Joe Biden’s climate team actually cares about climate
By The NYT Editorial Board
As President-elect Joe Biden rolls out his climate and environment team, it is worth recalling, if only to grasp the distance between then and now, the hopeless bunch President-elect Donald Trump presented us with four years ago. Trump tapped Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Ryan Zinke the Interior Department and Rick Perry the Energy Department.
Pruitt, by common consent the worst of the mediocrities in Trump’s Cabinet, helped persuade him to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change and set in motion the rollback of every important regulation approved by the Obama administration to reduce greenhouse gases. Zinke, in plain imitation of Teddy Roosevelt, rode a horse to work on his first day on the job, but within a year had ceded to the oil, gas and coal industries millions of acres of public land that Roosevelt would almost certainly have tried to protect. In Perry, Trump chose a man who back in 2011 recommended the abolition of the very department Trump was asking him to run.
The Biden team is as different as different can be. For starters, it actually cares about climate. In the two people the president-elect has chosen to be his top advisers in the White House, there is even an element of poetic justice.
One is John Kerry, the former secretary of state who helped orchestrate the Paris Agreement that Trump so quickly abandoned, and whose main job now will be to restore America’s global credibility and leadership position on the climate issue. The second is Gina McCarthy, who will help devise and direct Biden’s domestic policy response, making sure that all agencies of government are pulling in the same direction. As with Kerry, her solid achievements while serving as Barack Obama’s EPA administrator were undone by Trump, including rules aimed at sharply reducing greenhouse gases from vehicles, power plants and oil and gas operations. It will require great charity on her part not to take some satisfaction in seeing these rules restored.
The people Biden has named to key posts in the various federal agencies are no less committed, including an economic team led by Brian Deese, who quarterbacked Obama’s climate program. Jennifer Granholm, a two-term Michigan governor and a champion of renewable energy, was selected to run the Energy Department, which is entrusted with finding breakthrough technologies. Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who was among Biden’s challengers for the Democratic nomination, has been designated to lead a Transportation Department with an important role in developing climate-friendly mass transit. Deb Haaland, a member of Congress and Democrat from New Mexico, was named to be the interior secretary.
The Haaland appointment is interesting, and not just for symbolic reasons. True, she would be the first Native American appointed to a Cabinet secretary position. Critically important, from a climate perspective, she would oversee 500 million acres of federal land, including national parks and wilderness and mixed-use land, which under her predecessors — first Zinke, then David Bernhardt, an oil industry lobbyist — were increasingly given over to drilling, mining, logging and development, all the things that enable greenhouse gases and that a good climate policy does not want.
There are, of course, other reasons for leaving some lands completely alone — to protect endangered species and clean water sources, for instance, and simply for the enjoyment of future generations. To those we can now add the imperative of slowing climate change.
The only controversy in this selection process involved the EPA. Biden’s first choice was reportedly Mary Nichols, who worked at the agency years ago before becoming California’s air quality regulator and arguably the nation’s most energetic voice on climate change. But activists claimed that she had ignored air quality concerns in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and while their policy arguments were largely specious, this was a fight Biden did not need. Besides, he had already recruited McCarthy, who is generationally and ideologically on the same wavelength as Nichols.
So he chose instead Michael Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, who did much good in a state where progress on environmental issues has never been easy. Regan would be the second Black person to run the EPA, the first being Lisa Jackson, who served in Obama’s first term. It will fall to the new administrator to revive agency morale, give science its rightful place in decision-making and restore, in addition to the Obama emissions rules, the broad powers of the Clean Water Act, which were narrowed under Trump.
All in all, a handsome batch of résumés, but résumés won’t match the urgent challenge ahead. How urgent? Just over two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s preeminent authority on global warming, warned that the world must transform its energy systems by midcentury in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, or risk widespread ecological and social disruptions — including but not limited to die-offs of coral reefs, sea level rise, drought, famine, wildfires and potential migrations of whole populations searching for food and fresh water. More pointedly, it stressed that the next decade was crucial, that emissions would have to be on a sharp downward path by 2030 for any hope of success, that there was no gentle glide path and that the world’s political leaders would have to take a firm grip on the emissions curve and wrench it downward in a hurry.
With that in mind, Biden pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and, along the way, eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035. What this in turn is likely to require is set forth in a detailed Princeton study, summarized by The Times’ Brad Plumer on Dec. 15: a doubling, annually, in the pace of new wind and solar power; a huge increase in the number of new battery-powered cars sold every year, from 2% now to 50% of new sales by 2030, with charging stations to serve them; a big jump in the number of homes heated by electric heat pumps instead of oil and gas; and, necessarily, a vast increase in the capacity of the electric grid to handle all this clean power.
This transformation of the energy delivery system will not be achieved by regulation, although that will surely help, or, as some groups seem to believe, by simply ending hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas. What the Princeton study envisions is great amounts of new public and private investment, bigger by far than the modest energy-related tax breaks in the year-end spending and coronavirus relief package (which also, happily, included a provision that would curtail the use of planet-warming refrigerants called HFCs, thus bringing the United States in alignment with the rest of the world).
Extracting the necessary trillions from a potentially divided Congress is the tallest of tall orders. The betting now is on two possible legislative paths, maybe both: a stimulus bill with all sorts of green investments tucked into it, along the lines of the 2009 Obama stimulus but much bigger; and, after that, a big infrastructure bill targeted at projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Biden’s strategy is still in the making. But whatever path he chooses, progress in this still-fractured country will require all the energy and smart ideas his team can muster and all the negotiating skills Biden himself has acquired in a half-century of public service.