Last week, Joe Biden passed a package of executive orders on climate change, building on his initial announcements last week. Many are celebrating the commitments laid out in the orders as a true commitment to climate action, and it’s worth taking the whole column this week to explore more in depth what this means for the terrain of organizing for accelerating action on climate change
Section 1 is on ‘national defense’ – a framing of climate action that much ink has been spilled on already but, suffice to say, it’s not good. That framing should inform the way that the left looks at the entirety of the orders, and we should be extremely ready to point out disparities in the budget lines of counter terrorism and the Pentagon and ICE versus any of the new climate initiatives proposed in the order in the name of national security (which Adam Johnson of the Citations Needed podcast writes about in more depth, anticipating centrist climate gambits, here).
Next, the order talks about moving on the ‘nationally determined contribution’ for the United States- this is good, but that was always the baseline from the Paris Agreement. The basic framework of Paris is that every country is responsible for a ‘contribution’ to reducing carbon emissions, and that those ‘nationally determined contributions’ will be re-evaluated as time goes on. The next international climate negotiation, which will be in Glasgow this December, was supposed to be a major benchmark for re-evaluating those contributions before it was delayed by a year thanks to the global pandemic we’ve all been dealing with. “Luckily” for the Biden administration, this gives them time to re-enter the agreement and create a plan that was supposed to have been created immediately after the Paris Agreement was signed. Given that Trump and his appointees spent 4 years going the opposite direction, some serious revisionism will probably happen and it’s important for us to not let that slide.
Section 1 also concludes with talk of a climate finance plan in 90 days. Although this may be too symbolic, I think it’s a fairly telling sign that the plan for capital is prioritized before the plan for labor. And there are many unanswered questions in the brief commitments laid out. At its core, will this plan center public ownership? Or private investment for Musk and Blackrock and others to profit?
Section 2 digs in to the ‘Government-wide’ approach to taking climate action – this is good! It means that Biden and his advisors are taking seriously the idea that all politics are climate politics, that the climate crisis is going to touch every piece of our material reality. They also set a reduction target: net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. For those unfamiliar with the wonky language of climate targets, this means ‘possible carbon emissions that are then offset by negative emissions technology (net) zero emissions across every sector in the economy – energy, agriculture, transportation, buildings, etc…. producing them (economy-wide) by 2050. This is an ambitious goal, and in theory it lines up with some of the scientific models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (although ‘net zero’ is a giveaway for reliance on some ideas around carbon capture and continued use of fossil fuels that are not scientifically proven at best, and disingenuous at worst).
In order to begin the task of determining this national contribution and setting benchmarks for the overall target, the order then talks about establishing a ‘Climate Policy Office’ within the White House to coordinate domestic agencies and a ‘National Task Force’ to create federal level action, such as transitioning fleets to electric vehicles and ‘spurring union jobs for manufacture of those vehicles’. This is a great first step, one that should have been taken decades ago – but it’s true that it is worth celebrating.
Section 207 talks about doubling our offshore renewables capacity. Even though our current capacity is quite small due to decades of elites complaining about losing their coastal view, this is again something worth celebrating and pushing harder on.
Pausing leases on federal lands was also another highly lauded piece of this section of the order- however, as Amy Westervelt points out, it’s a pause, not a ban. And while it’s good to see Biden take action over jurisdiction that can be covered by executive action, he’s undermining the momentum needed for transformative reforms by also approving dozens of new permits for oil infrastructure. Not a great way to chart a new path forward, as every new piece of fossil infrastructure approved will become a sunk capital asset that makes it easier for energy firms to kick the can down the road.
This section ends with one of the biggest announcements – namely, the stated commitment to ending federal fossil fuel subsidies (40 billion dollars worth, as Biden clarified in a public speech about the executive order). One of the organizations that began the campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies, Oil Change International, said in a response statement that this “adds to the snowballing momentum and pressure for other governments and institutions to follow suit. If the U.S., EU, and UK join forces to end the tens of billions of dollars per year in public finance for fossil fuels, they can work together to make this a reality by the UN climate summit in Glasgow this November.” So, the tide may be turning – but as with all of these announcements, it’s going to take serious power to ensure that these commitments are followed through on.
The next 3 sections, entitled “EMPOWERING WORKERS THROUGH REBUILDING OUR INFRASTRUCTURE FOR A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY” and “EMPOWERING WORKERS BY ADVANCING CONSERVATION, AGRIGULTURE, AND RESTORATION”, and “EMPOWERING WORKERS THROUGH REVITALIZING ENERGY COMMUNITIES” are specifically about accelerating the process of creating jobs (including a new Civilian Climate Corps) and digging in to the question of a ‘just transition’ for fossil fuel workers. Interestingly, only the last one talks about ensuring ‘the choice to join a union’. Additionally, there aren’t any dollar commitments on the CCC text or anything else here – which is probably to be expected for an executive order, but the rubber will meet the road when we see what implementation looks like. As Data for Progress lays out in this article, 250 billion should be the minimum investment (and probably more, if the CCC is going to be more than a new Americorps program that pays terrible wages and doesn’t really live up to its intended mission).
The last section, on environmental justice, creates a new inter-agency council and re-establishes some key tools (like air quality monitoring) that are useful, but I am not sure how much new stuff is in there – rather than simply re-establishing existing pieces of infrastructure that existed within the EPA’s environmental justice division which was dismantled under Trump. Most environmental justice politics are extremely hyper-local, so it’s good to see a baseline being re-established at the federal level (especially with regards to the Department of Justice), but I haven’t seen any major analysis yet about what this will mean, and toxic cleanup campaigns and rectification of accumulated harms will certainly continue to be a major systemic issue that one executive order could never get at all the root causes of.
So, what does this all mean? Well, as the Sunrise Movement (and many climate journalists and policy wonks) laid out, this executive order makes it very clear that the Biden Administration plans to make climate action one of the central pillars of its administrative agenda. This is a very good thing, because it means that we, the socialist left, can make political arguments about what should be done in order to achieve the goals that everyone ostensibly agrees on. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing with the Green New Deal since it was re-introduced into political discourse in a serious way in 2018, with the principles that were democratically drafted and voted on. Our job now is to continue fighting for those principles, to turn them into concrete campaign demands, to identify more specifically how Biden’s initial commitments here do or don’t line up with them, and to continue building the power we will need to stop the worst of the climate crisis and win the world we want to see.