Hours after Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, his first actions in the White House included signing two executive orders related to climate change — a move that environmental activists say heralds an administration that is ready to take bold steps to undo the damage done over the past four years.
That the executive orders came on the day of his inauguration signals that Biden is serious about the commitments made on the campaign trail to prioritize climate action, said Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, a clean transportation advocate for GreenLatinos, a nonprofit organization that focuses on environmental and conservation issues that affect the Latino community.
“The administration is sending a message, and it’s really exciting and important that these conversations are happening so early,” Marpillero-Colomina said. “My hope is that these actions are just the beginning of a sustained climate-oriented agenda.”
On the updated White House website, climate change is second on a list of the administration’s priorities. But faced with a raging pandemic that has already killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S., racial inequalities, economic uncertainty and a deeply divided nation, the Biden administration will have its hands full.
In his inaugural address, Biden referred to these “cascading crises,” saying: “We face an attack on our democracy and on truth. A raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis. Any one is enough to challenge us in ways. The fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested.”
But the realities of climate change demand urgent action, particularly in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, when climate change was rarely addressed or even acknowledged, Marpillero-Colomina said.
“This is sort of a wakeup call for this country,” she said. “The impact of not participating in climate conversations over the past four years has been really evident across the board, both domestically and in our foreign policy relationships.”
Indeed, Biden has indicated that he plans to restore many of the environmental rules and regulations that were rolled back by the Trump administration. Michael Mann, author of the book “The New Climate War” and a professor and climatologist at Penn State University, said those efforts will be crucial because the U.S. needs to make up for lost time.
“This administration has to hit the ground running, because we’re four years down the road not having made the progress that we ought to have made,” Mann said. “That means we’re going to have to work even harder.”
Part of that work will be to mend the country’s reputation internationally, he said. Rejoining the Paris Agreement will help restore the country’s credibility, but Biden will also have to set an example by pushing for even more aggressive emissions targets to avert the most damaging impacts of climate change.
“The current commitments under the Paris Agreement are not enough to keep us below 1.5 degrees Celsius of planetary warming,” Mann said. “It will be incumbent on the United States to display leadership to keep warming below catastrophic levels. What I would like to see over the next 100 days is language that speaks to our commitment to substantially ratchet up our obligations under the Paris accord.”
Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline permit also symbolizes a shift away from fossil fuels. During his campaign, Biden proposed an ambitious $2 trillion climate plan that included a goal of achieving a 100 percent clean electricity standard by 2035.
Although big challenges lie ahead, Marpillero-Colomina said she is heartened by many of the Cabinet appointments Biden has announced so far. In addition to tapping veterans such as Gina McCarthy, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, and former Secretary of State John Kerry, Biden appears to be assembling a diverse Cabinet.
His picks include Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., whom Biden chose to be the first Native American head of the Interior Department; environmental justice advocate Cecilia Martinez, who will join Biden’s White House team; and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who is Biden’s nominee for energy secretary.
Marpillero-Colomina said Biden’s inclusion of leaders from the environmental justice movement gives her hope that those who work with Black and Latino communities that are disproportionately affected by climate change will have their voices heard.
“That doesn’t mean that environmental advocates can sit back and file their nails, but as we push for the needs of our communities, there’s at least a person in those positions with a listening ear and a capacity to care and mobilize meaningful action,” she said.
Biden is also assembling climate experts for positions throughout the government, beyond just the standard appointments in the EPA and the Energy Department, which Mann said suggests an appreciation that climate action should be interwoven with efforts in all agencies and departments.
“When you look across all of the appointments, there’s a clear theme: There’s a recognition that climate impacts every sector of society, and so climate action has to be incorporated in every sector of society,” Mann said.
But beyond appointments and early executive orders, environmental advocates will be looking for other signs that Biden’s administration is working toward substantive climate policies. For Melissa Miles, executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, that means showing a commitment to engaging disadvantaged communities in climate action. Equally important, she said, is crafting solutions that address the inequalities and the root causes of climate change and their direct health implications.
“What I’ve seen so far shows that Biden was listening to front-line climate justice and environmental justice leaders, but now we have to see his plan,” she said. “Will they actually have teeth? Will they actually have an impact on the communities that most need it?”
Miles said that while she is excited about the opportunities of a new administration, it’s a type of reserved enthusiasm.
“It’s hard to be optimistic when hundreds of years of inequity is what precedes us — not just one administration but hundreds of years of inequity,” she said. “If we’re optimistic, it’s always going to be cautiously so, and it’s never in the mindset that we can relax now. We still have to push just as hard to have our voices heard and to get our agendas across.”