An Environmental Reversal at the U.S. Federal Level

December 17, 2020

For those following environmental issues, it was an important development to see Joe Biden win the United States Presidential election in November.

Because his environmental policies differ greatly from President Trump’s, the United States is likely to see a few changes in environmental policy come the end of January when Biden is sworn in.

While it is still speculation how much he can accomplish with a divided Congress, Biden’s emphasized his priorities by appointing John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for the climate. Kerry, who was President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, will be a Cabinet-level official in Biden’s administration and will sit on the National Security Council (NSC).

According to CNN, “This marks the first time that the NSC will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect’s commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue.”

With Kerry’s appointment, the United States is expected to once again work with the international community and rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, which Kerry helped design.

That is not all.

During the Trump administration, approximately 125 environmental and conservation safeguards across several federal agencies were changed, weakened, or thrown out altogether. Biden is likely to work to reinstate, if not strengthen, former protocols.

Terry F. Yosie, the former President and CEO of the World Environment Center, identifies Biden’s primary focus in his article “Joe Biden’s environmental priorities: The first 100 days”.

Yosie suggests policy changes will include:

  • Restoring methane emissions regulations for oil and gas operations and higher mileage standards for the automotive industry.
  • Rescinding EPA decisions that limited the participation of federally funded independent scientists on scientific advisory boards.
  • Reaffirming accepted scientific community rules of evidence to set health and safety standards.
  • Re-instituting enforcement of environmental laws.
  • Reversing Trump administration decisions that permitted mining, drilling and logging on federal lands and in critical ecosystems.

In addition, Biden will likely launch new intertwined climate and economic initiatives, as his task forces closely link the two. Yosie says to expect an economic recovery and infrastructure plan that includes issues such as “decarbonizing the electricity grid and transportation system, making buildings more energy efficient, investing in carbon-capture research, and removing tax breaks for fossil-fuel production.”

Also look for a greater emphasis placed on scientific evidence and advice, particularly within Federal Agencies. While the administration may not have the finances to completely restaff all the former scientists, it may call back retired or former employees, as well as hire new talent.

Whatever Biden decides to do and Congress allows, the world should see not only a swing back of the environmental pendulum, but momentum in the opposite direction of the past four years.

It’s also worth noting that, while regulations need approval by Congress, Biden can issue executive orders to advance some aspects of his environmental agenda. And the impact that the “tone at the top” can have on efforts to address climate change should not be underestimated.

For example, about three weeks after the election, General Motors said that it would no longer back the Trump administration’s effort to bar California from setting its own emissions rules. The reversal came as GM sought to work with President-elect Joe Biden. The announcement reflects Corporate America’s wish to engage quickly with the new administration.

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Laurie Toupin