This weekend marks the end of the first month of the Biden Presidency.  In the weeks since the inauguration we have seen a wave of action from the White House on climate change.  If this period is any guide, the next four years could see the U.S. Government make America a leader in addressing climate change and driving the energy transition.

In one month, we have seen the Biden Administration take the following actions:

  • The U.S. rejoined the Paris Climate Accord
  • Cancelled the Keystone XL Pipeline
  • Appointed the first U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and gave the position authority over energy policy and climate policy within the executive branch
  • Appointed a Climate Czar to coordinate climate action across multiple federal agencies and Congress
  • Appointed Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, Interior, Health and Human Services, Treasury, and Transportation who all pledged to make fighting climate change a top priority
  • Announced the U.S. will host a Leaders’ Climate Summit on Earth Day, April 22, 2021
  • Established the National Climate Taskforce to enable a whole-of-government approach to combat the climate crisis
  • Directed federal agencies to procure carbon pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles
  • Directed the Secretary of the Interior to pause entering new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters and identify steps to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030.
  • Signed an order directing federal agencies to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies when possible and identify opportunities to spur the deployment of clean energy technologies and infrastructure.

This list shows a newfound commitment to tackling climate change that Washington has not seen in years.

The Biden Administration must now build on this foundation. Despite its recent activity, there is a limit to what can be done through appointment or Executive Order. Under the Constitution, Congress controls whether a project is funded and at what level.  If the administration wants to increase spending on renewable energy or take away tax breaks that benefit fossil fuel companies, it will require Congressional approval.  Similarly, only Congress has the power to impose and collect taxes, duties, or fees so if the Biden White House wants a carbon tax or an emissions trading system run by the government, these will also need to be voted on by the Legislative Branch.

It is likely the administration will also have to fight in court to protect some of these Executive Orders from legal challenges.

Because climate change is a global problem, if the Biden Administration wants to be a leader on the issue it must engage with the international community.  This means the U.S., under Biden’s leadership will need to take an active role in conferences like the upcoming COP 26 in November. The conference will cover many key areas in the fight against climate change such as carbon offsetting, providing financial aid for developing countries and reviewing the Paris Agreement.  Given the size of its economy and emission levels, a strong U.S. presence can send a clear signal that these issues are to be taken seriously and that financial commitments made at the conference can have the backing they need. Is this an opportunity for the U.S. government to help emerging markets chose to adopt clean energy technologies instead of fossil fuels?

The importance of American engagement on this issue goes beyond COP 26. For example, in a piece for, Mindy Lubber, the CEO and President of Ceres stated, that increased U.S. involvement will, “put pressure on global financial systems, including our own, to take concrete steps to assess and act on mitigating climate risk through oversight and regulatory action, such as a global standard for climate reporting.” Will we see a U.S.-led system of international financial reporting on climate risk emerge from COP 26?

On an international level, the White House’s focus on climate change will mark a dramatic shift from the last four years. In addition to pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, the previous administration questioned the science on climate change and used past international conferences to tout natural gas and so-called “clean coal”.

In terms of fighting climate change, the last month has been a good start, but it is just a start.  Given the urgency of the problem, if we are to look back on this time as a period when America rose to the challenge of climate change it will be because of four years of sustained progress, not just four weeks of action.