As a candidate President Biden spoke of the need to act on climate change and said, “it requires action, not denial… leadership, not scapegoating.”

This week marks President Biden’s first year in office. How has he done over the past twelve months in showing leadership on this issue?

To answer to this question, we decided to look at Biden’s performance in a few key areas: executive action, working with Congress, and international relations.

Executive Action

As President, Biden has areas where he can act on climate change without Congressional approval. On his first day in office Biden signed an executive order that placed the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement.  In the proceeding weeks and months, he followed up with several appointments and executive orders designed to cut U.S. carbon emissions and support the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables.  Some of these actions include:

  • Requiring the federal government to cut emissions by 65% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050
  • Cancelling the Keystone XL Pipeline
  • Appointing Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, Interior, Treasury, and Transportation who pledged to make fighting climate change a top priority
  • Established the National Climate Taskforce to enable a governmentwide approach to combat the climate crisis
  • As part of the White House Office of Science and Technology the new Energy Division was launched to develop a national clean energy innovation plan
  • Directed federal agencies to procure carbon pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles
  • Directed the Secretary of the Interior to 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.

Some of Biden’s actions have frustrated climate advocates, however. Rolling Stone Magazine reported that administration efforts to defend Trump-approved oil-and-gas lease grants in Wyoming, not blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline, and issuing 2,100 new oil and gas permits have made climate hawks question the White House’s commitment to the issue.

Working with Congress

Upon taking office, Biden and the Democratic Congressional majorities confirmed nominees and accelerated legislation that a Republican majority might have ignored.  Working with this majority Biden signed an infrastructure bill that included over $200 billion in programs and projects that lower carbon emissions and speed up the energy transition. This investment surpassed previous efforts, like the 2009 Stimulus, to invest in clean energy.

However, the administration has come up short in other areas. Efforts to pass the multi trillion-dollar Build Back Better (BBB) legislation, which includes $555 billion in climate-related spending, has stalled and its future looks uncertain. At the same time more encompassing initiatives like the Green New Deal have not moved forward.

Unfortunately for Biden the failure to pass large scale legislation hangs over his other efforts. While the infrastructure package should be seen as an important accomplishment it was dwarfed by the debate over BBB.  This perception was driven by price tag associated with BBB and efforts by progressives in Congress to hold up a vote on infrastructure until moderate Democrats agreed to pass both bills.

International Relations

Climate advocates and elected officials celebrated Biden’s victory in 2020.  The administration tried to send the message that things would be different from the Trump White House.  In addition to bringing America back into the Paris Agreement, the White House hosted a climate summit in April that included 40 world leaders making pledges to reduce emissions.

COP 26 was a mixed bag for Biden.  On the positive side, the US worked with the European Union to push the Global Methane Pledge which aims to cut global methane emissions by 30% before the end of the decade. By the end of the conference 80 nations had signed up for the pledge.  In addition, the US and China announced an agreement to work together on limiting carbon emissions.

However, America failed to sign on to agreements to phase out coalmining, set an end date for the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars, and create a “loss and damage” fund to help poorer nations deal with climate change. These moves drew criticism from advocates including ActionAid International and the Union of Concerned Scientist.

Like with his legislative efforts, Biden’s international standing has been hit by the failure to take broader domestic action. At the COP, progressive Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) questioned America’s role as a leader on climate change: “No, we have not recovered our moral authority. I believe that we are making steps. We have to actually deliver the action in order to get the respect and authority internationally, to get the credit.”

This sentiment was echoed in a BBC interview by Dr. Joanna Depledge, of the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, when she said, “Everything that Biden pledged, led to this relatively good atmosphere and a sense of momentum in Glasgow. But these were just promises, he needs to get the bill through Congress. And it’s now looking increasingly dicey. He can do some things with executive orders, but that certainly isn’t the kind of sustained institutional climate legislation change that we’re really looking for.”

The Future

It seems Biden’s work on climate can be divided into before and after BBB.  He has had successes using focused, practical measures, but the failure to pass large scale legislation creates the impression that he has come up short on the issue.

Given this situation, now would be a good time for Biden to change the conversation on climate.  Instead of focusing on Congress he might consider looking for ways to support climate actors outside of Washington, DC. These groups would include investors, companies, and state governments.

How effective Biden is at this may ultimately determine whether history judges him as someone who truly took action and provided leadership on climate change.