Biden Plans a Whole-of-Government Approach to Climate Change

The Biden team believes fighting global warming is about more than passing laws, bolstering the EPA, or even executive orders. It’s about incorporating climate change concerns into every department and agency.

Over the four years of Trump’s presidency, the United States lost significant ground in combating climate change. According to the World Meteorological Association, “time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption and protect our societies from the inevitable impacts to come.” Reversing this disastrous course will be one of the major challenges faced by the Biden administration, but there are several obstacles they’ll have to overcome.

First and foremost will be that, as Steve Bannon predicted, the Trump administration has spent four years deconstructing the administrative state. Eric Katz, senior correspondent for the publication Government Executive, documents the damage to the federal workforce.

The major impact on climate change is that, according to the Washington Post, more than 1,600 scientists left the federal government in just the first two years of the Trump administration. Much of the task of reconstructing the federal workforce will be handled by Biden’s transition teams. According to Scientific American, those teams have, fortunately, been stocked with climate experts

Climate experts, former Obama administration officials and green activists abound among the teams managing the transition for EPA; the Energy, Interior and Agriculture departments; and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Unlike past transitions, officials with significant climate or clean energy experience also pop up in departments like State, Defense, Treasury and Justice.

They’re even handling the transition at agencies that, so far, have been on the periphery of climate policy, like the Small Business Administration and the Federal Reserve.

All of this is being done to prepare for the second challenge Biden faces on climate change: Republican intransigence. We know that passing legislation to combat climate change will be opposed by congressional Republicans. But Biden is planning a whole-of-government approach that maximizes executive authority to restructure the government to move faster on global warming. That means going far beyond the Environmental Protection Agency in order to embed action on climate change in every aspect of the federal government. 

A holistic approach has been outlined by the Climate 21 Project, a group made up of over 150 experts with high-level government experience. They provided the Biden administration with a 300-page report laying out recommendations for 11 White House offices, federal departments, and federal agencies, as well as cross-cutting recommendations on personnel and hiring. The proposals include things like the establishment of a “carbon bank” at the Department of Agriculture that could pay farmers and forest owners to store carbon in their soils as well as the use of the Transportation Department to push the electrification of cars and trucks.

The final climate challenge faced by Biden has to do with the fact that the crisis must be addressed globally, but Trump has squandered U.S. credibility on the issue with world leaders. That is why the president-elect’s choice of John Kerry to serve as climate change envoy is critical. 

Kerry has played a global leadership role on the issue since he traveled with then-Senator Al Gore to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Back in 2014, journalist Coral Davenport reported on what can happen when a leader prioritizes climate change within a federal agency like the State Department. 

[W]hile the public’s attention has been on his diplomacy in the Middle East, behind the scenes at the State Department Mr. Kerry has initiated a systematic, top-down push to create an agency-wide focus on global warming…Shortly after Mr. Kerry was sworn in last February, he issued a directive that all meetings between senior American diplomats and top foreign officials include a discussion of climate change. He put top climate policy specialists on his State Department personal staff.

That is the groundwork Kerry laid that eventually resulted in 197 countries—every nation on earth—becoming a signatory to the Paris Climate Accord.

What Biden and his team are demonstrating is a recognition that climate change cannot be addressed in isolation from the rest of the federal government. It must be embedded in every domestic, economic, and foreign policy action we take.

It will be decades before any administration can claim to have done enough to address climate change. But after four years of terrifying neglect, this is an excellent opening salvo from the Biden administration.  

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