One of President Biden’s favorite phrases is “science is back.” After four years of the Trump administration’s deregulatory policies, drilling permits for federal lands and denialism in the face of climate catastrophe, Biden makes a point of proving he will listen to scientists when it comes to preventing full-blown disaster.
Last week, he led a gathering of world leaders on the topic of climate change. And he made some very bold promises. From the East Room of the White House, Biden tried to reestablish America’s role as a leader on the issue of climate change.
During the course of the two-day virtual summit, Biden surrounded himself with various government officials, demonstrating his whole-of-government approach to combating this problem. From transportation to trade to energy, Biden is laying the groundwork for a multiyear clean energy strategy to reduce America’s carbon footprint.
One of the central figures in Biden’s mission is Gina McCarthy (AG’81), who serves in the recently created position of national climate advisor. McCarthy served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during Obama’s second term, but many of her accomplishments in that regulatory position were rolled back by the Trump administration.
“We see multiple pathways across all sectors, across all policy levers, across federal and state and local actions to grow our economy and reduce our emissions,” McCarthy said at a White House briefing. Her international partner, Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry, also emphasized the need for diplomatic rigor when dealing with China and India, two of the world’s largest emitters of carbon.
Biden made the ambitious announcement that the United States would look to achieve a 50% to 52% reduction of its 2005 emissions level by the end of the decade. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who re-introduced the Green New Deal with Sen. Ed Markey on April 20, even said Biden has “exceeded expectations that progressives had.”
But Biden’s real climate agenda still faces some serious tests. During Obama’s second term, the president was forced to meet certain climate goals through regulatory and executive actions — the Paris Climate Agreement, most notably. And of course, the Trump administration reneged on those obligations and rolled back those very regulations when it got the chance.
Obama failed to pass a climate package through Congress when he had the chance. In 2009, the House of Representatives passed a cap-and-trade bill known as Waxman-Markey only to have the legislation die in the Senate. That failure to produce climate legislation left only executive action, which can be easily and unilaterally undone.
Biden cannot make the same mistake. The president often talks about his ability to get substantive legislation through Congress, and he delivered with the American Rescue Plan. But if he hopes to have a lasting legacy on America’s climate resilience, he will need to prove his willingness to put an ambitious climate agenda before Congress and to push it through by whatever means necessary.