President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. made action on climate change a central part of his platform during the election campaign, promising a $1.7 trillion investment in clean energy and environmental justice, net-zero emissions in the United States by 2050 and an immediate return to the Paris Agreement. He has reportedly raised the issue of climate in every congratulatory call he has accepted from world leaders, and he has pledged to make climate a focus in every federal agency so that the issue doesn’t end up sidelined in the daily grind of governance.
The Trump administration rolled back many Obama-era regulations and weakened the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite the polarizing rhetoric from some vocal climate deniers, addressing climate change is an issue with growing public support.
But moving ahead is anything but straightforward. Depending on the outcome of the Senate runoff elections in Georgia, Mr. Biden may face a Republican-controlled Senate suspicious of initiatives on clean energy, environmental justice or anything that could conceivably slow business growth. And climate activists who supported Mr. Biden’s campaign for environmental policy reasons will be watching the administration closely for signs that it is keeping to its commitments.
As part of the DealBook D.C. Policy Project, The New York Times gathered a virtual panel of experts in early December to discuss the challenges and opportunities of climate policy in 2021 — and beyond.
Chris Adamo, vice president for federal and industry affairs at Danone North America
Rostin Behnam, commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission
Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice
Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer of Microsoft
Ariel Meyerstein, senior vice president of corporate sustainability at Citi
Kathleen McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer at Walmart and president of the Walmart Foundation
Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement
Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation
Moderated by Coral Davenport, The Times’s energy and environmental policy reporter
Forget a lone “climate czar.” The U.S. needs comprehensive climate infrastructure, with real power behind it.
Mr. Biden has named former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry as a global climate envoy, placing a diplomat who helped negotiate the Paris Agreement in the awkward position of repairing the damage wrought by the United States’ temporary withdrawal.
The need to re-establish U.S. leadership on climate is real, said Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, an organization led by young people dedicated to fighting climate change, but so is the need to establish a powerful lobby on behalf of the climate in the heart of government:
“What’s important about this, whoever runs this office, is that it’s not sort of a ‘climate czar on an island’ situation. It is somebody with direct access to the president, who has the authority to organize every agency at their disposal, and have a seat at the table with the budget-setting process. So, it’s got to have real teeth and it’s got to be staffed with an all-star team that isn’t just policy experts but people who have the heart and the creativity and the political will to get this done even when we might be facing a Mitch McConnell, or somebody like that, who is really hostile to a lot of these things on the Senate side.”
This approach, said Lucas Joppa, the chief environmental officer at Microsoft, would reflect that the climate is an inextricable part of daily life of every person on the planet, affecting everything from the quality of air we breathe to the availability of our water. It’s time to stop thinking of climate change as a single, isolated issue and instead see it as “a core component of everything that the government does,” he said.
What Mr. Biden could say when he moves into the White House is, “There is nothing going past me that doesn’t address climate,” Mr. Joppa said. Supporting a carbon-pricing arrangement, which would feed into carbon accounting and budgeting systems, would be a “fundamental” way to “saturate climate across our governmental components.”
We should expect global cooperation on climate, and soon.
The Biden administration faces a daunting task of rebuilding international alliances that have frayed in recent years. Once it begins, expect to see renewed global cooperation on climate happen quickly, both in prominent settings like the Paris Agreement and in quieter diplomatic efforts, said Rajiv Shah, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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These diplomatic actions, “coupled with the leadership of big companies and big financial institutions,” would be “a tremendous win,” he said.
Speaking of the private sector, the financial industry could help redirect government policy, said Citi’s Ariel Meyerstein. “There’s a whole other infrastructure, speaking from the financial sector, that we’ve been kind of checked out of for a couple of years,” he said. The government could help set standards for investors that follow environmental, society and governance, or E.S.G., targets, he added. When it comes to corporate climate risk disclosures, this would have a greater impact, he said:
“As we know, in the E.S.G. and sustainability reporting space there are a dizzying array of standards. We could use some alignment there. There are a lot of things you can call Track II diplomacy or just regulatory engagement that happens in normal times, in very robust ways, that doesn’t require legislative or administration action or any executive orders or pronouncements. It’s just doing the work of coordinating with our peers across the world. I think all of that is pretty essential.”
Mandatory disclosures of climate risks by listed companies appears to be a “high priority” for the Biden administration, said Rostin Behnam, a commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “That is probably the first thing people think about when they think about climate change and financial markets.” A new report by the C.F.T.C. starkly outlined the risk of climate change to financial stability, and he explained how the next administration might make use of its findings:
“One of the strongest statements that comes at the very beginning of the report and is often cited — and it’s something that can be embraced or used as a starting point on Day 1 in a new administration — is that climate change poses a major risk to the stability of the U.S. financial system. And I think that in itself will change the posture of how financial regulators are thinking about climate change.”
He acknowledged that the risks of climate change comprise the bulk of the report, but there are also “really exciting” opportunities, “whether it is fiscal policy or different incentives to create ways that investors, whether retail or institutional, would start to allocate some of their capital toward new technology that will support a transition to a net-zero economy.”
Every part of corporate supply chains have a role to play — and in many cases, they already are.
In the absence of federal action on climate, many states, cities, and businesses have adopted their own initiatives to reduce emissions and environmental harms. Walmart’s chief sustainability officer, Kathleen McLaughlin, discussed the retailer’s efforts to cut emissions throughout their supply chain, and how complementary regulatory policy can strengthen similar efforts:
It is practical action in energy, product design — like cold water laundry detergent, for example, so people don’t have to use hot water to get their clothes clean — packaging, food waste reduction, plastic waste reduction, sustainable agriculture practices, forests, all of these things. And they’re doing all of that without a super great policy environment. So, now imagine if we can come in and say, all right, it makes a lot of sense for us to exploit the intersectionality here. If we had a policy environment that put a tailwind behind all of that activity, imagine what we can ramp up.
Some Trump administration actions can be repurposed for a climate-friendly agenda.
The White House under President Trump created a number of administrative programs and legal authorizations that empowered agencies and departments to dole out money with few restrictions. Chris Adamo of Danone North America explained how his successor might be able to use these changes in the service of its climate agenda:
“We’ve seen the Trump administration spend over $30 billion the last couple years on trade mitigation loss and Covid loss. Now I’m not going to defend whether that was done well or correctly, but that legal authority can be redirected into a climate purpose. And I think that’s really important to keep in mind. I do think the Biden administration will have some version of that hopefully in place for 2021.”
Environmental harms get passed down the generations, a cycle that must be broken.
A parallel effort of Mr. Biden’s climate plan is addressing environmental justice. His team plans to introduce an environmental and climate division within the Department of Justice, and has committed to placing 40 percent of a $1.7 trillion clean energy investment in historically disadvantaged communities.
Catherine Coleman Flowers, an activist who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship this year for her pioneering work on waste and water crises in rural communities, described the ways that structural racism interacts with the environment:
I’ll use Little Haiti in Miami as an example. The reason Black people and people of color settled in Little Haiti was because that was the only place they could buy property. Now that it is some of the highest ground in the Miami area, it’s desirable — and they’re being priced out of it. And where do they go? They go to the places that the folk that can afford to leave are trying to get away from, and get to places like Little Haiti. So, we have this vicious cycle that’s in place and we have to figure out a way in which we can roll this back.