The United States has a new Commander-in-Chief. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President last week and environmental advocates breathed a sigh of relief. The inauguration signaled an end to the volatile, anti-science Trump administration, an era under which our environment and climate suffered immensely.
President Biden has his work cut out for him in his quest to return scientific integrity to federal agencies and restore the nation’s leadership on the international stage, and he started that work on day one. Through a suite of executive orders, Biden began the process of reversing Trump’s anti-environmental legacy — which, in some cases, can be overturned with the stroke of a pen since many actions from Trump were issued through executive orders and not written into law. While some are easily changed, others could take years or even Biden’s entire term. Nonetheless, this is a good starting point. Here is a look at the orders signed thus far:
Biden’s campaign touted the most progressive climate change plan of any candidate in history, and a centerpiece of that platform was rejoining the Paris Agreement to stop 2℃ of global warming — ideally limiting warming to 1.5℃. On inauguration day, Biden delivered on that promise and re-committed America to joining the efforts of 195 other countries to cut planet-warming emissions.
Rejoining the Paris Agreement was a necessary first step for the Biden administration, but the act alone is really only a symbolic one. The U.S. will now need to put together a plan for how the country aims to achieve emission reductions and communicate their nationally determined contributions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — in other words, as the second largest polluting country in the world — how exactly are we going to achieve reductions in line with the agreement? His latest executive order indicates that the process is slated to get started as soon as possible.
As part of the suite of orders on day one, President Biden also revoked the permit for the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Indigenous and environmental advocates celebrated the win that has been nearly a decade in the making. Not only would the pipeline extension have contributed to climate change, it would have also extended our reliance on fossil fuels, disrupted Indigenous land, and posed various other environmental risks to surrounding communities and ecosystems.
President Biden signed an Executive Order titled “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” It reinstates the need for both sound science and environmental justice to be at the forefront of decision making within federal agencies. This order largely overhauls many of Trump’s executive actions and directs relevant agencies to review and address the changes within a specific time frame.
- Reverses rollbacks in vehicle fuel efficiency standards and emissions standards for coal and oil facilities;
- Calls for the EPA to consider policies to reduce methane pollution and volatile organic compounds (VOCs);
- Re-establishes the monument boundaries on federal lands;
- Places a moratorium on the sale of land within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil fuel interests;
- Reinstates the Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases to examine the social cost of carbon, methane, and nitrous oxides – all of which harm public health and contribute to climate change;
- Takes steps to stop the expedition of infrastructure projects without proper environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Another order signed in the early hours of the Biden presidency pertained to modernizing regulatory review under the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — the entity charged with reviewing regulations put forth by the executive branch and other federal agencies.
The order states that the Director of OMB is to “provide concrete suggestions on how the regulatory review process can promote public health and safety, economic growth, social welfare, racial justice, environmental stewardship, human dignity, equity, and the interests of future generations.” Historically, the OIRA has been known to stymie certain regulations based on the review process, which largely ignores social and environmental benefits and looks narrowly at economic benefits. Modernizing the process would allow for stronger and more holistic policies that combat climate change while protecting public health, advancing clean energy, and increasing racial and environmental justice. In a piece for HuffPost, James Goodwin, a policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform said, “It has the potential to be the most significant action Biden took on day one.”
Just when we thought that the day one actions were ambitious, the latest orders take increasingly bold steps to combat climate and environmental degradation. A week after signing an inaugural suite of executive orders, President Biden’s newest order aims to further imbed climate action into the fabric of his administration and federal government. It also solidifies the various new positions created within his climate-focused cabinet.
This latest order does a lot; let’s unpack some of its major elements. The order:
- Directs U.S. foreign policy and national security to center on the climate crisis and the potential implications climate impacts may hold for the respective policy areas. It also commits to ramping up global ambition on climate action and indicates plans to hold a “leaders summit” on Earth Day 2021 to gather global leaders.
- Instructs federal agencies to procure clean energy that advances carbon-free power and zero-emissions vehicles, and insists that the energy be U.S. made. It also orders agencies to review their resilience to climate impacts and report on where improvements can be made.
- Pauses the leasing of public land to the development and extraction of fossil fuels. It also requires thorough reviews of existing infrastructure to assess ways to double renewable energy generation by 2030.
- Eliminates federal subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Federal agencies should, within the bounds of the law, cancel subsidies and pivot to spurring innovation in clean energy.
- Creates a working group to support just transition for fossil fuel employees. The Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization is charged with directing agencies on how to best support fossil fuel communities in the transition to clean energy. It also has provisions for evaluating how to best utilize abandoned fossil fuel infrastructure.
- Formalized commitments to environmental justice. The order establishes a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which will serve to “develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.”
- Establishes the Justice40 initiative with a goal to have a minimum of 40% of federal investments benefit disadvantaged communities.
In a stellar second suite of executive orders, the Biden administration demonstrates that they’re wasting no time in using the presidency as a chance to mend the injustice done to both people and the planet over the past four years.
The Next Four Years
On the campaign trail, President Biden assured Americans that he would fight climate change, address racial equity and environmental justice, as well as usher in a green recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic. By issuing these executive orders in the first week of his presidency, he’s, so far, making good on those commitments, but there is still a long way to go.
If America is going to combat the issues facing this nation — and the inherent intersectional nature of them — then we’re going to need to keep the pressure on not just the president, but all of our elected officials. The new administration has already set the pace for action and justice, now agencies must follow suit. The Biden administration has already brought so much of the hope and unity that we need to solve these converging crises, and that in itself is a refreshing vision of what our country can be. The tide is changing on federal climate action, and there is so much we can achieve in the next four years.