President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed a package of executive orders elevating climate change at every level of the federal government, a move that the administration said will put the United States on the path to reducing its share of emissions that are warming the planet.
In an interview Wednesday morning, former Secretary of State John Kerry, Biden’s international climate change envoy, also said he hoped to see the United States announce new, more ambitious emissions targets “at or before” a summit that Biden intends to host April 22, which is Earth Day, although he declined to put numbers to those targets.
“That’s pretty high gear,” Kerry said, adding, “The United States needs to be as ambitious as possible, because our credibility has been tarnished in these four years we have been absent.”
Wednesday’s raft of executive orders focused on three main themes: job creation, environmental justice and weaving climate change into every facet of the government.
Taking the first significant steps toward one of Biden’s most controversial campaign promises, the orders directed the secretary of the Interior Department “to pause on entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and offshore waters to the extent possible” while beginning a “rigorous review” of all existing fossil fuel leases and permitting practices, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House.
Federal agencies also were ordered to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies “and identify new opportunities to spur innovation.” Overhauling the tax breaks — worth billions of dollars to the oil, coal and gas industries — to help pay for Biden’s $2 trillion climate change plan was also a major campaign promise. Both plans are expected to face strong opposition in Congress.
Wednesday’s executive orders also set broad new foreign policy goals.
They formalized the role for Kerry as Biden’s new international climate envoy, with a seat on the National Security Council. And the orders specified that climate change, for the first time, will be a core part of all foreign policy and national security decisions.
“We applaud this,” said Erin Sikorsky, who led climate and national security analysis across federal intelligence agencies until last year and is now deputy director of the Center for Climate & Security, a Washington-based think tank. “It moves us beyond what Obama did.”
The United States has struggled to meet its promises under the Paris Agreement, the 2015 international accord to fight climate change; under those terms the United States had pledged to slash emissions up to 28% below 2005 levels by 2020. Nevertheless, Biden’s orders will kick off a process to develop new and more ambitious targets that will be announced in advance of a major UN summit at the end of the year.
First on the international agenda, though, will be a Climate Leaders Summit in April that administration officials said will likely include heads of state from major emitting countries and a handful of others that have been significant players in the global climate negotiations.
Kerry in his interview did not commit to announcing the new targets at that gathering but said, “our goal would be to try to do that at or before” the leaders’ summit.
“We’re coming back after four years of absence. We have to have some humility here, recognizing that the president of the United States, our predecessor, angered a lot of people and created a lot of unhappiness and left a trail of doubt about where America is going to go,” Kerry said.
US energy analysts have speculated the Biden administration could reasonably promise to cut emissions between 40% and 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. Europeans and environmental activists have urged the United States to go further, as far as 70%.
Kerry on Wednesday said it was “way too premature” to talk numbers but said he was mindful that the United States needs to be ambitious and realistic at the same time.
“We have to do it in a way that is achievable and reasonable,” he said.
By committing to a new target, the United States would bind itself to even steeper reductions than it promised under the Obama administration. That will ratchet up pressure on the Biden administration to deliver quickly on its domestic policies, including reviving and strengthening regulations that former President Donald Trump killed to curb carbon pollution from power plants and automobile tailpipes.
Kerry also sidestepped questions about how much more in finance the United States would deliver to poor and vulnerable countries hit hardest by climate change. The United States under the Obama administration pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a pool of international financing aimed at helping developing countries. It delivered $1 billion before Trump abandoned the commitment.
Kerry on Wednesday said the question of how much Biden will request in his first budget later this year to start fulfilling the unpaid $2 billion is “under discussion,” as is whether the United States will increase its pledge.
Oil and gas industry leaders signalled that many of Biden’s domestic climate plans would face steep opposition.
“Penalizing the oil and gas industry kills good-paying American jobs, hurts our already struggling economy, makes our country more reliant on foreign energy sources, and impacts those who rely on affordable and reliable energy,” Anne Bradbury, president of the American Exploration and Production Council, a trade group that represents oil and gas producers, said in a statement.
Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group that represents offshore energy companies, hinted at legal challenges ahead, saying in a statement that the pause on oil and gas leasing in particular “is contrary to law and puts America on a path toward increased imports from foreign nations that have been characterized as pollution havens.”
Environmental groups called the changes long overdue, particularly after four years in which the Trump administration mocked climate science and eliminated virtually every tool the government had to tackle rising emissions.
“This is the single biggest day for climate action in more than a decade,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
In his campaign, Biden set out goals of eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the electricity sector by 2035, protecting 30% of lands and oceans by 2030, and putting the United States on a path toward net-zero emissions — that is, eliminating as much carbon pollution as the country puts into the atmosphere — before 2050. His plan calls for spending $2 trillion over four years to meet that goal, a tall order in a narrowly divided Congress.
In addition to formalizing a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy led by Gina McCarthy, who previously served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator under former President Barack Obama, Biden also intends to establish a National Climate Task Force that will include leaders from 21 federal agencies.
It also creates a new White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a separate advisory council to prioritize an understanding of the damage pollution does to poor and minority communities.
Biden also directed agencies to look for ways to increase the amount and quality of climate-forecast information available, to help “governments, communities, and businesses in preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change.”
Those impacts extend to the federal government itself. The White House directed every agency to create plans that will better protect their facilities against climate change. That reflects a significant challenge: Even the Washington headquarters of many agencies, including the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the EPA, sit inside the 100-year flood plain.
Biden also issued a memorandum on scientific integrity, instructing agencies to make what the White House called “evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.” Every agency, not just those that do scientific research, must appoint “scientific integrity” officials.
The steps to ensure scientific integrity follow efforts by the Trump administration to thwart climate science. In one of the most prominent examples, senior Trump officials pressured leaders at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2019 to repudiate their own scientists after a weather station in Birmingham, Alabama, contradicted Trump’s incorrect statement that Hurricane Dorian would strike the state.