Biden is laying a solid foundation for action on climate, energy, and equity

Utilizing executive powers and simultaneously working to support and bolster existing market trends, the Biden administration seems to be pursuing a sea change in how we confront the climate crisis.

Stephen Smith, Jennifer Rennicks, and Amy Vaden | February 4, 2021 | Clean Transportation, Climate Change, Energy Justice, Energy Policy
Utilizing executive powers and simultaneously working to support and bolster existing market trends, the Biden administration seems to be pursuing a sea change in how we confront the climate crisis.

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Rejoining Paris, the First of Many Critical Steps

What a difference a few weeks has already made. On January 21, 2021, just hours after taking the oath of office, President Biden began signing a series of executive orders intended to address the climate crisis. One of the first directed the United States to officially rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, while others began the process of overturning more than 100 anti-environmental actions taken by the Trump Administration

By the end of his first week in office, Biden had signed numerous executive orders elevating climate change as a national security issue; instructing every federal agency to take climate change into account when formulating its policies; directing the government to buy clean and zero-emission vehicles for federal, state, local and tribal government fleets; establishing a new civilian conservation corps; and ordering a plan for conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by the end of the decade.

Environmental Justice at the Center of the Climate Plan

By treating the climate crisis as ‘the emergency that it is and by prioritizing environmental justice issues in so many aspects of their approach, the new administration is on the right path. President Biden gave teeth to this promise through yet another executive order during his first week establishing a White House interagency council on environmental justice; creating the new office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department; and forming an office of environmental justice office at the Justice Department. Placing justice issues at the forefront of all of these climate actions from Day 1 is crucial to ensuring we ultimately are proposing and enacting solutions that will benefit everyone, especially those who have been historically overlooked or disadvantaged.

Cabinet Appointments Showcase Renewed Reliance on Experts and Science with added Commitment to Justice

Although every administration appoints advisors and cabinet members to help guide the president’s decisions, Biden’s appointments include leaders with substantial climate experience and a commitment to environmental justice, who are actively speaking about the need for climate action through a wide range of government agencies and departments beyond those traditionally focused on environmental and energy issues. 

In addition to traditional cabinet positions that address climate change, such as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and the Secretary of Energy, Biden is also creating new advisor positions focused exclusively on climate policy. He hired former cabinet-level secretaries from the Obama Administration, John Kerry, to serve as an international climate envoy and Gina McCarthy to be the new domestic climate coordinator (aka Climate ‘Czar’), sending a clear indication his administration prioritizes weaving climate action into many aspects of governing. 

Just this week the Biden Administration announced another new climate advisor position: Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, will serve in a newly created role that studies the causes and consequences of global warming from yet another agency’s perspective. These key appointments again signal Biden intends to support and uphold the work of the rank and file experts, including climate researchers and scientists, some of whom were stymied or even fired by the Trump Administration for efforts to publicize findings or implement climate-friendly policies. 

We welcome this renewed reliance on science and data, emphasis on environmental justice, as well as cooperation with domestic and global experts, further evidenced by Biden’s proposal to host a convening of world leaders and experts for a climate summit on Earth Day 2021.

New Administration Means “Business” in More Ways than One

The Biden Administration’s approach to climate change isn’t as simple as putting all of their eggs into a single, hard-to-muster-backing-for, legislative basket that needs 60 votes in the U.S. Senate to avoid death by filibuster. Instead, with their recent appointments and orders, they are demonstrating climate will be woven into most actions they take–from economic recovery and stimulus measures to public health directives and international agreements.

By utilizing the powers of the executive branch and simultaneously working to support and bolster existing market trends, we are witnessing a sea change in how the United States confronts the climate crisis as the Biden Administration attempts to address it from several angles all at once. Executive orders, despite their advantage of expediency, are less permanent than Congressionally-passed laws and can have the disadvantage of being dismantled or overwritten by a future presidential administration. Therefore in addition to expanding executive orders and placing experts in new and existing leadership roles, Biden appears to be harnessing the tailwind of existing and growing market forces as a spinnaker, helping to pull America faster towards the inevitable: an economy powered by clean energy.

Once this Train Leaves the Station, It Won’t Be Slowing Down

For decades the fossil fuel industry has been quite successful in its efforts to slow or stymie progress towards comprehensive climate policy. Today, the new Biden Administration appears to be working to find ways to support a clean energy economy and uphold positive market forces during the next four (or eight) years in hopes of effectively accelerating the disruption of our fossil fuel-based system, already on its way out the door. By aligning economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis with smart, economically sound climate solutions and technology investments, for instance by replacing the federal fleet with electric vehicles powered by clean energy, this administration can advance the market forces favoring clean energy solutions. American-made industries and products can help us tackle the climate crisis, ideally while also creating momentum that can withstand future efforts to reverse it, making this progress more resilient than legislation or executive action alone.

Certainly, long strides have already been made in growing the domestic clean energy market in the past decade. The Biden Administration now has the opportunity to take advantage of this momentum and direct the massive buying power and influence of the federal government to continue shifting the markets enough that decarbonization is inevitable and will continue in future administrations.

Elections Have Consequences…What Does It Mean for Us Southerners?

Our region is poised to benefit drastically–economically and on the public health front–from this approach, if we embrace and implement solutions here in our own communities. States throughout the Southeast are already benefiting greatly from clean energy supply chain investments and job creation, and especially from electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing job creation and economic investment. In fact, at least 28% of American EV production in the U.S. happens right here in the Southeast. We now have a huge opportunity to capitalize on this renewed movement and support the advancement of this growing sector that promises good local jobs and also a real solution to air and water pollution from fossil fuel-burning cars. 

Electric transportation and clean energy are clear solutions to multiple crises.

Some large and small utilities in our region are investing in solar and reaping the economic benefits while also giving customers access to affordable, renewable energy. Unfortunately, others, most notably the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority, continue to drag their feet on clean energy and energy efficiency investments, hanging onto the status quo rather than embracing the clear path forward.

Solid First Steps Right Direction… with Hopefully More to Come

There is a lot to digest in these first few weeks since the change in administrations; much of it signals movement in the right direction. It is critical to keep in mind just how much damage we have to address and how quickly we MUST take action in order to mitigate the worst.

SACE applauds these initial actions from the Biden Administration, and we remain hopeful that bold steps continue to be taken to really move the needle for climate action. We will continue to watch and evaluate the actions and proposals coming from Washington, at both the executive and legislative levels, to ensure climate policies are smart, sound, and promote responsible and equitable energy choices to protect our future on Earth.

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Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has 30 years of experience affecting change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as its executive…
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