“Climate Day”: A radical change in direction signaled by Biden

By Oliver Milman | January 27, 2021

artists rendition of globe and life preserverImage courtesy of Emmagrau/Pixabay

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The Guardian. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Joe Biden has warned the climate crisis poses an “existential threat” to the world as he unveiled a radical change in direction from the Trump era by halting fossil fuel activity on public lands and directing the US government to start a full-frontal effort to lower planet-heating emissions.

“We have already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis, we can’t wait any longer,” the US president said as he signed a battery of executive orders on Wednesday. “We see it with our own eyes, we feel it in our bones. It’s time to act.”

Biden has instructed the US government to pause and review all oil and gas drilling on federal land, eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and transform the government’s vast fleet of cars and trucks into electric vehicles, in a sweeping new set of climate executive orders.

“We desperately need unified national response to the climate crisis, because there is a climate crisis,” Biden said.

He pledged to put “environmental justice” at the center “of all we do” to help mitigate the disproportionate effects of climate change on Black and brown communities in the US, with policy and funding changes. The president framed the actions as a remedy to pandemic-driven unemployment as well as an environmental benefit.

Biden said that millions of well-paid jobs would flow from investments in clean energy such as solar and wind, as well as energy efficiency measures for homes and the clean-up of former oil wells.

“These aren’t pie in the sky dreams, they are concrete actionable solutions,” the president said.

“This isn’t time for small measures, we need to be bold. It’s about jobs, good paying union jobs, it’s a whole of government approach to put climate change at the center of our domestic, national security and foreign policies. We can do this, we must do this and we will do this.”

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The slew of executive actions direct the Department of the Interior to pause new oil and gas leases on public lands and offshore waters and launch a “rigorous review of all existing leasing”, according to a White House planning document.

The directive opens up a path to the banning of all new drilling on federal land, a campaign promise made by Biden that has been widely praised by climate groups and caused outrage within the fossil fuel industry. Biden has called the climate crisis the “existential threat of our time” and the White House has said the new executive orders will help push the US towards a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“President Biden and his administration are taking an important step in the right direction by limiting oil and gas development on federal lands,” said Robert Howarth, professor of ecology at Cornell University, who added that the world “must rapidly transition away from fossil fuels” to avoid disastrous climate change.

Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, added that “Hitting pause on oil and gas leasing is a crucial first step toward reforming a rigged and broken system that for too long has put oil and gas lobbyists ahead of the American people.”

Around a quarter of the US’s planet-heating emissions comes from fossil fuel production on public lands and it is estimated a national ban on leasing would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons a year. Donald Trump’s administration opened up almost all federally owned land to drilling, a move cheered as a job creator by industry but decried by environmentalists and Native American tribes.

“There has to be a balance point: people over money,” said Daniel Tso, a member of the Navajo Nation. “I welcome an end to federal fossil fuel leasing and the necessary transitions to more sustainable economies for the Navajo Nation.”

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas drillers in western states, has said her group will challenge the moratorium in court. “The environmental left is leading the agenda at the White House when it comes to energy and environment issues,” she said.

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Biden’s new set of executive orders, dubbed “climate day” by environmental campaigners, adds up to one of the most wide-ranging efforts ever taken by a US president to tackle the climate crisis, building upon his decision last week to re-enter the Paris climate agreement.

Alongside the review of public lands, the Biden administration will install climate as an “essential element” of US foreign policy and national security, craft a strengthened national emissions reduction target, seek to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and will set a new goal of conserving 30 percent of American land and oceans by 2030. The new emissions goal may well be presented at an international climate summit that Biden is planning for Earth Day, on April 22.

The White House, for the first time, will have an office of domestic climate policy to coordinate Biden’s climate agenda alongside a national climate task force that will comprise of 21 government agency leaders to adopt a “whole of government” approach to reducing emissions. A review of scientific integrity practices will roll out.

The orders also establish an environmental justice interagency council to address the racial and economic inequities exacerbated by climate change and air and water pollution. Biden hopes to pass a $2 trillion clean energy package through Congress and he will direct that 40 percent  of investments will be aimed at disadvantaged communities.

In all, the climate package is a strong repudiation of the Trump administration, which consistently sidelined or derided climate science, dismantled policies designed to lower emissions and withdrew from the Paris climate deal.

“This is the single biggest day for climate action in more than a decade, and what makes it all the better is that President Biden and Vice-President Harris are just getting started,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

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