January 29, 2021
With a year riddled by unprecedented trials and tribulations behind us, we are beginning to see rays of sunlight shining through the gray clouds still ahead.
In a nod to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” it feels like the ice is slowly beginning to melt after a long, cold, lonely winter – and the smiles are starting to return to our faces.
We still clearly have many challenges to come in 2021, not the least of which, on the heels of an alarming insurrection, is addressing the deep divisions around racial justice, economic hardships, income disparities, and public health in our country while we strive to dramatically ramp up vaccination efforts to slow the still-record-breaking COVID deaths. But there are also reasons for hope.
Vaccines have been developed at record rates. The new federal administration is already taking action to begin the repair of racial and environmentally damaging policies and to rejoin the international community through critical global commitments and partnerships.
First Steps for Climate Recovery
In his first week, President Biden has set ambitious climate goals, including a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and putting the United States on a path to a net-zero economy by 2050.
On January 27, Biden signed several Executive Orders to:
Center the Climate Crisis in U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security Considerations: This effort encompasses the creation of a new position – the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (former Secretary of State John Kerry) – who will have a seat on the National Security Council, and the kickoff of the process to develop the United States’ emission-reduction target – under the Paris Agreement (which Biden rejoined his first day in office) and a climate finance plan.
Take a Whole-of-Government Approach to the Climate Crisis: This goal established the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by the first-ever National Climate Advisor (former EPA chief Gina McCarthy) and Deputy National Climate Advisor (Ali Zaidi) – created a central office in the White House that is charged with coordinating a new National Climate Task Force. This office assembles leaders from across 21 federal agencies and departments to enable a whole-of-government approach to combat the climate crisis.
Leverage the Federal Government’s Footprint and Buying Power to Lead by Example: The President directed the federal agencies to procure “Made in American” carbon pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles. It also directed the Interior Secretary to pause on entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters to the extent possible and identify steps that can be taken to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030. The order directs federal agencies to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies and identify new opportunities to spur clean-energy technologies and infrastructure.
Rebuild Our Infrastructure for a Sustainable Economy: Biden directed steps to ensure that every federal infrastructure investment reduces climate pollution and that steps are taken to accelerate clean energy and transmission projects.
Advance Conservation, Agriculture, and Reforestation: This principle commits to the goal of conserving at least 30% of our lands and oceans by 2030 and launches a process for stakeholder engagement; calls for the establishment of a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative; and directs the Secretary of Agriculture to collect input from farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders on how to encourage adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices.
Revitalize Energy Communities: A new Interagency Working Group across federal agencies will coordinate investments and other efforts to assist coal, oil and natural gas, and power-plant communities. It also advances projects that reduce emissions of toxic substances and greenhouse gases from existing and abandoned infrastructure, and efforts to turn properties idled in these communities, like brownfields, into new hubs for the growth of our economy.
Secure Environmental Justice and Spur Economic Opportunity:
The action formalizes President Biden’s commitment to make environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency by directing federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.
Advancing Environmental Justice
Biden also established a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to prioritize environmental justice and ensure a whole-of-government approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices, including strengthening environmental-justice monitoring and enforcement.
The order creates a government-wide Justice40 Initiative with the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities and tracks performance toward that goal through the establishment of an Environmental Justice Scorecard.
The order initiates the development of a Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool, building upon the EPA’s EJSCREEN, to identify disadvantaged communities, support the Justice40 Initiative, and inform equitable decision-making across the federal government.
Biden also made a point of putting science back at the center of decision-making with a Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking, which directs agencies to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data and an executive order establishing a presidential council of advisors on science and technology.
Now Is the Time
As the Inaugural Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman said,” There is always light. Only if we are brave enough to see it. There is always light. Only if we are brave enough to be it.”
As we hold onto the hope we can’t forget the pain but rather use it to drive change. We can’t return to our pre-COIVD “normal,” for there is nothing normal about the persistent levels of income inequity, racial injustice and environmental degradation our society and elected leaders have tolerated and condoned for too long.
We can’t boost the economy in ways that will continue our other health crises (air pollution and climate change). It is imperative that we consider opportunities to create more sustainable, resilient jobs and invest in helping industries become cleaner and more efficient (and by doing so, more economically sustainable and equitable).
Now is the time to invest any additional stimulus dollars into projects that address public health, climate and social equity needs, including infill affordable housing, critical transit projects, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, broadband deployment and sustained telecommuting and telemedicine programs, zero-emission vehicle fleet conversion and infrastructure deployment, urban greening (especially in marginalized communities) and access to healthy, local food.
Leadership at the local level never let up while the federal government was rolling back environmental protections over the last four years. Government action at the state and local level will continue to be vitally central to curbing greenhouse gas emissions since the majority of emissions are produced in cities through transportation and buildings. The funding, technical assistance and leadership from the federal government will ensure that we can go further faster. We must all work together to reemerge in ways that foster greater equity and resilience, and lay the foundation for a prosperous and healthy future for all of us.