fact sheet states.
“Wednesday’s orders provide some early indications of how Biden will seek to use the spending power of the federal government to bolster his pledges to cut electricity sector carbon emissions to zero by 2035 and achieve a carbon-free U.S. economy by 2050,” Greentech writes. But “achieving this policy will require legislation that Democrats may struggle to pass in a U.S. Senate where the party holds the slenderest of majorities. Though Biden does have the power to direct federal agencies on his own, much of the spending that may come with those directives will rely on congressional approval. Wednesday’s orders centre on directing federal agencies to shift existing spending in ways that will support a transition to clean energy.”
Inside Climate News draws some of the direct contrasts between Biden’s program and the four years of devastation under Donald Trump.
Where the previous administration “dismissed the notion that climate was a national security threat, Biden is seeking to quantify the extent of the danger, ordering the first ever National Intelligence Estimate on the security implications of climate change,” Inside Climate writes.
“Where the Trump administration abandoned the U.S. drive for more efficient vehicles, Biden wants to accelerate, with the federal government buying enough clean cars to jump-start the market and create jobs.
“Where the Trump administration removed protections from vast swaths of land, turning national monuments into fair game for industry, Biden set a national goal of conserving at least 30% of the nation’s lands and oceans by 2030.
“And where the Trump administration sought to loosen all restraints on oil and gas production, Biden is calling for an indefinite halt of new leasing on federal land and waters, as a precursor to ending the dependence of the United States on fossil fuels.
“Perhaps most striking, Biden, in Wednesday’s executive orders, elevated racial justice and scientific integrity as two pillars of his climate program. It was an implicit condemnation of Trump regulatory rollbacks, of their outsized impact on communities of colour, and of the former administration’s sidelining of mainstream science.”
U.S. environmental justice campaigners talked to Inside Climate about their “sense of amazement” at seeing their concerns taken up and taken seriously by then-candidate Biden in the months leading up to his presidential election win in November. This week, they said the executive orders “placed unprecedented focus on racial equity and environmental justice, setting the stage to aggressively target the disproportionate impacts of pollution and climate change on environmental justice communities,” ICN writes.
“Beginning with Trump’s decision not to upgrade air pollution standards, the rollbacks sought by Biden speak to what environmental justice activists called basic air, water, and climate regulations that, if left in place, would amount to a death sentence for communities of colour.”
In the face of that threat, Biden is “rebuilding trust with vulnerable communities, frontline communities, and with the federal family,” said Mustafa Ali, the U.S. National Wildlife Federation’s vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization. “These orders serve as a north star for the direction the federal government will be moving in.”
“The experience of the COVID pandemic, we think, has finally, maybe, broken through for people to understand what we’ve been saying for three decades, that there is a relationship between racial discrimination, the preponderance of environmental threats in communities of colour, and adverse health outcomes in those communities, as well as shortened life expectancy,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Group, a sustainability and social justice think tank.
On the international level, at a virtual climate adaptation summit hosted by The Netherlands earlier in the week, Kerry promised financial assistance to the most vulnerable countries and sought to signal his country’s return to international climate action, The Guardian reports. “We’re proud to be back,” said Kerry, a former U.S. secretary of state and one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement. “We come back with humility for the absence of the last four years, and we’ll do everything in our power to make up for it.”
The Guardian notes that there’s a lot of making up to be done. “Financial assistance from the U.S. to poor countries suffering the impacts of climate-related disasters all but dried up during the Trump administration, as the U.S. refused to continue payments into the global Green Climate Fund,” the paper writes. “The UN secretary general warned, in an interview with The Guardian last December, that without the US$100 billion a year in climate finance which has long been promised to flow to poor countries by 2020, the developing world would lose trust,” and a “sizeable slice” of that fund “is expected to come from the U.S.”
In his remarks to the adaptation summit, Kerry urged countries to “treat the crisis as the emergency that it is”, noting that it’s now “an absolute fact that it’s cheaper to invest in preventing damage, or minimizing it at least, than cleaning up.”
And he assured other countries that the climate emergency is one of Biden’s top priorities. “We have a president now, thank God, who leads and tells the truth,” Kerry said. “He knows we have to mobilize in unprecedented ways to meet this challenge that is fast accelerating, and we have limited time to get it under control.”
At the White House press briefing, a reporter asked Kerry and McCarthy how they expected to earn the trust of other countries that had seen Trump blithely pull the country out of the Paris Agreement. They said the new administration sees the next four years as a moment to accelerate climate action to the point where it becomes unstoppable. (The video of the briefing—yes, a C-SPAN video!—runs about 45 minutes, and it’s an extraordinary session worth watching.)
Wednesday’s main executive order was so wide in its scope that a half-dozen or more news outlets highlighted different aspects of the plan.
Utility Dive pointed to Biden’s intention to double offshore wind development and put an end to fossil fuel subsidies.
Coal Wire noted a commitment to “identify steps through which the United States can promote ending international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy” while promoting green development.
E&E News reported earlier in the week that Biden had reinstated a national flood protection standard that Trump had revoked.
And in a separate post co-published with Scientific American, E&E listed five items in the executive order that had flown below the radar: a commitment to the Kigali Amendment on hydrofluorocarbons that could on its own eliminate 0.5°C of average global warming (or 1.0° with more efficient cooling equipment); changes to permitting rules that will make it harder to build fossil infrastructure and easier to launch renewable energy projects; forecasting and information-sharing orders aimed at boosting the country’s resilience to climate disasters; a jobs plan centred on plugging leaky oil and gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mines and their surroundings; and as Coal Wire noted, an initiative to block international fossil fuel funding in favour of green energy collaborations.
A major, pressing question in the weeks ahead will be the extent to which Biden can drive his climate agenda forward, with the fossil industry already gearing up to fight the plan. “As he detailed his plans, the gas, oil, and coal industries were already mobilizing on all fronts,” the Washington Post reports. “From an oil patch in Alaska to state capitals to the halls of Congress, the industries and their allies are aiming to slow Biden’s unprecedented push for climate action and keep profits from fossil fuels flowing.”
Six Republican attorneys general have already warned the new president not to overstep his authority, in a letter organized by West Virginia AG Patrick Morrisey. “Our states have led the charge in successfully challenging unauthorized and unlawful executive actions, as you know from your years as vice president,” they wrote. “You can be assured that we will do so again, if necessary.”
Republican members of congress are trashing the executive orders as “job killers”, while fossils amp up a TV campaign to promote oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
More broadly, “industry executives expressed dismay at the scope, speed, and direction in which Biden is heading, saying he is going much further than President Barack Obama ever did,” the Post says. Environmentalists, for their part, “said the danger that Earth faces is far more dire now than it appeared during Obama’s tenure and requires an extraordinary response.”
In response to the fossils’ instant outrage, American Clean Power Association CEO and Obama-era climate advisor Heather Zichal pointed to two factors underpinning the executive orders—the scope and breadth of the climate crisis, and the affordability of renewable energy. “If we’re going to remove 5.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually and get to zero [emissions] in 30 years, this is going to require drastic action,” she said. “We see nothing but opportunity.”
The New York Times says Biden can look for support from an array of allies, with the auto industry lining up behind tighter fuel economy standards and larger fossils saying restrictions on methane emissions should be re-imposed after being summarily gutted under Trump. Meanwhile, “shareholders are demanding corporations acknowledge and prepare for a warmer, more volatile future, and a youth movement is driving the Democratic Party to go big to confront the issue.”
But beyond the executive orders, “the real action will come when Mr. Biden moves forward with plans to reinstate and strengthen Obama-era regulations, repealed by the Trump administration, on the three largest sources of planet-warming greenhouse emissions: vehicles, power plants, and methane leaks from oil and gas drilling wells,” the Times says. “It may take up to two years to put the new rules in place, and even then, without new legislation from Congress, a future administration could once again simply undo them.”
Once the legislative process gets rolling, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “will very likely oppose policies that could hurt the coal industry in his state, Kentucky,” and some of the opposition might come from within Biden’s own party—beginning with Joe Manchin, a senator from coal-dependent West Virginia who will chair the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I have repeatedly stressed the need for innovation, not elimination,” Manchin said in a statement. “I stand ready to work with the administration on advancing technologies and climate solutions to reduce emissions while still maintaining our energy independence.”
One vulnerability the president will face is a Senate filibuster rule that essentially requires any serious legislation to get 60 votes—not just a simple majority of 100 senators—before it can be adopted. The current count stands at 50 senators from each party, leaving it to Vice President Kamala Harris to cast tie-breaking votes in her role as Senate President.
Because of that procedural quirk, conventional wisdom says a major climate action plan would never receive Senate approval, Greentech writes. “But a contingent of climate policy wonks believes a clean energy standard could materialize through budget reconciliation, a manoeuvre for passing tax and spending legislation that only requires a simple majority.” Greentech has the granular details on how that might happen.