(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden arrived in office with lofty expectations from environmentalists who hoped that his ambitious campaign rhetoric would translate into an aggressive climate platform to match.
One year into his tenure, advocates credit Biden for setting an historically bold agenda, taking important steps to undo Trump-era rollbacks, and enacting a whole-of-government approach to combat climate change.
“President Biden is delivering,” said Margo Oge, the former director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, and current chair of the International Council on Clean Transportation.
But for others, the honeymoon has ended. Inconsistencies and broken pledges have frustrated some, and the fate of Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better proposal — which would commit $550 billion toward addressing climate change — remains in congressional purgatory.
His most fervent critics say he is failing.
“While Biden started off the year strong by undoing most of Trump’s anti-climate executive orders, Biden has stopped leading and is instead feeding us empty promises without delivering on a bold climate agenda,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, an advocacy group that supports political action on climate change.
The mixed reviews reflect a larger dispute within the environmental community as to what constitutes success. Pragmatists see Biden’s climate change efforts as crucial momentum in what Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce calls the “incredibly plodding, deliberative pace of administrative rulemaking.” But more progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement see it differently. Biden, says Prakash, is “refusing to meet the moment we’re in right now.”
Indeed, as the Biden administration embarks on its second year in power, important climate change metrics continue their dire trend. European scientists recently concluded that the past seven years have been the hottest on record “by a clear margin.” And in 2021, America’s greenhouse gas emissions rose by more than 6%, according to the Rhodium Group global research institute.
Experts warn that the political outlook for the coming year may shrink Biden’s window for a legislative victory. Congressional gridlock shows no sign of letting up, looming midterm elections may soon complicate efforts to take bold action, and Biden’s approval rating remains on a downward trend, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
And if Democrats lose control of Congress in November’s midterms, or the White House in 2024, advocates fear the next few months may end up being the last chance for environmentalists to see major legislative action for a decade.
On Wednesday, Biden said he remains “confident [the administration] can get pieces — big chunks — of the Build Back Better law signed into law” before the midterm elections.
“Now is the time for the Biden administration to build on and accelerate the progress made in their first year,” said Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental group.
‘Come out swinging’
For environmentalists, Biden’s very presence in the White House marked an important turning point in the climate fight. His predecessor, former President Donald Trump, sought to dismantle the federal government’s ability to address climate change and took a series of executive actions in line with that philosophy, including removing the U.S. from Paris Climate Accord — a move that Biden reversed on his first day in office.
Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency also took steps to loosen emissions standards put in place during the Obama administration — another measure that Biden has since reversed.
“We were super excited for President Biden — who ran on what was the most aggressive and ambitious climate agenda ever — to come out swinging,” said Pierce. “The level of ambition, scope, and breadth of what he was tackling was extraordinary.”
Before even setting foot in the Oval Office, Biden signaled his intent to prioritize climate issues. He committed to making the U.S. government carbon neutral by 2050, and placed fighting climate change in his pantheon of top priorities alongside strengthening the economy, ending the coronavirus pandemic, and battling racism.
The emphasis on climate reached the far corners of Biden’s transition process. A former member of Biden’s intelligence transition team told ABC News that their mandate was to focus resources toward combatting “the three C’s” — COVID-19, China, and climate change.
“Climate science demands this ‘whole of government’ approach that pursues every opportunity,” said Chase Huntley, the vice president of strategy at the nonprofit Wilderness Society.
Once in office, Biden took several organizational and bureaucratic steps to pivot away from Trump’s policies. He launched a White House Climate Policy Office to coordinate an administration-wide response to climate change, and established the White House’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council to ensure that at least 40% of the benefits of climate investments go to communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution.
Then came the executive actions, which environmentalists lauded for their sweeping reversal of Trump’s rollbacks. A Washington Post analysis found that Biden targeted half of the Trump era’s energy and environmental executive actions. A White House spokesperson highlighted Biden’s efforts to restore U.S. climate leadership abroad, jump-start electric vehicle development, and accelerate clean energy initiatives.
But since those early days of the Biden administration, his climate victories have been blunted by setbacks.
Two steps forward, one step back
While experts say the Biden administration has made meaningful progress on climate issues ranging from emissions standards to fossil fuel extraction, environmentalists also see inconsistencies — actions from the administration that seem to undermine the president’s own pledges and rhetoric.
On the use of federal lands and waters, for example, the administration garnered praise from environmentalists when the Department of Interior suspended its controversial oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the summer of 2021. And just last week, the White House announced plans to open up large swaths of New York and New Jersey coastal waters for renewable wind infrastructure, which experts say will eventually produce enough energy to power two million homes.
But those developments have been overshadowed by the Biden administration’s auctioning off of large swaths of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico for oil drilling, a decision that will serve to “perpetuate climate pollution from public lands instead of reduce it,” according to Huntley.
Biden pledged to end new drilling on federal lands during his presidential campaign, and just days before the lease sale in November, he encouraged every nation at the Glasgow COP26 Climate Conference to “do its part” to solve the climate crisis.
“It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous, hypocritical action in the aftermath of the climate summit,” said Kristen Monsell, a lawyer for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
Administration officials justified the decision to move forward with the lease sale by citing a court order to do so, despite claims from environmentalists that they were under no such obligation. On Wednesday, environmental groups sent a legal petition calling on the administration to cease oil and gas production on public lands by 2035. The Department of Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Vehicle emissions have also emerged as a source of contention. The EPA under Biden recently proposed the most aggressive limits on pollution from cars and light trucks in history, mandating higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles starting in 2023. Experts welcomed the measure and took stock of its significance.
“Given that transportation is the number-one greenhouse gas contributor in the U.S., that was a pretty big deal,” said Oge.
But Biden refused to sign on to a multi-country commitment to take similar steps for buses and large trucks — some of the highest-polluting vehicles on the road. After the COP26 summit in Glasgow, 15 countries signed a pledge to make all new commercial trucks electric by 2040. The U.S. was not one of them.
“I was disappointed,” Oge said. “But it does not mean the administration can’t still take steps to reduce those emissions.”
The administration also scored points with activists when it stepped in to halt the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. But Abigail Dillen of Earthjustice points out that it failed to take action against the Line 3 pipeline, which, “from a climate standpoint, [is] equally harmful,” Dillen said.
“The Biden administration has clear authority to take back the Line 3 permit,” said Dillen. “The real difference between these two pipelines appears to be a political calculus. The Biden administration encountered unsurprising blowback in some quarters for its Keystone decision.”
Several environmentalists speculate that the Biden administration has sought to use its executive authority sparingly — doing enough to strengthen major climate priorities, but not so much as to put off moderate legislators whose votes will be needed to pass Build Back Better.
Despite those apparent contradictions, Biden’s political allies remain in his corner — particularly when his environmental record is held up against Trump’s — but they say they’re looking forward to additional progress in the coming year.
“Compared to Trump, the Biden administration has done a good job,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “But we must hold our government to a higher standard than President Trump and his cronies if we are going to be serious about taking on climate change.”
Hope and headwinds
Environmentalists and industry leaders view the next few months as crucial to Biden’s climate legacy, even as he faces political headwinds. Many seem inclined to be patient with Biden and his team, in light of their progress and pledges to date, and point to several areas where Biden can put points on the board.
Advocates say the administration can take additional executive actions, such as encouraging federal agencies, including the Pentagon, to turn toward electric vehicles for its fleets. The EPA has also signaled that it may propose tighter greenhouse gas emissions for heavy-duty vehicles starting in 2027 — which Oge said she hopes will include “strong and ambitious requirements for buses and delivery vans to be electric.”
“Looking ahead, this administration needs to be turning all the knobs under their control as far as they can go, for the sake of climate,” Huntley said.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in February in a case brought by Republican-led states that could curb the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions standards.
The most pressing issue, however, remains Biden’s signature Build Back Better plan — an enormous package that experts believe will make or break Biden’s environmental ambitions. The plan is universally opposed by congressional Republicans.
The plan is universally opposed by congressional Republicans, who have expressed concern over what its $1.7 trillion price tag would do to the national debt, and a pair of moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who are advocating for a pared-down version of the bill.
But the White House indicated this week that it will press forward, even as other legislative priorities take center stage.
“Yes, there is a lot one can do under executive order — but a really large portion driving the kind of investments to tackle climate change has to come from Congress,” said the Sierra Club’s Melinda Pierce. “When you look to measure what was done in Year One, clearly the piece that has to be achieved legislatively is incomplete.”
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