President Biden has hit the ground running with a new “all of government” climate change agenda. Indeed, climate change featured prominently in his inaugural address. Nearly all of his cabinet nominees have mentioned climate change as a priority. The administration created new positions like a special envoy for climate change on the National Security Council and a domestic climate adviser to head a task force on this issue.
Within his first week in office, Biden issued executive orders so that each department and agency could review how to focus on climate change in their authorities and spending. Whether national security, the economy, foreign policy, civil rights, education, or housing, if the executive branch has a lever to pull, it certainly appears poised to take action.
Rather than attack Biden for leading with executive action, the legislative branch should adopt an “all of Congress” approach to climate change. In the last session of Congress, Democrats set forth a number of incredibly comprehensive sets of bills and strategies covering nearly all facets of the issue. Republicans have been far more limited in the scope and volume of climate legislation. But despite the contentious and partisan atmosphere at the end of last year, a bipartisan group of senators that was led by Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin managed to pass the Energy Act.
It was the first major legislation related to climate in over a decade and was put together by leaders in both chambers of Congress. Focused on innovation, the Energy Act backs research and development of energy storage, nuclear power, carbon removal, important minerals, renewable energy, industrial technology, grid modernization, and more. The Energy Act is just the start of what Congress can do on climate change.
Committees should mandate that agencies incorporate climate risk in all aspects of defense and security planning. One idea is to undertake more efforts to consider how our alliances and multilateral venues prepare and create resilience for security concerns like increased migration and other forms of instability worsened by climate change. Proponents of national security can support this defense policy and resilience capacity.
Another instance where Congress can play a critical role is to determine how the executive branch conducts climate data management. Congress created the Global Change Research Program in the 1990s to study the shifts in the natural systems of the earth and the human response. This bipartisan legislation has served as the bedrock for significant climate change documents such as the National Climate Assessment.
The government holds the climate data to help states, communities, and corporations better understand and prepare for many climate effects like stronger storms, rising sea levels, and hotter temperatures which lead to floods and droughts. The government has all the data and information to provide. It just needs something such as a National Climate Information Center to coordinate and better fund the disparate agencies which can make this critical information available in a user friendly way.
Congress can guide economic resilience strategies with infrastructure investments, agriculture modernization, conservation, and additional measures on innovation and domestic industrial policy. Foreign affairs leaders can reform trade and development institutions by reorienting them to deal with climate change far more effectively. All these things likely do not seem like traditional climate change policy. But these are essential for a country to withstand such challenges of climate change and in building domestic stability and international influence.
The White House efforts on climate change will be far more durable and practical with legislative involvement. Comprehensive climate legislation is far from a possibility any time soon. But Congress can likely make more progress if it focuses on building the broadest coalition of support on the issues related to climate change instead of simply those issues related to emission reduction targets and timetables. A bipartisan base of support for significant action could emerge from such efforts and perhaps grow into a critical “all of Congress” approach for climate change.
Sarah Ladislaw is the director for the Energy Security and Climate Change Program with Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.