While Biden’s executive orders can only go so far, they also capture the ambition of his climate agenda.
President Joe Biden took direct aim at the climate crisis on Wednesday, signing a series of executive orders that he said would marshal the powers of the federal government to transition the United States away from fossil fuels, create millions of new jobs in renewable energy, transform the nation’s infrastructure, and conserve vast ranges of public lands and water.
Citing the intense western wildfires, devastating hurricanes along the Gulf and East coasts, and droughts across the Midwest, Biden spoke Wednesday of the urgent need to “confront the existential threat of climate change.”
“We’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis. We can’t wait any longer,” Biden said during a speech at the White House. “We see it with our own eyes. We feel it. We know it in our bones. And it’s time to act.”
Biden’s executive orders:
- Pledge to use the buying power of the federal government to purchase mass quantities of zero-emissions vehicles to “create good-paying, union jobs and stimulate clean energy industries.”
- Direct the Interior Department to pause all new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and offshore waters “to the extent possible,” while the agency conducts a “rigorous review” of existing leases and permits.
- Establish a new National Climate Task Force and order the Interior Department to identify steps that can be taken to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030 and provide a review to the newly formed task force.
- Call on federal agencies to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuel companies—a key driver of climate change—and “identify new opportunities to spur innovation, commercialization, and deployment of clean energy technologies and infrastructure.”
- Specify that climate change will, for the first time, be a critical aspect of all foreign policy and national security decisions, and direct the federal government’s intelligence agencies to create a first-ever “National Intelligence Estimate” of the security risks posed by climate change.
- Set a goal of conserving at least 30% of America’s lands and oceans by 2030.
- Call for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative to put Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, protecting biodiversity, addressing the changing climate, and more.
- Establish a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and direct federal agencies to develop programs and policies to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.
- Set a goal of delivering 40% of the overall benefits of federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities most affected by climate change.
- Formally establish the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and make official former Secretary of State John Kerry’s role as international climate envoy, giving him a seat on the National Security Council.
“It’s not time for small measures; we need to be bold,” Biden said.
While Biden’s executive orders can only go so far—legislation is needed to achieve many of Biden’s goals, such as reaching net-zero emissions by 2050—Wednesday’s host of actions underscore the ambition of his climate agenda, which he has made clear is one of his administration’s key priorities. Since taking office, Biden has also moved to rejoin the Paris climate accord, blocked the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and directed the Environmental Protection Agency to begin the process of reinstating an Obama-era rule governing vehicle tailpipe emissions.
Biden’s orders received praise from climate change advocates, including Mitch Bernard, president and CEO of the National Resources Defense Council.
“The signal from President Biden today is unmistakable: For the next four years, every day will be climate day. That will not only help us avoid a fate of ever-worsening extreme weather disasters—it will help us rebuild stronger in the face of the multiple crises gripping our nation, from the pandemic to racial injustice and the economy,” Bernard said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the administration to answer this call of history. There is no time to waste.”
Varshini Prakash, executive director of the progressive Sunrise Movement, also hailed Biden’s efforts.
“Young people organized like hell to get Biden elected, delivering him a mandate for action on the climate crisis, Covid-19, systemic racism, and the economy,” Prakash said. “Today makes clear that President Biden hears our generation’s demands loud and clear, understands the power of our movement, and is serious about using executive power to deliver on his campaign promises.”
The oil and industry—a major force behind emissions—and Republicans—who have long denied the reality of climate change—were predictably less enthused and were quick to criticize Biden’s executive actions, particularly his order to pause new oil and gas leases, which they claim will cost jobs.
Biden’s national climate advisor Gina McCarthy promised that the administration would work to ensure that any fossil fuel workers who lost their jobs as the nation transitioned away from natural gas would have the opportunity to find new ones in clean energy sectors.
“We’re not going to ask people to go from the middle of Ohio and Pennsylvania and ship out to the coast to work on solar,” she said. “We’re not going to take away jobs.”
There’s research to back up Biden and McCarthy’s argument that climate change presents a huge opportunity to create jobs. A 2019 United Nations report found that the climate crisis could create 24 million jobs globally.
Despite industry and Republican opposition, the urgency of taking action has become increasingly clear. The earth’s ice has melted at alarming rates over the past three decades and scientists are still underestimating just how much sea levels could rise, according to new studies published this month.
A total of 28 trillion metric tons of ice was lost between 1994 and 2017, according to a research paper published in The Cryosphere on Monday.
“The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” the paper’s lead author Thomas Slater said in a statement. “Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most.”
Ice melt for sheets and glaciers drives global warming and leads to a rise of the sea level, which increases the risk of flooding in coastal areas.
Biden’s special envoy on climate, John Kerry, told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that the reality of the crisis means Biden has to take decisive action, regardless of the cost or opposition.
“It is now cheaper to deal with the crisis of climate than it is to ignore it,” Kerry said, highlighting the massive amount of money spent on recovery efforts on devastating hurricanes in recent years. “We’re spending more money, folks. We’re just not doing it smart. We’re not doing it in a way that would actually sustain us for the long term.”
At least one of Biden’s efforts could have a huge impact, according to research released this week. If the administration ends new leases on offshore oil and gas, it could prevent over 19 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study from Oceana, an environmental group focused on ocean health.
“More drilling means more climate pollution that we simply cannot afford,” Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, told the New York Times.
Biden made clear on Wednesday that doing nothing was not an option, but also reiterated that taking action against climate change didn’t have to be a grim ordeal.
“We’re talking about the health of our families and cleaner water, cleaner air, and cleaner communities. We’re talking about national security and America leading the world in a clean energy future,” Biden said. “It’s a future of enormous hope and opportunity.”