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Senior Vice Dean Steven Cohen: The Biden Environment Team and a Government-Wide Approach to Sustainability

One of the most significant changes we will see in 2021 is the replacement of climate deniers with climate activists in the U.S. national government. Unlike previous administrations, environmental protection has taken center stage in the new administration’s priorities. Environmental protection is not the highest priority for the new administration, but it is higher than it’s ever been.

Just as recovery from the 2008 financial meltdown was the highest priority of the Obama administration, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be the highest priority of the Biden team. But unlike Obama, who gave up on climate change after the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill was defeated, Biden knows he must address climate change. In Obama’s case, the Clean Power Plan that finally regulated greenhouse gases, wasn’t promulgated until well into his second term. Climate action can no longer be delayed. Fortunately, the new president is assembling a competent and experienced environmental team, and they are planning a government-wide effort to promote environmental quality and mitigate climate change.

While Trump’s environmental appointees included industry lobbyists and opponents of environmental rules, Biden’s include a number of experienced public officials with a record of accomplishing environmental goals. None of these nominees are perfect but taken together it is an impressive team. First named and perhaps most imposing was the selection of John Kerry as the nation’s chief climate diplomat. A former senator, secretary of state and presidential candidate, Kerry’s very presence signals the gravity of the climate crisis. His White House partner on the domestic side of climate change will be former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and her deputy will be Governor Cuomo’s environmental deputy, Ali Zaidi. New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland would be the first Native American to serve as secretary of the Interior and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm will be nominated to be the secretary of Energy. Granholm worked closely with the Obama administration to save the American auto industry and she will need to work closely with business on efforts to transition to a renewable energy-based economy. The experience and governmental savvy of this team will be needed to undo the damage done to environmental policy and organizational capacity over the past four years. The Biden team will need to rebuild morale and the capacity to implement new programs. They will need to restore professionalism and scientific integrity to the government’s environmental organizations. No matter what policies one would like to see, without this reconstruction, no policy initiatives can be formulated or implemented.

Nowhere has this damage been as profound as in the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency has suffered great damage under Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, who attacked environmental rules, scientific capacity, and the use of science in decision-making. The appointment of North Carolina’s environmental chief Michael Regan is clearly an effort to appoint an experienced and competent sustainability professional. As Scott Waldman and Jean Chemnick recently observed in Scientific American:

“Regan is an EPA veteran who served in a number of roles over the course of a decade during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, including as national program manager for the agency’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards. That background could be important to career staff members who want to focus on environmental protections after rolling back safeguards under President Trump, said a source close to the transition… Ryke Longest, co-director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University, said Regan has demonstrated an ability to rebuild a depleted agency. When North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) tapped him to lead the Department of Environmental Quality four years ago, its staff had been slashed and its authorities scattered by the outgoing Republican administration. “In 2016, Secretary Regan had to lead efforts to rebuild the agency’s basic functionality,” said Longest.”

Unlike previous administrations, environmental protection has taken center stage in the new administration’s priorities. Environmental protection is not the highest priority for the new administration, but it is higher than it’s ever been."

While Regan and Haaland bring diversity to the team and hopefully some additional emphasis on environmental justice and equity, they are part of an overall environmental team with deep governmental experience and a commitment to public service. One of the most disheartening aspects of Trump’s environmental leadership group was their overall low level of competence and disregard for the importance of public service. The conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment of the Trump team were so pervasive it almost seemed commonplace and despite the best efforts of journalists, largely went unnoticed by the public. What probably protected the environment more than anything else was that with the exception of Andrew Wheeler, few of the outgoing team knew much about how to move the complex and highly regulated levers of government bureaucracy. If they thought that private organizations were over-regulated by government, those rules are nothing compared to the rules limiting public agency action. The Biden team brings deep institutional knowledge back to environmental policy and administration.

Just as the Trump team attacked environmental governance without asking Congress to change any environmental laws, the Biden team can rely on executive power to rebuild and reinvent environmental governance. In fact, even beyond executive orders, policy statements and program designs, the vast purchasing and contracting power of the federal government can be deployed to advance the goal of decarbonizing the economy. The Department of Defense alone emits more greenhouse gasses than many nations. The national laboratories and the grant-making resources of the National Science Foundation, NOAA and the Department of Energy could be devoted to increasing our understanding of the challenges to global sustainability. In a recent op-ed on the federal role in climate action, Michael Bloomberg got it precisely right when he observed that:

“The president-elect should expect each member of the cabinet to prioritize climate action and integrate it throughout the agency’s operations. For instance: The Department of Defense should invest in its facilities’ resilience, which is critical to our national security. The same is true for other infrastructure that the federal government supports and the public relies on… There are other agencies that have the potential to have an enormous impact on emission reductions, though their power is less widely recognized. It’s critical, for instance, that the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission recognize that climate change is a risk to the global financial system — and act on it. The SEC requires public companies to disclose information about their financial health and can broaden those requirements to include more information about climate risks… A global standard for climate reporting is critical, but it will not happen without U.S. leadership. Just as Franklin Roosevelt gathered financial representatives from the allied powers at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to agree upon a set of monetary principles which have been the foundation for unprecedented global” growth, we need a President Biden to convene a similar group for the purpose of adopting a set of climate-disclosure standards.”

Climate change and the issues of global environmental sustainability have moved to the center of our policy agenda and it is clear that the president-elect understands the importance of these issues and stands ready to connect them to the post-Covid economic revival."

Climate change and the issues of global environmental sustainability have moved to the center of our policy agenda and it is clear that the president-elect understands the importance of these issues and stands ready to connect them to the post-Covid economic revival. Unlike his predecessor, he understands the economic growth potential of the green economy. Trump’s narrow and short-sighted defense of the fossil fuel industry will be replaced by an expansive and long-term effort to modernize America’s energy system. The result will be a more efficient, reliable, clean and low-cost system of energy supply. New energy systems and technologies can be exported and will enable us to meet the growing global demand for energy without destroying the planet.

In this winter of great sadness, disease and death, I find hope that the wonders of medical technology somehow delivered a COVID vaccine in record time. I also am relieved to see the end of an American climate policy based on denial, dysfunctional ideology and scientific illiteracy. We need to ensure that during these next few years we rebuild the American consensus behind environmental protection. The new team has the experience and the ability to embed sustainability management in all federal organizations. It comes at a critical point in time and not a moment too soon.

This article was originally published in State of the Planet.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.