President-elect Joe Biden will enter the White House with plans to decarbonize the grid by 2035, reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, invest in communities dealing with environmental degradation, and create millions of jobs. But whether he follows through with these campaign promises could depend on who he appoints to his administration.
“Even with the challenges that come with a conservative Supreme Court, from what looks like a conservative Senate, there’s still a lot he could do,” Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies, said. “But it all starts with appointment to executive branch agencies, both at the cabinet level and senior political appointees.”
So far, Biden has not made any announcements about who he will choose as staff, but whispers from anonymous sources and a look at his past relationships offer some clues. And as Biden does nominate agency heads, there are ways to decode whether they will actually implement the changes in climate policy needed.
A key way to determine if an appointee will implement bold climate action is to see if their interests are tied up in polluting industries. Appointing compromised actors is a hallmark of the Trump administration. The president put former fossil fuel lobbyists such as Andrew Wheeler and David Bernhardt in charge agencies overseeing those industries. But the revolving door between government and dirty industry isn’t a one-party problem.
Biden’s advisors on the campaign trail have already been a source of outrage for climate organizers for this reason. Though they weren’t on the campaign’s payroll, the former vice president was reportedly taking advice from compromised actors like Ernest Moniz, who served at President Obama’s energy secretary and is a board member of the gas and electric utility holding firm Southern Company, and and former Obama climate policy chief Heather Zichal, who until recently sat on the board of directors of natural gas exporting company Cheniere. Both are rumored to be in the running for cabinet positions as well.
“These are folks who were really major influences and major implementers of the all-the-above strategy under Obama,” Max Moran, a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, said, referring to the moves to boost all forms of energy, including both renewables and fossil fuels. “One of the main reasons why they took that approach is simply their personal professional incentives. There is a lot of money in being able to revolve out from advising the president, from being in those rooms and understanding how all those levers of power are wielded, into working for a fossil fuel company.”
Zichal and Moniz have both worked directly with polluting industries, but Moran noted that as fossil fuels become seen as gauche, powerful people have moved into relationships with the industry that are less obvious but still dangerous.
“To not be seen as uncouth, some will instead go to an institution that’s one step removed from the fossil fuel industry, where Big Oil is still very much paying your bills,” he said. “So that could be being a big law advisor for fossil fuel firms...or working at a think tank, where you’re able to say, ‘oh, no I’m not paid by the oil industry, I do my own independent work,’ but that independent work is indeed funded by the oil industry.”
He noted that Moniz, for instance, currently serves as the president of the Energy Futures Initiative, for which former BP CEO John Browne chairs the advisory board. The group’s mission is to promote what they call the Green Real Deal, a defanged version of the Green New Deal that takes the emphasis off of urgently moving away from dirty energy. Another Biden campaign advisor who is well-positioned to take a seat in the administration is senior Obama advisor Brian Deese. He works for BlackRock, an asset manager that holds billions of dollars of stocks and bonds in crude oil and other dirty energy sources (though it has said it will take on more climate-responsible investment). Jason Bordoff, another Obama-era climate advisor who counseled the Biden campaign, founded the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, which is funded by the likes of ExxonMobil and has produced reports advocating for more fracking in China and continued crude oil exports from the U.S.
Beyond their financial ties to polluters, another way to examine whether Biden’s appointees will implement bold climate policy is to look at their histories with environmental organizers. For instance, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is reportedly a contender to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development or Department of Transportation. Both agencies’ portfolios oversee massive sources of greenhouse gas pollution. The impacts of this pollution are felt unevenly, with poorer communities more often located near sources of emissions. As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel faced staunch criticism from community leaders for not centering environmental justice in his climate plans. Similarly, a rumored potential contender for Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency, former California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, has a checkered past with environmental justice movements. Nichols has a reputation for feuding with the Trump White House over environmental rollbacks, but during her tenure in California, she caught heat from organizers.
“Mary Nichols was a big advocate for market-based solutions, in particular cap-and-trade, ” Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the California-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said.
Environmental justice advocates have often opposed cap-and-trade because it concentrates pollution and other adverse effects in their communities. Indeed, a study found that under California’s cap-and-trade program, 52% of companies regulated saw an increase in annual average greenhouse gas emissions, and those companies were mostly situated in poor communities of color. Instead of looking to these usual suspects of Democratic Party leadership, Biden could look to the environmental justice movement itself to find his new staff.
“There are thousands of climate experts who would be delighted at the chance to work with a Biden administration to implement a bold climate agenda,” Collin Rees, a campaigner at Oil Change International, said. “We can’t afford the same tired old voices who’ve had their turn for decades while the climate crisis has deepened.”