Natural Sciences

Joe Biden’s climate change plans focus on jobs, science and security

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

Joe Biden’s first week in office has been full of sweeping executive orders rolling back many of his predecessor’s policies, with a particular focus on climate change

a man wearing a suit and tie: Joe Biden walks past solar panels in Plymouth, New Hampshire, in 2019 - BRIAN SNYDER /REUTERS

Joe Biden walks past solar panels in Plymouth, New Hampshire, in 2019 – BRIAN SNYDER /REUTERS

Rejoining the international Paris Accord marks a sharp change in direction away from Donald Trump’s climate change scepticism, but also recommits the US to setting out  its plans to cut emissions. 

The controversial Keystone Pipeline oil project has also been scrapped, in line with Mr Biden’s pre-inauguration promises, and oil and gas drilling on public land has been suspended

New executive orders on Wednesday began to set out the president’s longer-term goals in greater detail, with three key trends emerging. 


Firstly, in a conscious effort to distance himself from his predecessor, Mr Biden wants to focus on science. 

A smiling Dr Anthony Fauci, the presidential medical adviser, has reappeared at Covid-19 briefings expressing relief that he is no longer hamstrung by Mr Trump’s political agenda. 

And this approach also appears in Mr Biden’s climate ambitions. One of today’s three orders is a memorandum aimed at “restoring scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking across the federal government”. 

“Improper political interference in the scientific process, with the work of scientists, and in the communication of scientific facts undermines the welfare of the nation, contributes to systemic inequities and injustices, and violates the public trust,” it said. 

Under the radar

A second executive order, “Tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad”, provides the most detail we have seen so far into Mr Biden’s approach to climate. 

The president wants climate change to be worked into every aspect of the federal government’s policy, pushing a comprehensive “whole-of-government approach” and a National Climate Task Force staffed by leaders from 21 federal agencies and departments. 

Climate change is a highly partisan issue in the US, and policy making on the issue has in the past been difficult. 

Mr Biden must tread carefully. Executive orders can be challenged in the courts, currently packed with Trump-appointed judges, and the president holds very narrow majorities in the House and the Senate, making the passage of legislation difficult. 

President Barack Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, which assigned states with individual goals for reducing carbon emissions, stalled after running into a series of legal challenges. 

It was eventually replaced by Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy rule which removed states’ powers to shift energy generation away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, which itself was thrown out by a Washington DC court last week. 

So this subtler approach may be a savvy political move to avoid these sorts of legal wrangles, says Dr Colin Provost, associate professor of public policy at UCL. 

“This manner of policymaking runs under the radar a little bit more. It’s a way of getting agencies to do things, where there’s not really a way to sue the agency, to stop what it’s doing. 

“It’s not the most ambitious way to get things done. But it’s definitely a way to get focus trained where you want it in all the agencies, where you’re not necessarily out there generating resistance from those on the other side,” said Dr Provost. 

National security 

Mr Biden’s appointment of special climate envoy John Kerry, Barack Obama’s secretary of state, who helped negotiate the Paris agreement, shows that the US is ready not only to shift its internal policies but to push climate-friendly moves on a global stage. 

The US will “exercise its leadership to promote a significant increase in global ambition” on climate, the White House says.

The President will also ask US intelligence agencies to take into account global warming as they consider national security threats. 

Dr Julie Norman, of UCL’s department of political science, said this marked a change in approach not just for the US but for international efforts to tackle climate change. 

“I think we’ll see more of a shift to actual global thinking, and a bit more integration of policies than we’ve seen in the past, and largely because of this linking to national security issues.”

Countries including the UK are increasingly recognising the national security threat posed by more frequent and more intense natural disasters, and trends such as the displacement of people and damage to economies because of drought and desertification. 

‘Good-paying union jobs’ 

At home, Mr Biden will not expect an easy ride. Already his plans are being criticised by the US’s powerful fossil fuel industry and political opponents who claim they will slow growth. 

Cancelling Keystone and pausing new oil and natural gas leases will “work against a recovering economy and could risk US security. 

“There could hardly be a worse time for actions that kill jobs and could increase oil imports,” claimed the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and natural gas industries, on Tuesday.

Mr Biden, in common with the leaders of other Covid-afflicted nations including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has insisted that the move away from fossil fuels will create jobs, rather than damage the economy. 

The promise of “good-paying union jobs” in renewable energy and zero-emission vehicles is mentioned repeatedly throughout today’s announcement. His success will hinge on whether he can convince voters this is realistic, and follow through. 

But there is some hope for support from unlikely quarters, argues Claire Healy, of climate change think tank E3G. A Covid-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress before Christmas contained tax credits for solar and wind energy.

“Beneath all the noise, I think Republican senators and representatives want this stuff in their constituencies. They want to build solar and wind,” she said. 

Even in Texas, arguably the US’s fossil fuel heartland, wind power overtook coal in the state’s overall energy mix last year, becoming the second-largest power source behind natural gas. 

Common ground with the rest of the world

Internationally, these moves bring Mr Biden into alignment with allies in the UK and Europe, and offer hope that climate change goals could be met. 

Green groups are underwhelmed by events in the UK over the past few weeks. A third runway at Heathrow was backed by the Supreme Court, a new coal mine was allowed to go ahead, and this week the flagship Environment Bill was delayed for months. 

There is hope that Mr Biden’s leadership could provide some much-needed impetus, as well as common ground with Mr Johnson. 

The President’s Leaders’ Climate Summit on Earth Day in April could create momentum for the Cornwall G7 in June ahead of the year’s biggest climate event, the COP26 summit in Glasgow this November.  

“We were driving in this direction without the US for the past four years, thanks to the UK and to Europe, and to China, Japan, South Korea,” added Ms Healy. 

“This was the direction of travel, but with this administration coming in and putting their foot on the accelerator, we are just going to get there faster. It’s the jolt that we needed.”

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About the author

Mamie M. Arndt