Biden assembles team to enact ambitious climate agenda
President-elect Joe Biden has assembled his climate cabinet, the officials who will be responsible for enacting the most ambitious plan to fight global warming ever proposed by a U.S. administration.
The agency heads and Cabinet secretaries will be in charge of implementing Biden’s proposal, which calls for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and a carbon neutral power sector by 2035, as well as incorporating union jobs and racial equality into the solutions.
To get that done, he’s put former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) in charge of the Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) veteran Michael Regan in charge of that agency, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) in charge of public lands and former 2020 candidate Pete Buttigieg in charge of transportation.
And at the White House, he’s tapped former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, former Obama staffer Ali Zaidi, environmental lawyer and former staffer Brenda Mallory and former Secretary of State John Kerry to coordinate domestic and foreign climate policy.
“This brilliant, tested, trailblazing team will be ready on day one to confront the existential threat of climate change with a unified national response rooted in science and equity,” Biden said in a statement announcing several of the picks.
“They share my belief that we have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water, and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms,” he added.
The team combines progressives such as Haaland with environmental heavy hitters like McCarthy with those with deep experience in the agencies they’ll cover, like Regan, though each is being asked to do their part for a singular mission — and to do so quickly.
“There’s a little bit of this process that focuses a little too much on who these people are instead of what they’re going to do, and I will praise them as a dream team if they act quickly once they get into the Biden administration and a position of authority to aggressively take action. That’s what we need more than anything is actual action,” said Brett Hartl with the Center for Biological Diversity, a left-leaning environmental group, adding that he thought all the picks were good choices.
“For every terrible thing Donald Trump did over the last four years, they aggressively came in and implemented their agenda, as terrible it was, they wasted no time.”
One big task for Biden’s climate team will be putting forth policies that reduce emissions and reversing numerous Trump administration rollbacks.
The EPA has been responsible for the bulk of President Trump’s environmental rollbacks, easing regulations on the power industry, the oil and gas industry and auto manufacturers.
Regan has worked in the EPA air office that will likely need to carry the bulk of the regulatory burden of undoing Trump’s changes. But some argue his more recent work running North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality was the real training ground for what he will need to take on at EPA.
“Michael Regan took the helm as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality when it had been battered much the way EPA has been these last four years. He quickly restored morale and then solved big problems by respecting science and bringing together people with different views — that’s how he’s been so effective protecting public health and the environment in North Carolina’s divided government,” the Environmental Defense Fund, another previous employer of Regan’s, said in a statement.
Regan formed an Environmental Justice and Equity Board at his department in North Carolina, a move that aligns with Biden’s pledged to make environmental justice and the disproportionate burden of pollution faced by communities of color a cornerstone of his environmental agenda.
Brenda Mallory, formerly the director of regulatory policy with the Southern Environmental Law Center, will lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), making her another important figure in the environmental justice agenda, as she’s expected to be in charge of undoing Trump’s rollback to the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates environmental reviews of and community input into construction projects.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) praised Mallory in a statement, saying that with her prior experience she “knows the bureaucratic levers to pull” and “will also be able to position CEQ for the future.”
At the Interior Department, Haaland will be responsible for fulfilling Biden’s campaign pledge to halt all new drilling on public lands, an idea that first originated with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Picking a progressive like Haaland to lead the department has excited many environmentalists who see her as offering a dramatic turnaround for an agency that has expanded oil and gas activity on public lands while shrinking the scope of protected areas and national monuments.
Biden’s pick of Granholm appears to be based on her experiences deploying electric vehicles and clean energy as Michigan’s governor.
Prior to her official announcement, a source familiar with the transition team’s thinking emphasized that Granholm helped make Michigan a leader on clean energy while also creating union jobs.
“Her first job is going to be renewable energy and vehicles and climate change,” said Clinton-era Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, contrasting it with his tenure, which he said was focused on different issues.
Part of the goal of specifically reducing carbon emissions from the power sector would also fall under her purview.
“There is work that DOE can do around the smart grid and around helping set a path and vision for the type of technologies that can be deployed and where transmission lines, which are a really important part of scaling up renewables, can go,” said Josh Freed, founder of the Climate and Energy Program at Third Way, a center-left think tank, adding that EPA regulation will also be key to reducing power-sector emissions.
Newly announced Transportation pick Buttigieg will share the electric vehicle responsibility and is also likely to take on expanding public transportation and working with the EPA to regulate vehicle emissions.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., is seen as a Democratic Party rising star.
“I get that people think that it’s really very wonky and it is a sector that has its own set of language and acronyms and expertise, but it’s also something we all use in our everyday life, and if you were a mayor you dealt with those issues,” said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, which helped broker an agreement among nine states to reduce transportation emissions.
Republicans senators have remained largely quiet about most of Biden’s Cabinet picks, not signaling particular opposition to or support for any of the individuals on the climate team.
Industry groups have said they will work with the Biden administration, but have expressed opposition to some of the president-elect’s policy goals like ending new drilling permits on public lands.
“We will continue to advocate for policies that promote technological innovation, advance modern energy infrastructure and support access to natural gas and oil resources — both on federal and private lands,” said American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers in a statement on Thursday. “We will also be watching closely to ensure that the incoming administration keeps President-elect Biden’s campaign promises to the energy workforce.”
Unless Democrats can win two runoff elections in Georgia next month, Republicans are expected to control the Senate and hamper many of Biden’s legislative climate goals. That could leave the executive agencies as his only avenue for accomplishing climate action.
At the White House, Kerry, McCarthy and Zaidi will hold newly formed climate advising positions, with Kerry focused on foreign policy while McCarthy and Zaidi will handle domestic affairs.
Kerry, a former senator and Democratic presidential nominee, is expected to guide the country’s efforts as it seeks to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and has said he wants to “raise ambitions” and bring in “reluctant partners” on climate.
Meanwhile, the roles given to McCarthy and Zaidi remain largely undefined, and it’s unclear how much power their office might have or what role they will have in overseeing agencies.
An outgoing email from McCarthy at her current perch at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), however, provides some hints.
“This is a senior White House position, reporting directly to the President, which will head the newly formed White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. The Office will coordinate a National Climate Taskforce made up of agency and office heads across the Biden-Harris Administration,” she wrote to NRDC members.