Biden’s approach to climate: Calling it a crisis and treating it that way
January 29, 2021
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by admin

A woman speaks while a man stands behind her.
Enlarge / National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry answer questions during a press briefing at the White House.

Yesterday, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order entitled Putting the Climate Crisis at the Center of United States Foreign Policy and National Security. The document is sweeping, laying out a climate-focused agenda for the new administration and redirecting nearly every area of government to rethink its operations to bring them in line with that agenda. Targeted areas of government include everything from US diplomacy to the buildings that the government owns.

It’s difficult to overstate how large a difference this represents not only from the Trump administration, which treated climate change as if it didn’t exist, but even the Obama administration, which didn’t even attempt to tackle the climate until partway through its second term. Biden referred to the climate as a crisis during his campaign, and this document indicates his planned policies will actually reflect that language.

Foreign and domestic

Executive orders are limited in what they can do, in that they are limited by what’s allowed under existing laws; they can’t simply create new powers that don’t exist. There’s a considerable flexibility, however, in how existing laws are interpreted or which aspects of administration are emphasized. And this is perhaps truest in the area of diplomacy, where, outside of treaties and sanctions, the government has extensive flexibility in terms of how it manages its relationships with other nations.

“The United States will work with other countries and partners, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to put the world on a sustainable climate pathway,” the order declares early on. To manage that, Biden is bringing back former Secretary of State John Kerry to serve as his Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Kerry will organize what’s being called a Leaders’ Climate Summit, held on Earth Day (April 22) this year. The administration will also restart an Obama-era initiative called the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, a meeting of 17 major economies focused on climate issues.

One of the initiatives these meetings will focus on is an attempt to produce a climate finance plan to aid developing nations to adopt emissions reduction plans and build resilience to the impacts of rising temperatures. The United States will also push international financing efforts to focus on what it terms “climate-aligned investments.”

Separately, all federal agencies with overseas facilities, such as embassies or bases, will be tasked with ensuring that future planning takes the likely impact of climate change into account. In other words, no building overseas naval facilities on islands that are likely to be under water in a few decades. The wider security implications of climate change will be evaluated as part of a National Intelligence Estimate on the national and economic security impacts of climate change. The goal of this will be to provide material on likely changes that can be incorporated into everything from basic planning to war games.

All federal agencies with international activities will be asked to evaluate all their existing activities to ensure that aid and diplomacy align with the new policy. To the extent they don’t, plans will need to be submitted explaining how they will be brought into alignment. This sort of policy reanalysis makes many appearances in the domestic portion of the executive order as well; all branches of government are being asked to see what they can do within existing law that aligns their activities with Biden’s policy priorities.

Not quite a new deal

Democratic energy policies have, over the last few years, been dominated by comparisons with the Green New Deal proposal, which included plenty of policies (like guaranteed minimal income) that weren’t directly related to energy and climate. While the Biden approach to domestic climate policy doesn’t adopt the non-climate policies of the Green New Deal, it does adopt language that is clearly meant to appeal to those who backed it. There’s a consistent mention throughout that any new jobs created by adopting renewable energy or upgrading infrastructure should be “well-paying union jobs,” and policies should “deliver an equitable, clean-energy future.”

There is some explicit job creation as well, with the formation of a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative, meant “to mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.”

Other aspects of the progressive language are easier to square with a changing energy policy. The health impacts of fossil fuel extraction and use are disproportionately felt by low-income communities, which are heavily tilted toward minorities. So, any attempt to limit fossil fuel use will necessarily have a component of social justice, which the executive order notes. But the order also calls for the formation of a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council that will help identify disadvantaged communities and try to direct benefits from environmental programs to them.

The order also creates an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization. Recognizing that coal is going away and never coming back, the working group is meant to “prioritize grantmaking, Federal loan programs, technical assistance, financing, procurement, or other existing programs to support and revitalize the economies of coal and power plant communities.”

Zero-emission fleets

Beyond the social aspects, the actual policy changes are extensive. Two major goals are set out early: by 2035, our electricity-generating system should be emissions-free, and all government vehicles—including those of state and local governments—should be zero emissions. Existing laws favoring the purchase of American-made hardware will, the order argues, help ensure that this acts as a domestic jobs program. The US government also has extensive property holdings, from courthouses to military bases, and the administration will examine these for opportunities to both increase efficiency and harden them against expected climate changes.

Beyond encouraging social change, the order indicates it wants these developments to improve technological competitiveness. “Agencies shall consider the feasibility of using the purchasing power of the Federal Government to drive innovation,” it suggests.

All of the domestic changes will be coordinated by Gina McCarthy, a former head of the EPA whom Biden has named the White House National Climate Advisor.


One of the ironies of recent years is that, while governments made very public pledges to promote decarbonizing their economies, they continued to subsidize fossil fuels at the same time. The United States was not an exception here, but Biden would like to see that change. The executive order calls on all agencies to identify any fossil fuel subsidies they provide and, to the extent that existing law allows, stop them. As of fiscal 2022, Biden will submit a budget request that eliminates all remaining subsidies. That will be difficult to get through Congress, as there are a lot of states where fossil fuel extraction is a significant source of jobs.

One other form of subsidy is the low lease payments required of companies that extract fossil fuels from federal lands. To address these, Biden is instructing the secretary of the interior (pending confirmation, that will be Deb Haaland) to suspend new leases for oil and natural gas pending a review of existing practices. Any future leases will be made subject to higher fees in order to account for the social cost of carbon emissions, something that will be established due to an earlier executive order.

Similarly, the Department of Agriculture is being tasked with identifying “climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices” that limit wildfire risk and enable reduced carbon emissions from the agricultural sector.

Possibly related is the administration’s promise to conserve at least 30 percent of US land and water by 2030. How that works will depend on how “conserve” ends up being interpreted. There’s also a plan to establish jobs in communities that formerly produced fossil fuel by encouraging the rehabilitation of land damaged by that extraction. The order specifically mentions plugging leaks in oil and gas wells and reclaiming mining sites.


To a certain extent, these changes are badly overdue. While the Trump administration was at best indifferent to dealing with the problems caused by climate change, Obama ostensibly took the issue seriously. But he never attempted to engage with the sort of top-to-bottom reevaluation of government programs to ensure that all policies reflected that seriousness. As a result, his administration presided over policies that were often inconsistent. This executive order clearly indicates Biden is attempting to push the entire US government into alignment with its evaluation of the risks posed by climate change.

Biden’s plans, however, are partly limited by what can be done without new legislation. And that legislation can pose a challenge, as many states have huge numbers of fossil fuel jobs. Ahead of the order’s signing, a press event with Kerry and McCarthy was dominated by questions about the potential loss of jobs as the US moves away from fossil fuels. The answers were an odd mix of emphasizing that Biden isn’t ending any existing fossil fuel leases and a recognition that renewable energy is a growth industry while fossil fuels just aren’t anymore.

That’s both accurate and a compelling argument for those who are already convinced. But this is a country dominated by an angry nostalgia for days when coal was king among those who have never been anywhere close to a mine, so this plan is likely to end up caught up in the United States’ general dysfunction.

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