Biden Administration

Biden prepares his administration’s rapid response to the climate crisis saying there’s no time to waste

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy answer questions during a press briefing at the White House on January 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. Kerry and McCarthy took questions from reporters last week during a day climate executive orders dubbed ‘climate day’. Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images.

By Anders Lorenzen

In what the media and activists dubbed ‘climate day’, and prior to a speech on addressing the climate crisis, a series of executive orders were signed by President Biden last week. He gave the world and the US a taste of how serious the Biden Administration is taking the climate crisis. Earlier, Special Climate Envoy John Kerry and National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy had laid out actions taken at home and abroad. 

Domestic policy

The executive orders mainly referred to McCarthy’s brief in taking a government-wide approach to the climate crisis. It sets out a clear ambition to strengthen clean air and water protection, hold polluters to account and deliver environmental justice. It demonstrates that the government drives assessment, disclosure and mitigation of climate pollution and climate risks in every sector of the economy.  

It further argues that addressing the climate crisis should be reflected in every level of the government, every corner of the nation and every sector of the economy. The policy of the administration is to deploy the full capacity of its agencies to combat the climate crisis, reduce climate pollution, protect public health, conserve land, water and biodiversity.  

These policies, the administration argues, will create well-paying union jobs, through innovation and commercialisation and deployment of clean energy technologies and infrastructure. Some clear policy goals follow such as 1) ensuring a carbon-free electricity sector no later than 2035, and 2) clean and zero-emission for Federal, State, local and Tribal government vehicle fleets including vehicles of the US Postal Service. Some might recognise these from Biden’s Climate Plan unveiled on his campaign trail. 

McCarthy, who served in the Obama Administration during his second term as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), explained during the press conference why the President’s executive orders were crucial: “it directs everyone who works for the President to use every tool available at our disposal to solve the climate crisis”. 

And she detailed its significance: “This order takes historic strides to address environmental injustice. It creates both a White House interagency task force to address environmental justice, as well as an advisory council.  It directs the Department of Health and Human Services to create an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, and it tasks the Department of Justice with establishing an Office of Climate Justice “. She also described a Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities, which she argued to be crucial for the clean energy transition. She also added that the administration has set an ambitious goal of doubling offshore wind production by 2030. 

Foreign policy

Focusing on John Kerry’s brief, a major part is to parachute the US ahead on the global stage on climate change diplomacy and decision making. In order to achieve this, the administration is putting climate change at the heart of the government’s foreign policy and national security, arguing that international engagement is crucial in order to tackle the climate crisis. The US government intends to work with countries and partners. In addition to promoting climate diplomacy ahead of COP26, the US will host a ‘Leaders Climate Summit on Earth Day, 22nd of April. The administration also outlined that climate change and clean energy and innovation will feature as a priority during G7 and G20 meetings.

Crucially with COP26 coming up at the end of this year, the US will immediately start working on its nationally determined contribution (INDC) targets under the Paris Agreement (all countries need to submit these ahead of COP26).    

The US will also develop a climate finance plan which will have strong foreign policy and international aid elements such as assisting developing nations in implementing ambitious emissions cuts, protecting critical ecosystems, building climate resilience and helping with the flow of capital towards low-carbon investments. 

Kerry, who served as Obama’s Secretary of State during his second term in office, laid out during the press conference how he would use his foreign policy experience to fight climate change abroad: “The stakes on climate change just simply couldn’t be any higher than they are right now.  It is existential. We have a big agenda in front of us on a global basis, and President Biden is deeply committed — totally seized by this issue. That’s why he re-joined the Paris agreement so quickly because he knows it is urgent”. 

Kerry although was under no illusion. Paris is not enough, and everyone needs to up their ambition. He explained that the executive orders President Biden signed will contribute to that ambitious climate action happening at home, but argued that as 90% of emissions are from outside the US the role of foreign policy and diplomacy has never been more important.  

Kerry explained what is in store: “Our 17 intelligence agencies are going to come together and assess exactly what the danger and damage and potential risks are”.

The order directs the State Department to prepare a transmittal package, seeking Senate advice and consent on the Kigali Amendment, to the Montreal Protocol — an amendment that by itself, if ratified and fully enforced globally, could hold the Earth’s temperature by 0.5 of an entire degree — not insignificant, Kerry explained.

Oil, gas and subsidies

In what would be pleasing to climate activists, the Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland will pause new oil and gas leases on public lands and in offshore waters and a review will follow of Federal oil and gas permits, always taking into consideration climate impacts.

The President also acted on another of his campaign promises, that of ending fossil fuel subsidies. A plan will be drawn up to ensure that Federal agencies will not directly subsidise fossil fuels, and any such policy should be eliminated by the fiscal year 2022.

We have waited too long

Upon signing the executive order the President said: “ We have already waited too long to deal with the climate crisis, we can’t wait any longer. It’s time to act. The attitude and the desire to do something amongst the American people has increased across the board. That’s why I’m signing these executive orders to supercharge our administration’s ambitious plans to confront the existential threat of climate change, and it is an existential threat,” He added: “We can do this, we will do this and we must do this”.

You can read about the wide-ranging executive orders and the policies in detail here.

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