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Biden's priorities will fail unless tackled together

Biden's priorities will fail unless tackled together
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President-elect Biden has four ambitious priorities: COVID-19, climate change, racial equity, and economic recovery. Each of these is enormously complex, and it’s tempting to tackle them one at a time. That is a mistake because they are so intertwined.

Instead, the administration should deliberately develop policies that deliver on all four priorities, increasing the chances of succeeding across their whole agenda.

History is littered with lessons showing how a narrow focus on one priority can undermine others. Several state and federal renewable energy tax policies provide a salient example. These policies have rapidly increased household solar power and energy efficiency, with obvious climate benefits. However, they have excluded some lower-income households and stranded them with increased energy costs that can lead to energy shutoffs, exacerbating inequities in energy access.

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Other examples prove that it is possible to do better. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 focused on making racial equity gains. The Act led to health advances, such as substantial improvements in life expectancy and mortality rates for Black women, even though health was not the Act’s primary goal. The collision of four concurrent crises means that Biden can’t leave these kinds of multiple wins to chance.

There is precedent for a more intentional, systematic approach to governing. The 2008 financial crisis would have been an easy time to focus solely on economic recovery, but the Obama administration did more. They saw the opportunity to advance the economy and climate action together, passing arguably the most aggressive U.S. climate action in history as part of the economic stimulus package. The need for additional stimulus spending in the wake of COVID-19 is an opportunity to go even farther and advance all four of Biden’s priorities at once. It is the essence of “build back better.”

The Biden-Harris administration should act early and often to drive policies toward full-agenda impact, creating mandates for every policy to advance the four coequal goals. There are at least three concrete and achievable actions that can assure agenda-wide progress.

First, President-elect Biden should create a Cabinet Council to Build Back Better and allocate major portions of agency budgets through it. Congress created a similar mechanism in response to another crisis that required coordinated action: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council coordinates five federal agencies and five states in the distribution of penalty funds to achieve social, economic and ecological recovery. The council has streamlined processes among agencies and allowed hundreds of millions of dollars to move much more quickly. This council’s experience can serve as a model for a more ambitious council to coordinate action towards Biden’s four priorities.

Second, the Office of Management and Budget should write rules that require all policies to be evaluated not just on economic costs and benefits, but on all four of the administration’s priorities. Rules are already in place to evaluate economic recovery potential. Rules under the Obama administration set the stage for agencies to consider climate impacts. The National Prevention Council and multiple states’ experiences with Health in All Policies provide a solid starting point for expanding rules to include health costs and benefits. Consolidation of these approaches and the addition of racial equity would give a comprehensive view of how new policies will impact the full agenda.

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Some might argue that these changes are impractical because they will slow urgent policy processes and be stymied by information gaps. The examples above show that it is possible to advance multiple goals even during a crisis, and that doing so improves policy outcomes.

A third action would address data gaps: a major convening of experts to evaluate policy options in this more holistic way. We need to quickly broaden efforts like Project Drawdown, which provides a clear lens on which climate solutions have the most potential to abate greenhouse gas emissions, but does not score options on any additional social goals. Rapid research initiatives and collaborations could quickly add clarity to which policy options have the best chance to advance Biden’s four coequal goals.

Making these changes will give the new administration the best chance of driving lasting impact on its full agenda. Without these changes, we’ll get more of what we’ve had before — strong economic growth for some, with the climate, health care, and half the nation left behind.

Heather Tallis chairs the Bridge Collaborative and holds a visiting professorship at UC Berkeley School of Public Health. 

Steve Polasky is an economist at the University of Minnesota focused on natural resource economics in renewable energy and environmental regulation. He is a National Academy member, co-founded the Natural Capital Project, and served President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors.

Taylor Ricketts directs the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, a community of more than 200 interdisciplinary researchers advancing the science and policy of conservation, public health, climate change, and related topics.