Meet Biden’s climate crisis army

‘I believe in this team, and together, we will show the world that America is once again ready to take a leading role in the fight against climate change,’ Mr Biden said

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Monday 18 January 2021 20:25 GMT
<p>Incoming president, Joe Biden, has assembled a team who he calls “a tested cohort of bold thinkers” to tackle the climate crisis</p>

Incoming president, Joe Biden, has assembled a team who he calls “a tested cohort of bold thinkers” to tackle the climate crisis

The hopes of millions of Americans demanding climate action now rest with president-elect Joe Biden and after four years of Donald Trump’s rampant regulatory rollbacks and cynical climate misinformation, the list of priorities is a long one.

The new president’s executive orders on day one are expected to include instructions to rejoin the 2015 Paris Climate Accord and cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline permit. 

Mr Biden has  outlined the most ambitious climate plan in US history including an injection of $2trillion into clean energy to shift the country to carbon-free electricity by 2035 and overhauling transport, building and manufacturing, creating new jobs along the way.

It’s a staggering to-do list on which there’s no time to waste. The impacts of the climate crisis are striking more rapidly, and scientists estimate that roughly a decade remains in which to prevent a runaway catastrophe. 

While no single government - let alone one leader -  can solve the global crisis, Mr Biden’s approach, both at home and abroad, could lead to a sea change in driving down the greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet. 

To achieve the goal, Mr Biden has assembled a team which he’s called “a tested cohort of bold thinkers who know how to pull every lever of government”.

“I believe in this team, and together, we will show the world that America is once again ready to take a leading role in the fight against climate change,” Mr Biden said.

The list has been largely welcomed by climate scientists and activists. “We're pleased that Biden's nominees support renewable energy, climate justice and keeping fossil fuels in the ground so that they can work with him to really come through on his climate agenda,” Denali Nalamalapu, from told The Independent.

Here we take a closer look at the megawatt names, trusted Obama alum, and diverse newcomers on the team who will lead climate action.

Janet Yellen, Treasury Secretary

If confirmed, Ms Yellen will be the first woman to hold the post in US history.  And with the economy “spiraling down” as another Biden adviser said on Sunday, the president-elect has turned to a trusted and seasoned operator to right the ship.

Ms Yellen is the first person to have held all three top economic posts, having served as lead in the Council of Economic Advisers and Federal Reserve chair before being nominated for Treasury.

She was appointed as Fed chair, the central banking system which adjusts interest rates, by President Obama in 2014 to help rehab the still-lagging economy after the 2008 recession.

Early on she made it clear that “our goal is to help Main Street, not Wall Street", placing greater emphasis on alleviating historically-high unemployment than on price inflation.

Brooklyn-born Ms Yellen, 74, has spoken of her parents - father Julius Yellen,  doctor and son of Polish immigrants, and her mother Anna, an elementary-school teacher, as greatly influencing her world-view.

The Senate Finance Committee will hold Ms Yellen’s confirmation on Tuesday before the Inauguration. Respected on both sides of the aisle, Ms Yellen is expected to be a shoo-in.

Ms Yellen has long viewed climate change as a threat to the financial system and supported an international climate treaty in the 1990s which President George W Bush ultimately got rid of.

The incoming treasury lead “has backed the idea of taxing carbon emissions and returning the proceeds to Americans as a quarterly check — an idea popular with many economists”, the Washington Post reported. 

However in a recent paper with Mark Carney, UN special envoy on climate and finance and former Bank of England governor, she wrote that “the scale of the challenge means that carbon prices alone are not enough”.

Ms Yellen will be at the heart of how the climate crisis and the pandemic are handled, overseeing the spending of any new economic recovery package.

Mr Biden has promised to end subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, also falling under Ms Yellen’s remit. And as the treasury department controls tax credits, she could direct incentives towards renewables and carbon capture systems, that draw down emissions from the atmosphere.

John Kerry, climate czar

John Kerry, who served as secretary of state when Mr Biden was vice president, has been nominated for perhaps the most senior climate job in US history.

Mr Kerry, 77, will have a seat on the National Security Council, the first time it has an official dedicated to climate. It makes the issue a core consideration in major foreign and domestic policy decisions by the president, VP and Cabinet.

The dyed-in-the-wool Democrat from Massachusetts was among the architects of Paris deal and a familiar face in geopolitics.

A longtime friend and ally of Mr Biden, Mr Kerry is likely to be viewed as reliable and in lock-step with the president by foreign leaders left with lingering distrust towards America after the Trump years, marked by mistreatment of allies and erratic exiting of global agreements.

Mr Kerry will likely take on big-ticket issues. In September, he spoke to Salon about the importance of getting China on board to tackle the climate crisis, and focusing on the global issue of climate migration which will impact borders and security.

But Mr Kerry’s high-profile also makes the wealthy and well-connected elder statesman a familiar punching bag for conservatives wishing to undermine climate action.

“We look forward to the anti-carbon lectures from a guy who travels the globe on private jets and luxury yachts,” the New York Post wrote after Mr Kerry was nominated.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who has repeated misleading statements on climate change, tweeted: “John Kerry thrilled at prospect of returning to his dream job of living in Central European luxury hotels while negotiating deals that are bad for America."

Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior

The congresswoman from New Mexico makes history as the first-ever Native American Cabinet Secretary. 

A member of the Laguna Pueblo people, if confirmed Rep. Haaland will oversee America’s land and natural resources, and is keeper of the government’s legally-binding obligations to hundreds of tribal nations.

As vice-chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, she’s had to sharpen her skills in bipartisanship. But her nomination has also given heart to progressives as sheis a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal.

“I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet, and all of our protected land,” Rep. Haaland, 60, said in her nomination speech. 

She also paid emotional tribute to what her nomination meant for Indigenous peoples.

“This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the interior once proclaimed it his goal to, quote, ‘civilize or exterminate’ us. I’m a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology,” she said.

At the Department of Interior, Rep Haaland would oversee one-fifth of all America’s land, more than 450 million acres. This includes national parks, wildlife refuges and resources like gas, oil and water.

She will almost certainly do a 180 on the Trump’s administration’s agenda which attempted to sell-off public lands for fossil fuel development and removed regulations to protect natural resources and wildlife.

Last year Rep Haaland sponsored a bill that would commit the US to protect 30 per cent of the nation’s land and oceans by 2030. Mr Biden has vowed to make this a priority via execution action.

Among her first priorities as secretary, it is believed that she will restore the protections stripped from Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante in southeast Utah by Mr Trump. The vast areas of public land are full of sacred meaning for Indigenous peoples.

Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation

In “Amtrak Joe” Biden’s climate platform, transportation plays a vital role in tackling emissions. Ahead of electricity production and industry, transport generates the most greenhouse gas emissions in the US (28 per cent).

Mr Buttigieg, 38, will be tasked with implementing the new president’s ambitious clean public transport plan which includes expanding dedicated bicycle paths and implementing “the second great railroad revolution” of high-speed trains and new tracks across the midwest and western states.

The openly gay former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he ended his own White House campaign in March and was a passionate supporter for president-elect Biden on the campaign trail. 

And Mr Buttigieg is not the only one in the Cabinet with city hall experience, an indication of Mr Biden’s faith in those who can get things done in local government. Marty Walsh, nominee for Labor, was mayor of Boston and Rep. Marcia Fudge for Housing and Urban Development, was formerly mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio. 

Governor Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy

A two-term Governor of Michigan, if confirmed Ms Granholm will be the second woman ever to hold the top energy job. As governor, she was credited with helping save the auto industry in Detroit.

Like many Cabinet picks, Gov. Granholm, 61, goes back a long way with Mr Biden. The former governor worked with him on the 2009 bailout of automobile manufacturers General Motors Co and Chrysler when he was vice president.

She has advocated for US development of zero-emission vehicles in recent years, arguing to pull the industry ahead of its international competitors.

She currently teaches law and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

In 2015 Ms Granholm launched the American Jobs Project, to focus on promoting state policies to create middle-class jobs in batteries and other forms of advanced energy technology. A bulk of the Energy Department’s budget, more than $27bn, is focused on maintaining the nation’s nuclear program, but it oversees more than a dozen labs tasked with developing renewable energy production. 

The department also plays a role in developing standards for building emissions and appliances, areas that the Biden administration will also target in its emissions battle. 

Gina McCarthy, national climate advisor

With decades of public service at state and federal level, Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the EPA under President Obama, will become the first-ever National Climate Advisor.

The idea is for Ms McCarthy, 66 to drive an “all government” approach to the climate crisis, in tandem with Sec. Kerry’s efforts internationally.

During the Obama era, Ms McCarthy was a driving force behind the Clean Power Plan - to curb emissions from power plants and vehicles - which President Trump went on to reverse. 

She was a key player in the US brokering of the Paris Agreement as well as the 2016 Kigali agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries, to phase out potent substances known as hydrofluorocarbons which drive global heating.

Ms McCarthy comes to the job from her role as head of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which sued the Trump administration more than 100 times over environmental rollbacks.

While regulations from the EPA, Interior and Energy departments will be the framework for tackling emissions and pollution, Ms McCarthy’s role at the newly-installed “White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy” will focus on how to tackle the climate crisis via other avenues like in agriculture, transport, treasury, housing, for example.

Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Mr Regan has been North Carolina’s top environmental regulator for the past three years, and will be the first Black man to run the EPA.

The 44-year-old’s role will focus on the Biden environmental justice plan, tackling how the burdens of pollution and climate change disproportionately impact poorer Americans and communities of color.

“Growing up as a child, hunting and fishing with my father and grandfather in eastern North Carolina, I developed a deep love and respect for the outdoors and our natural resources, but I also experienced respiratory issues that required me to use an inhaler on days when pollutants and allergens were especially bad,” said Mr Regan in his nomination speech.

One of Mr Regan’s greatest achievements in North Carolina was negotiating a multibillion-dollar payout from Duke Energy, the largest settlement in US history for the clean up of hazardous coal ash. 

High on his agenda will be tackling vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, emissions from plants running on fossil fuels, and oil and gas sector pollution.

The Trump administration rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations and protections over four years, plowing ahead with as many as possible in his final days in office. Some have been overturned after court battles with environmentalists but the EPA under Mr Regan will likely try to unwind the decisions as part of the strategy to reduce GHG emissions.

Brenda Mallory, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality

A longtime environmental attorney, Ms Mallory is returning to lead a department she was part of during the Obama era. She is currently the director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which also sued the Trump administration over climate change rollbacks. 

If confirmed, she will be the first African-American to run the council - which oversees how the public are informed about projects which can cause pollution in their communities.

With a lower-profile than some of the other climate hires, Ms Mallory is viewed as one of America’s leading experts on environmental regulations, including in-depth knowledge of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA is one of the country’s landmark environmental laws which low-income and minority communities have used for decades to fight back against potential polluters. President Trump significantly weakened the act last year. 

Environmental group, NRDC, said that “Mallory is in an excellent position to work with President Biden to untangle the mess that Trump has made of NEPA—and to return the White House Council on Environmental Quality to its proper role as an agency that places the interests of people and the environment above the interests of corporate polluters”.

Ali Zaidi, deputy national climate advisor

Currently New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top climate adviser, Mr Zaidi has been driving the state’s effort to decarbonize along with prioritizing environmental justice projects. The 32-year-old will be Ms McCarthy’s deputy.

Mr Zaidi was born in Pakistan and moved to the small town of Edinboro, Pennsylvania on the shore of Lake Erie when he was a child. He worked on the Obama administration’s climate action plan and was also part of Paris negotiations.

During the Obama years, Mr Zaidi warned that climate change was already impacting the US taxpayer, from costs associated with rising sea levels, more extreme weather and intensifying wildfires.

“But the costs we are incurring today will be dwarfed by the costs that lie ahead. Without action, taxpayers will face hundreds of billions of dollars in additional costs every year by late in this century as the effects of climate change accelerate,” he wrote in a white paper.

In a podcast with Columbia University this summer, Mr Zaidi backed the idea of creating clean energy jobs in communities that have long suffered from pollution, a suggestion in line with Mr Biden’s climate plan.

“You're talking about all these really cool jobs and wind and solar, where the hell you're going to hire those people from,” he said.

“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.”

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