Climate Change Policy Likely To Permeate Executive Under Biden

December 9, 2020
Climate change policy under the incoming Biden Administration will likely extend to departments like Housing and Urban Development or Health and Human Services, which could work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from public housing. Above, solar panels on residences in Denver. Photo: HUD, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Climate Change Policy Likely To Permeate Executive Under Biden


EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2021 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

By Joseph A. Davis

In the incoming Biden administration, what department will climate change be under?

That’s a trick question. The correct answer may very well prove to be “most of them.” Based on early signs, the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden wants to harness as many federal agencies as possible in the fight against climate change.

This is not news, really. Major outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have already written about it. But as the transition marches forward and new leaders populate cabinet agencies, it is worth watching how this ambition is realized. It’s a story that could keep environmental journalists busy all year.

According to the Times, the incoming administration may issue an executive order directing every federal agency (may require subscription) to address climate change. As the Biden transition team sifts through potential agency appointees, “climate ambition” is one thing it is looking for … and getting.


Top 10 to watch

Let’s look at the top 10 key federal departments, agencies and spending centers.

  1. Environmental Protection Agency. While the idea that the EPA is the only office that can act on climate is obsolete, the agency remains important. The Clean Air Act gave EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, power plant emissions and auto emissions. And it has done so, more or less, for two administrations. Returning to a regulatory regime like the Obama Clean Power Plan (gutted (may require subscription) under Trump) will be a key Biden objective.
  2. Transportation. The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shares authority with EPA for setting auto mileage standards. That translates to greenhouse gas emissions standards. The Biden administration is expected to re-assert mileage standards that Trump rolled back. The outcome, in addition to cleaner gas-burning cars, may be a faster advent of the era of electric vehicles, which do not emit pollution at all. This cabinet agency has other programs with big climate impacts — like funding for public transit, rail transport, high-speed rail and even bicycle infrastructure.
  3. Treasury. Janet Yellen, Biden’s pick for Treasury secretary, is known as an activist on climate change. She has backed a carbon tax (may require subscription), for example. The tax mechanism has won support on both sides of the aisle and the oil and gas industry (at least the version that wipes away regulation of oil’s carbon emissions while imposing the tax). Congress would have to act to impose such a tax. Still, Treasury could affect climate in other ways. And a carbon tax has hitherto not been part of Biden’s climate plan. As Treasury secretary, Yellen could also play a role in any federal borrowing needed to finance climate action. 
  4. Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC, which regulates the stock markets as an independent agency, could also play a strong climate role. The SEC is supposed to promote disclosure of potential risks to buyers of stocks, but to this point climate-related risks have been neglected. Climate risks could be huge for a company vulnerable to wildfires, or an oil company whose assets (oil reserves) could be shut in and “stranded.” Biden ran on a platform of stronger regulation and disclosure of publicly traded companies’ climate risks.
  5. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is just one of several bodies within the Commerce Department that play a big role in climate. Much of that is basic research: running the ships, buoys, planes and satellites that gather climate data and managing the huge repositories of data they produce. But NOAA agencies play other climate roles as well — including running the National Hurricane Center and the Climate Prediction Center. Trump installed a climate skeptic, Ryan Maue, as chief scientist (may require subscription) at NOAA. Job No. 1 for Biden may be dislodging such picks and restoring scientific integrity in the agency’s leadership.
  6. Energy. The Department of Energy is a funny agency, cobbling together U.S. nuclear bomb-making with a vast research empire that does lots of work on climate topics. Much of that happens at national labs, which tend to be politically popular with hometown voters. An example is the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo. Congress allocates the money among various energy research topics on the broadest level, although the president recommends spending levels in his budget. DOE projects can bring climate-friendly technologies to commercial readiness. But Congressfolk battle over how much goes to develop more efficient solar cells and how much goes to fund the fantasy of “clean coal.”
  7. Health and Human Services. Another catch-all agency, HHS administers the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP helps people who have trouble paying to insulate their homes. Over the years, some people have seen LIHEAP mainly as economic aid to people struggling to keep up. But reducing energy loss in buildings is a huge climate benefit. Its weatherization efforts are administered by the states, along with many other energy aid programs. But aid to low-income people is an ideological and political football, and actual Congressional funding for home weatherization aid has varied a lot, depending on who has control of Congress.
  8. Housing and Urban Development. HUD has many programs intended to fund and increase the supply of housing, especially for people who have trouble finding housing they can afford. Buildings, especially heating them, are one of the big sources of greenhouse gas emissions  — over 12% in the United States and much more worldwide. HUD’s role in supporting public and subsidized housing depends on funding from Congress that is administered via state and local agencies. Mortgage backing by the Federal Housing Administration is a key mechanism. Much of this administrative machinery can be mobilized to reduce emissions from federally supported housing. Also important is the resilience of public and subsidized housing that may not be located in ideal places. A recent study, for instance, found that the amount of such housing vulnerable to coastal flooding (worsened by sea level rise) is expected to triple over the next 30 years.
  9. Agriculture. An important fraction of carbon stored somewhere outside the atmosphere is in the soil and forests. The Department of Agriculture has many programs that can raise or lower such carbon storage. USDA runs the U.S. Forest Service, which regulates the amount of logging in national forests. Since the 1930s’ Dust Bowl, USDA agencies like the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service have been promoting soil conservation through programs that combine grants to farmers with technical assistance. Funding, set by Congress, goes up and down. To listen to some in the farm lobby, the gorilla in the room is ethanol. Corn demand to make ethanol for the congressionally mandated renewable fuel standard is seen as vital by many farmers because it props up the price of corn. Big Oil, of course, works to limit Big Corn’s gains. Whether ethanol blends significantly help the climate, however, is questionable.     
  10. Procurement. Every federal agency buys things. Let’s just take cars. Agencies buy and maintain fleets of tens of thousands of cars just for everyday business. By executive action, Biden could probably require federal fleets to switch to mostly zero-emission (electric) vehicles as they are replaced. Federal procurement is a tangle, for sure, but agencies like the General Services Administration or the Office of Management and Budget help get a grip.


Climate ‘czars’ on international, domestic fronts?

All this merely illustrates how broad the opportunities for climate action are in the federal government — with or without Congress. And it points up that what can be done goes well beyond the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

Biden’s naming of John Kerry to be his special envoy for climate will, of course, address a panoply of international challenges. Less often noted is that Biden regards climate as a national security issue, and that climate will be a key focus of his national security and intelligence staff.


A central coordinating hub at the 

White House level could give urgency 

and cohesion to domestic climate action.


But Biden plans other positions with czar-like powers on the domestic front (although he may avoid the term “czar”). But with so many agencies in play, a central coordinating hub at the White House level could give urgency and cohesion to domestic climate action. 

Biden had not named any domestic climate coordinator as of this writing. The short list mentioned by pundits includes former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich.; Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.; New York energy official Ali Zaidi; White House veteran John Podesta; and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Biden may be able to do some reorganization, too — although he could do a lot more with a mandate from Congress. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates (not a member of the administration), for example, has suggested that Biden form a new energy R&D agency (Gates dubbed it the "National Institutes of Energy Innovation") to focus on the technologies that will hasten the transition to clean energy.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheetReporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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