‘We Need to Be Bold,’ Biden Says, Taking the First Steps in a Major Shift in Climate Policy

Environmental justice, scientific integrity, climate’s threat to national security and weaning off fossil fuels. It’s a big agenda and an emphatic rejection of the last four years.

U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign executive orders after speaking about climate change issues in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden signed several executive orders related to the climate change crisis on Wednesday, including one directing a pause on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands. Also pictured, left to right, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Vice President Kamala Harris. Credit: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images
President Joe Biden prepares to sign executive orders after speaking about climate change issues in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. Credit: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

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The sweeping executive orders that President Joe Biden signed on Wednesday will not, by themselves, cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

He will have to forge consensus in a closely divided Congress, sparring with both progressives and fossil fuel industry advocates to set the nation on course to net-zero carbon pollution by mid-century. 

But the package of measures signal that even as his new administration grapples with Covid-19 and economic crisis, Biden aims to follow through on his campaign pledge to integrate climate change into decision-making across the federal government. And the orders underscore how dramatic a reversal will be needed to regain the ground lost after the Trump administration’s four years of ignoring the scientific imperative to cut carbon emissions.

“This is not a time for small measures,” said Biden. “We need to be bold.”


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Where former President Donald Trump’s team 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. 

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 percent 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 color and of the former administration’s sidelining of mainstream science.

“We need a new direction,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, commenting on the Biden order. 

A 90-Degree Turn on National Security

Biden signed the orders flanked by John Kerry, special climate envoy and a former Secretary of State, and Gina McCarthy, his national climate adviser and a former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. Deeply experienced appointees in two brand-new positions, they represented the “whole of government approach to the climate crisis,” that, in Biden’s words, he plans to pursue.

The government’s 17 intelligence agencies were directed to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on the security threat posed by climate change, the same sort of authoritative document they’ve produced in the past to inform policymakers on issues like the threat of global terrorism. Kerry said he saw the directive as the most important foreign policy-related provision in the climate orders Biden signed. 

Critical to that national security analysis will be understanding how foreign governments, especially those antagonistic to the United States, calculate and plan for climate change in ways that might be detrimental to allies, said Erin Sikorsky, deputy director of The Center for Climate and Security and a former member of the National Intelligence Council.

“They need to assess how other governments think, so that can be used to inform policy maker decisions that protect both our interests at home and internationally,” she said. Accounting for climate threats to U.S. military bases also will be important, she said. Those became apparent during the Trump administration, as Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska was inundated by flooding in 2019 and Tyndall Air Force in Florida sustained $5 billion in damage from Hurricane Michael in 2018.

Of course, Biden will not be able to fully address the national security threats of climate, nor will he be able to take any action that involves spending money, without action by Congress. 

“Executive orders depend on the prior existence of some kind of grant of authority, either in statute law or the Constitution,” said John Woolley, professor of political science at University of California Santa Barbara and co-director of the American Presidency Project web site. “So a president’s scope for innovating through executive orders is in principle constrained.”

Still, Biden’s team, including many former government officials who worked on climate, helped design orders that seek to jump-start action while the administration embarks on the long process of rewriting regulations and gaining political support in Congress.

For example, the Biden administration plans to reinstate and strengthen the clean vehicle regulations dismantled by Trump. In the meantime, the executive order says the federal government will use its buying power to help support clean electricity and electric vehicles. A plan to implement the order will be drafted by a panel of agency heads and other top leaders.

The potential gains for electric vehicles are huge. Considering Biden’s “Buy American” executive order announced Monday, the chief beneficiaries would be U.S.-based automakers like General Motors, which has made a significant commitment to producing EVs.

The vehicle order “gives a substantial jolt to the market,” said Nic Lutsey, director of the EV program for the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research group. Several dozen cities have rules that favor EVs, but Lutsey’s organization knows of no other country with a policy quite like what Biden is envisioning.

The federal government’s fleet counted about 645,000 vehicles in 2019, while the United States currently has about 1.7 million EVs in total. Even a gradual switch to EVs by the government would help automakers during a costly and unpredictable transition away from internal combustion engines, while also reducing emissions. Biden says his administration’s aim is to create one million new jobs in the U.S. automobile industry.

Climate day at the White House, said Biden, “means today is jobs day at the White House.”

A Focus on Environmental Justice

But the business community, which has displayed eagerness to cooperate with the new administration on climate change, greeted some aspects of the order with dismay. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which announced a new policy of support for “market-based” climate solutions last week, was critical of the partial moratorium Biden ordered for oil and gas leasing on federal lands.

“We share the goal of climate progress,” said Marty Durbin, president of the Chamber’s Global Energy Institute. “Reducing domestic energy production, especially when we hope the demand for energy will be once again increasing as our recovery accelerates, fails to deliver on that goal.”

Biden said his plan is designed to address the concerns of workers in the fossil fuel industry. One of the orders he signed establishes an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization

“We are going to create a quarter of a million jobs to do things like plug the millions of abandoned oil and gas wells that cause an ongoing threat to the health and safety of our communities,” Biden said. “We are never going to forget the men and women who dug the coal and built the nation. We are going to do well by them.”

Clean energy entrepreneur Adam Edelen, who is working to develop solar farms on old abandoned coal mining sites in Appalachia, said the devil will be in the details, but he welcomes the Biden promises to not leave communities behind as the nation moves away from fossil fuels.

Echoing what Biden once said about the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Edelen said, “This is a big f—ing deal. He has moved the full force and weight of the federal government to address the twin challenges of our time,” dealing with climate change and “revitalizing forgotten communities.”

At the same time, Biden faces criticism from some progressives for not going fast or far enough to phase out fossil fuels. “We need a White House that is committed to stopping all drilling and fracking, and shutting down any schemes to export fossil fuels,” said Food & Water Watch Policy Director Mitch Jones.

Biden sought to reach out to the progressive community, which was a crucial part of his winning coalition, by including strong environmental justice provisions in the climate orders. He directed agencies to develop programs and policies to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of fossil fuel pollution. “Multiple studies have shown that air pollution is associated with increased risk of death from Covid-19,” said Biden.

Biden established a Justice40 Initiative, directing 40 percent of “the overall benefits” of the government’s clean energy transition investments to disadvantaged populations and using a new “Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool” to help agencies determine which neighborhoods require more resources and support. Alvaro Sanchez, the environmental equity director at The Greenlining Institute, a think tank focused on racial equity, said that he believes Biden’s plan builds off policies that California has had in place for years.

“The outgoing administration refused to acknowledge that climate change and structural racism were problems at all, so explicitly naming them as problems and priorities is a very important first step,” Sanchez said.

Biden’s order establishes a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and creates new environmental justice offices at both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice.

The new Justice Department office will be especially important in addressing “who’s going to take primary responsibility for enforcement and compliance where environment and civil rights intersect,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Group, a think tank focused on sustainability and social justice.

Social justice activists will be watching to see how the Biden administration carries out its job creation pledges. LaTricea Adams, founder, CEO and president of Black Millennials For Flint, said she questions what jobs will look like for people of color, including whether they are more labor-intensive and whether people of color will have access to higher-level positions.

“That’s where the fear exists,” Adams said. “Because when we hear the words ‘workforce development’ and that there are jobs coming, what do those jobs look like for Black and brown people?”

‘They Want Out’

With competing pressures from the right and the left on climate already apparent, and the Democrats holding the narrowest of majorities in the Senate, some are arguing that Biden should go further than the ambitious roadmap he unveiled Wednesday. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview this week on MSNBC that he thought Biden should declare a “climate emergency,” to give himself more power for unilateral action, much as Trump did when Congress rebuffed his requests for funding for a border wall.

“We’ll give it some thought,” said McCarthy, speaking at a question-and-answer session organized by the Society of Environmental Journalists. But she said her focus would be on pulling together every agency of the government to come up with climate action plans.

One of Congress’ leading climate champions, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), is feeling so hopeful that he used the day of Biden’s climate orders to make his last “Time to Wake Up” speech about climate change on the Senate floor—a ritual he has engaged in nearly weekly over nine years, for 279 speeches in all. At the same environmental journalists conference, Whitehouse said he believes much will depend on the Biden administration doing the hard work of building consensus on climate across the political spectrum.

“If we try to jam something through, and use procedural tricks to get it there, and haven’t built the conditions for victory around that, it will be at best a temporary victory, and perhaps it will be no victory at all,” he said.

As part of his climate executive orders, Biden indicated one of his first climate efforts on Capitol Hill will be to send to the Senate for ratification the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemical refrigerants that are also potent greenhouse gases. Kerry helped negotiate that treaty during the last year of the Obama administration, when he was Secretary of State, but Trump had sought to abandon the effort, even though it had support in the U.S. business community.

Since regulatory measures requiring a phase-down of HFCs recently passed Congress overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, the Kigali amendment is expected to be ratified. And if fully implemented globally, it could help limit additional warming by up to half a degree by the end of the century.

Whitehouse said he believes there are other opportunities for bipartisan consensus on climate, especially with an emphasis on jobs. The key for the Biden administration, he said, is to effectively counter the fear that Republicans feel about confronting the fossil fuel industry.

“Republican senators I’ve been talking to constantly, and it’s like talking to prisoners about escape,” Whitehouse said. “They want out, they would like to get to a carbon and a climate solution.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the name of the organization where LaTricea Adams is the founder, CEO and president. It is Black Millennials For Flint.