Biden’s Climate Cabinet Meets Diversity of the Climate Moment: Will they meet its ambition?

Across the globe, climate activists have urged those in power to act on climate change imminently and appropriately. Particularly in recent years, we have seen a diverse coalition form in the fight for our own collective survival and that of all life on this planet. Young and old, rich and poor, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and LGBTQ+ advocates have banded together to fight the most immense issue of our generation. Thus far, those in power have not acted with the urgency and with the intersectionality demanded by this coalition. 

Climate activists and advocates were reluctant to believe that President Joe Biden would be any different. A glimmer of hope emerged when the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force released their set of recommendations in July 2020. Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash, who served on the climate task force, remarked that, “particularly on climate, I think we actually made far more progress than I think I even anticipated. In large part, that was because many of the advisers on climate on Biden’s side were also equally amenable to ambitious action as many people on the Bernie side.”

Materializing from this process, Biden’s climate plan is the most ambitious and justice-oriented of any presidential candidate. However, many advocates have chosen to withhold praise until they witness these campaign promises in action.

The announcement of Biden’s climate cabinet over the past few weeks has buoyed the hopes of many skeptical of the President’s commitment to the transformational change needed to truly address climate change. Activists across the country finally see themselves represented in the highest level of government with cabinet secretaries who look like them and even have life experiences like theirs.

Each member of the climate team has a unique background and skill set to push the United States to be more ambitious in its climate goals and create plans that increase the quality of life for all people and can prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis. We tell the story of each the nominees and appointees here, highlighting their distinct backgrounds and common appetite for climate action.

Brenda Mallory, Chair of the Council of Environmental Quality 

Brenda Mallory, if confirmed, will be charged with leading the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ), a body responsible for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA assesses the environmental impact of infrastructure projects including highways and pipelines. More broadly, the CEQ “develops and recommends national policies to the President that promote the improvement of environmental quality and meet the Nation’s goals.”

She will be the first African American to lead the CEQ and brings with her several years of experience in the Environmental Protection Agency and has served as the General Counsel for the CEQ under President Obama. 

Mallory has been outspoken about President Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric, signing an op-ed with over 140 Black colleagues from the Obama administration and writing a personal blog post on her experience as a Black woman in the political space. 

We can therefore expect to see this commitment to racial justice on the Council of Environmental Quality. She has remarked that under her chairship, the CEQ will tackle the full breadth of climate change, preserve the natural treasures of our nation, center environmental justice, and help more communities overcome legacy environmental impacts.”

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior

Perhaps the biggest success of climate and Indigenous-rights activists was the nomination of Representative Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native American to serve as a cabinet member. In a statement after her nomination, Haaland noted the Department of the Interior’s fraught history with tribal relations, “it’s profound to think about the history of this country’s policies to exterminate Native Americans and the resilience of our ancestors that gave me a place here today.”

Representative Haaland knows what it means to be an American struggling to make ends meet. She raised her daughter as a single mother, relying on food stamps and student loans to get her through her undergraduate and law degrees. She went on to start her own small business producing Pueblo Salsa. A fiery defender of the climate, Haaland even cooked green chili and tortillas for the water defenders at Standing Rock. 

The Department of the Interior has the potential to serve an immense role in climate policy. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 25% of all carbon emissions come from public lands, which is directly under the purview of the DOI. We can count on Deb Haaland to rise to the challenge with urgency and ambition. As quoted on her Twitter, “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”

Michael Regan, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

As one of the more surprising choices for Biden’s climate cabinet, Michael Regan was nominated to be the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Another first, Regan will be the first Black man to run the EPA, following the first Black woman to hold the office, Lisa Jackson, appointed by President Obama.

Currently, Regan serves as the Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. He had his work cut out for him after the previous Republican administration gutted the department. Since his arrival, Regan has led the biggest coal ash cleanup in the country against Duke Energy. He also created the state’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has been decimated by the Trump administration with massive budget cuts and many employees leaving the agency and not being replaced. Michael Regan is well suited to revive the agency having just done the same in North Carolina, albeit on a smaller scale. We can also expect him to bring environmental justice to the forefront as well noting that his EPA “will be driven by our conviction that every person in our great country has the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthier life—no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin, or the community they live in.”

Gina McCarthy, White House National Climate Advisor

Gina McCarthy, a longstanding climate advocate, will serve as Biden’s National Climate Advisor, a new position created for this administration. McCarthy has had a hand in several of the most ambitious climate policies of the past decade and before. 

She started her career as the first Board of Health agent in her hometown of Canton, Massachusetts, with a deeply embedded respect for public service. As quoted in Irish America, McCarthy noted, “…public service was seen as very much an honorable thing to do. And that’s what I grew up wanting to do; my parents’ gift to me was two things, public service and hard work.” 

She went on to serve as the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, Deputy Secretary of the Massachusetts Office of Commonwealth Development, and Undersecretary of Policy for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. It was during her time in Connecticut that she played a critical role in developing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

McCarthy served as the 13th Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama where she established the Clean Power Plan, which set the first national standards for carbon emissions. With deep political experience achieving climate wins in both state and federal government, McCarthy is a perfect choice to keep President Biden on track with his climate commitments across the executive and legislative branches. 

In an interview a week before her appointment was announced McCarthy emphasized, “It [climate change] is being treated as a systemic issue, not something uniquely given to EPA or the Department of the Interior, but something that is all about using the entire federal budget, and the strength of the entire Cabinet, to actually move this issue forward in ways that were not available to us before. We have not had this kind of base of support, so I think this administration is ready to run.”

Ali Zaidi, White House Deputy National Climate Advisor

Ali Zaidi will serve as Gina McCarthy’s number two as the Deputy National Climate Advisor. He will be the highest-ranking Pakistani-American appointed by Biden. Zaidi has served in several high-level climate government positions, despite his younger age. 

In the Obama administration, he held the position of Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy and Science at the White House Office of Management and Budget. In this role, Zaidi was part of the delegation that negotiated the Paris Climate Agreement. Presently, Zaidi serves as New York’s Deputy Secretary of Energy and Environment where he is responsible for implementing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the most ambitious climate legislation in the country. 

In a recent podcast released by Columbia University, Zaidi remarked, “You’re talking about all these really cool jobs and wind and solar, where the hell you’re going to hire those people from. You’re going to hire them from the same old, same old, or you’re going to create new roads of opportunity into the communities that have been taxed in six different ways from this pollution over the years.” With his deep climate policy experience and commitment to environmental justice, we can expect Zaidi to complement McCarthy’s expertise well.

Governor Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy

Jennifer Granholm, if confirmed, will be only the second woman to hold the position of Secretary of Energy. The Department of Energy has historically been centered around nuclear energy and weapons, but choosing Granholm marks a notable shift in the department’s role into clean energy.

Granholm served as the first female Governor of Michigan during the recession that decimated the automotive industry in the state. She saw the future of clean energy and designed a bailout for General Motors and Chrysler that required them to invest in green technology including battery storage. Since then she has been an advocate for renewable energy at large, giving a TED Talk in 2013 entitled, A Clean Energy Proposal- a Race to the Top!

In this role, we can expect Granholm to focus on clean energy as an economic recovery strategy. In an op-ed published in the Detroit News in November 2020, she remarked, “the economics are clear: The time for a low-carbon recovery is now […] the health and well-being of our people, business community, state economy and future depends on it.

Looking Forward

2021 has already seen a flurry of both huge achievements and deeply concerning attacks on democracy. With the news of the Georgia runoffs and the insurrection on the Capitol occurring on the same day, many are dealing with mental whiplash while still holding hope for all the new possibilities under an administration that does not actively deny climate science. But what happens when the dust settles on the chaos of the Trump presidency, and we enter into the Biden presidency?

President Joe Biden has made commitments for transformational climate policy, and his diverse and ambitious climate cabinet (along with new White House climate office staff appointees) would indicate that he is holding strong on these commitments. In his first day alone, President Biden signed executive orders rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, revoking the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, reversing rollbacks to vehicle emissions standards, rescinding the cuts to the size of several national monuments, announcing a federal moratorium on oil and natural gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and re-forming the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases.

However, the climate crisis is too critical to sit back and see what happens. The Sunrise Movement has not let up since Biden was announced the winner of the presidential election, pushing him to take more sweeping actions mimicking the strategy of FDR during World War II, criticizing White House appointments with ties to the fossil fuel industry, and keeping him accountable to the campaign promises he has made to the climate movement. 

In two of our most recent Deep Dive webinars on Building Inclusive and Effective Climate Coalitions and the Power of Labor in the Green Economy, all of the speakers emphasized the need for the creation of broad, diverse coalitions with a mandate to address racial justice, economic inequality, and the climate crisis in order to succeed.

Almost two thirds of the American adult population is worried about climate change. We have a president who understands the urgency of climate change, we have an ambitious, experienced cabinet, and we finally have leadership in Congress willing to bring climate legislation to the floor. This is the perfect storm of opportunity to make transformative change to create a sustainable and just society. It is up to us to hold those in power accountable.

Featured Image: President Biden and his climate-focused cabinet appointees from left to right: Ali Zaidi (photo from Wikimedia Commons), Gina McCarthy (photo from the U.S. National Archives), Jennifer Granholm (photo by US Embassy Sweden on Wikimedia Commons), President Joe Biden (photo by Michael Stokes on Wikimedia Commons), Deb Haaland (photo by Deb Haaland on Wikimedia Commons), Brenda Mallory (photo by vasilis asvestas on Shutterstock), and Michael Regan (photo by Don Carper on Wikimedia Commons). Illustration by Amanda Griffiths, Climate XChange.