Energy & Environment

White House lays groundwork for international approach on climate change

The White House on Wednesday announced it would begin to craft the goals the U.S. will need to meet under the Paris climate accord while further cementing the role climate change will play in the administration's diplomacy and national security planning.

President Biden signed a trio of executive orders on Wednesday afternoon that drive numerous policy changes surrounding climate change while seeking to establish a new reputation for the U.S. on the world stage.

"He makes climate central to foreign policy planning, to diplomacy, and to national security preparedness," special envoy John Kerry said at a White House briefing.

The order officially kicks off the process of crafting America's goal under the Paris agreement even as Senate Republicans have sought to block the process, arguing they deserve a chance to review the deal that Biden reentered on his first day in office.

Both of Biden's top climate officials - Kerry and national climate adviser Gina McCarthy - were tight-lipped about what those targets might look like even as Biden has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and other developed nations have set similar mid-century goals.

McCarthy said the administration would announce its greenhouse gas reduction target under the deal, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC), prior to hosting an Earth Day climate summit.

"We're going to have to actually develop the most aggressive NDC that we can to deliver the kind of boost that Secretary Kerry is looking for, to be able to ensure that our international efforts are robust and sufficient to address the challenge internationally," she said.

Kerry also pledged to press China - responsible for roughly 30 percent of the world's emissions - to make bigger strides in addressing climate change.

China has often been a talking point for Republicans who say the U.S. shouldn't participate in the Paris accord without stronger commitments from Beijing.

Kerry noted trade and intellectual property disputes wouldn't deter the U.S. from being aggressive on the climate front. 

"Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That's not going to happen," Kerry said.

In addition to Paris, the orders direct the U.S. to take steps on another international climate effort - joining the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol - which requires countries to phase down their use of heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, used in products like refrigerators and air conditioners.

An HFC deal was hammered out between Democrats and Republicans as part of the stimulus package late last year, but Biden can expect more pushback on other domestic efforts needed to reach the coming Paris goals.

Republicans have already vocally opposed other aspects of the orders, including a measure that calls for a pause on new oil and gas leases on federal lands.

"President Biden's war on America's energy producers - and the jobs they create - shows he is more interested in appeasing the radical left than in helping America's workers and families," Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D) said in a release.

That proposal already faces a lawsuit and Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) has introduced a bill to block Biden from making the move. Her effort mirrors one by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) to force the Biden administration to seek permission from the Senate before rejoining the Paris agreement.

Biden's order also directs a more robust national security response to climate change, instructing Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to prepare an assessment of the national security implications of climate change.

"Most importantly it commissions a national intelligence estimate on the security implications of climate change to give all of us an even deeper understanding of the challenges. This is the first time a president has ever done that, and our 17 intelligence agencies are going to come together and assess exactly what the danger and damage and potential risks are," Kerry said. 

The Obama administration ordered a similar annual review from the national security community, but those efforts stalled under former President Trump.

The report was never released in 2020, though the 2019 report notes "global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond."

Kerry on Wednesday repeatedly bashed the Trump administration for failing to take action on climate change.

"2021 is going to be the year that really makes up for the lost time of the last four years," he told reporters.