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In sweeping executive orders, Biden brings climate to the forefront of U.S. policy

A fishing trawler off the Alaskan coast. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

A fishing trawler off the Alaskan coast. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • On Wednesday, the Biden administration issued a series of executive orders on climate change, proposing an expansive plan that it says is the most ambitious in U.S. history.
  • The orders formalized promises made by Biden during his presidential campaign.
  • Included in the orders are a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands as well as a proposal to conserve 30 percent of U.S. land and oceans.

A new U.S. administration is in office, and on Wednesday it made clear that addressing climate change will be at the top of its list of priorities. In an expansive series of executive orders, President Joe Biden committed to a slew of climate actions, including a halt on any new contracts for fossil fuel extraction on public land, the establishment of a new National Climate Task Force, and a plan to set aside 30 percent of America’s lands and oceans for conservation.

Cumulatively, the orders represent a sharp break from the policies of former president Donald Trump, who famously pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and at one point referred to climate change as a “hoax.”

“We have to do our part or we will not be able to make the kind of worldwide change that climate change demands,” said Gina McCarthy, Biden’s newly appointed National Climate Advisor.

Coastline of the Big Island, Hawaii. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.

Following years where scientists working in U.S. federal agencies were pressured to publish inaccurate assessments of the looming risks of climate change, the Biden administration said it would stand aside and let them do their work.

“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,” said a statement released by Biden.

The statement also said that senior officials in the intelligence community would be preparing a National Intelligence Estimate to assess the impact of climate change on American foreign policy, indicating that the Biden administration views it as a national security issue.

The new policies were said to be part of a “whole-of-government approach” that would push climate change to the forefront of the administration’s decision-making on a range of issues. Federal agencies will now be directed to purchase carbon-free power and zero emissions vehicles, for example.

A forest dying due to Rapid ‘Ōhi’a Death. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The statement said that Biden’s plan would prioritize the creation of green jobs through federal investment and aim to direct 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of those investments towards disadvantaged communities.

It also set the year 2035 as the target for a carbon pollution-free energy sector along with “net-zero” emissions for the U.S. overall by 2050.

But 14 years is a long time in American politics, and the pushback from the fossil fuel industry along with its allies in the Republican party was fierce and rapid. One conservative senator from Alaska called the orders a “radical departure” from previous administrations, and others vowed to fight any new regulations on emissions and fossil fuel extraction.

While most of the plan was previously announced during Biden’s presidential campaign, some advocates say they were impressed by the timing and speed of the orders, saying it indicates that climate change is a top priority of the new administration.

“The Biden administration is coming out of the gate with this if not as a day one priority, then a day six priority, and a sense of urgency that I don’t think was quite there before,” said Charles Barber, senior biodiversity advisor with the World Resources Institute and a former U.S. state department official. “There was a will to do something in the Obama administration, but health care was something we really dove into in the beginning.”

Barber said that the proposal to conserve 30 percent of U.S. land and forests brings it into alignment with a larger global initiative called “30×30.”

But to get there, Biden will have to first take an inventory of land suitable for conservation purposes in the U.S. and then enter into complex and delicate negotiations with private landowners and tribal authorities.

“You’ve got to balance ecological integrity with practical politics and economics,” Barber said. “And that’s not easy to do, so it’s ambitious.”

Bison in Yellowstone Nation Park. Photo by David Mark.

Environmental groups largely praised Biden’s executive orders, saying that it represented a sea change in federal policy from the Trump administration.

Friends of the Earth, for example, called the order’s focus on environmental justice a “precedent setting opportunity to reset the United States’ efforts to address climate change.”

However, they cautioned that the 30 percent conservation plan would need to be implemented carefully so as to avoid damaging the livelihoods of resource-dependent communities.

“We hope that the eventual 30-by-30 plan refrains from imposing top-down measures that could devastate our remaining small-scale, low-impact commercial fishing families,” said Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led advocacy group that grew into a powerful voice for strong climate change action in recent years, called the orders “great” in a series of tweets, but also “just the beginning” of the policy changes needed to stave off disaster.

“Our movement isn’t going anywhere,” they said.

A fishing trawler off the Alaskan coast. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

While it remains to be seen whether some of Biden’s more ambitious goals will be fully implemented, Barber says the orders represent a celebration-worthy change from recent years.

“We’ll have to see, it’s still the first week, but it’s a very ambitious start. And it’s basically a U-turn from where the Trump administration has been going on these things,” he said.