It’s not hard to see why some have hailed Joe Biden as America’s first climate president.
In a slew of executive orders during his first week in office, Biden promised to make addressing climate change and environmental injustice central to his presidency. He set, by far, the most ambitious climate agenda in U.S. history, pledging to slash the country’s emissions in half over the next decade compared to 2005 levels. Under his watch, Democrats passed their premier climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, which dedicates some $370 billion to fund clean energy development and other climate efforts. And he brought the United States back into the Paris Agreement, the world’s most significant climate treaty, after his predecessor pulled the nation out of it.
“I came to the presidency determined … to reestablish the United States as a trustworthy, committed, global leader on climate,” Biden proclaimed to world leaders last year at the United Nations’ COP27 climate summit in Egypt.
But as Biden seeks reelection—he officially announced his 2024 bid on Tuesday—the Democratic president also faces grim approval ratings, driven in part by a series of legal blows and controversial administration decisions that threaten to derail his ambitious environmental agenda.
Biden’s approval rating on Monday sat at just 42.5 percent, compared to 52.8 percent who disapprove, according to the latest analysis by poll tracker and political news outlet FiveThirtyEight. And a recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that just 47 percent of Democrats say they want him to seek a second term, up from 37 percent in February.
In some ways, those figures can be tied to several decisions by the Biden administration that drew the ire of climate and environmental justice advocates, many of whom were key to Biden’s election. Activists lambasted Biden for not intervening in Minnesota’s controversial Line 3 oil pipeline. They criticized the administration for leaving race out of a key federal screening tool meant to identify disadvantaged communities long plagued by environmental hazards. They condemned the administration again when it significantly boosted U.S. exports of liquified natural gas in reaction to the Russian war in Ukraine. And again when the administration opened up approximately 144,000 acres in the Gulf Coast to new oil drilling leases.
Most recently, climate activists questioned Biden’s commitment to fighting climate change after the administration approved the Willow Project, a controversial oil and gas drilling venture in Alaska that’s expected to release 9.2 million metric tons of climate-warming emissions every year and garnered significant opposition from young people online. While Biden’s hands were tied in some of those decisions for legal reasons, such as the move to leave race out of the screening tool and opening up the Gulf Coast leases, activists say that the Willow Project stood out as a choice that was wholly unnecessary and fundamentally out of step with the president’s climate goals.
Before his Tuesday announcement, it appeared that Biden was attempting to mitigate some of those criticisms. Speaking Friday at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland specifically defended her department’s approval of the Willow Project. “We’re not going to say we’re not going to use gas and oil. That’s not reality,″ Haaland said at the event. “So we are doing the best we absolutely can.″
In a series of announcements later that day, the administration continued to defend its track record and unveiled new efforts to bolster the president’s environmental agenda.
Among those efforts was a new executive order signed by Biden on Friday that would create a White House Office of Environmental Justice. That office, which will be housed inside the Council on Environmental Quality, will help coordinate Biden’s broader environmental justice efforts across federal agencies.
The new order also directs federal agencies “to actively facilitate meaningful public participation” in their decision-making process. It directs them “to identify and address gaps in science, data, and research related to environmental justice” while also making that information more accessible to the public. And it also charges the agencies to create strategic plans that assess their efforts to advance environmental justice through their work. Those strategic plans will then be compiled in a federal Environmental Justice Scorecard, which the CEQ will use to evaluate the progress made on that front by 24 different federal agencies.
The Biden administration on Friday released phase one of that scorecard, which sets the baseline the CEQ will use to measure progress. The White House also announced that day that more than a dozen new programs from three agencies—the Department of Commerce, the National Science Foundation and NASA—will be filtered through Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which directs federal agencies to deliver 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of their environmental and energy investments to disadvantaged communities. Nearly 470 federal programs are now covered by that initiative, according to the White House press release.
It’s unclear if Biden’s latest spree of announcements will be enough to repair his damaged image among the progressives in his base. In fact, the announcements have so far received mixed reviews from environmentalists and social justice activists.
Carla Walker, the U.S. director of environmental justice and equity for the World Resources Institute, an international think tank, was heartened by Biden’s new executive order, especially its requirement that federal agencies now create strategic environmental justice plans. “I think it’s quite telling that there is a steady drumbeat of environmental justice activities from the Biden administration,” she told me in an interview. That’s “significant because it signals how important and critical this is, that it’s not a flash in the pan.”
Lew Daly, a senior fellow at the progressive nonprofit Just Solutions, was also encouraged by Friday’s announcements. But Daly, who has closely tracked how federal programs are or aren’t being filtered through Justice40, also sees lingering problems.
Specifically, he said, it’s still unclear whether the hundreds of billions of dollars in clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act will be subject to Justice40. Progressive members of Congress raised that same issue last year in a letter to several top Biden officials. It’s “clearly a major missing piece in the Justice40 program,” Daly told me in an email. “Why isn’t the energy tax credit program a ‘covered’ program under Justice40?”
Jillian Blanchard, director of the climate change program for Lawyers for Good Government, saw the new executive order as the Biden administration attempting to take back some power in its ongoing struggle with Congress over executive authority. Since taking office, she said, Biden has been in “a showdown” with Republican lawmakers who have used the Congressional Review Act to stymie the president’s agenda.
Last month, Senate Republicans, joined by a handful of conservative-leaning Democrats, used that tactic to block a Biden administration rule that sought to bolster environmental protections under the Clean Water Act. Biden responded this month by vetoing that legislation. Still, Republicans have already harmed Biden’s environmental agenda just by threatening to use the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to block recently enacted federal agency regulations.
In February, activists criticized the Biden administration again after the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its own guidance directing state transportation officials to consider climate change and equity when spending federal infrastructure dollars on highway projects. Blanchard said that’s because congressional Republicans were threatening to block the guidance through congressional review, so she was happy to see the White House making an effort on Friday to move the needle back in the other direction. However, she noted, implementation of Biden’s agenda remains key.
“It is the Biden administration doubling down on the importance of environmental justice in federal agency decision making,” Blanchard said. “It is critical, and (Biden) made it very clear, this is a whole-of-government approach.”
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