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The fate of the Biden administration’s ambitious climate goals — plans that, if fully implemented, would overhaul the United States’ energy economy in the span of just 15 years — will largely rest in the hands of two longtime government officials who have obsessed on the topic for decades.
President-elect Joe Biden this week named former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy as his national climate advisor. In that role, she’ll be the stateside counterpart to former Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Biden tapped as his international climate envoy.
The two Massachusetts natives spent the second term of the Obama administration pushing to change the trajectory of ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures. Both advanced or enacted unprecedented efforts to do just that, only to see the Trump administration swiftly disassemble their policies.
McCarthy oversaw the first national standards for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court blocked those rules from going into effect, and then the Trump administration withdrew them.
Kerry, meanwhile, played a key role in negotiating the Paris climate accord, only to see President Trump pull the U.S. out of the deal.
But now, the two ex-Cabinet members will return to the federal government in different positions — and with broader goals. They’ll share intertwined assignments of not only reinstituting all the Obama-era regulations and international agreements that Trump scuttled, but then wrangling together the political, economic and technological capital needed to achieve Biden’s stated goals of a carbon-neutral energy sector in 15 years, followed by an entirely carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
“We’ve now squandered three and a half years”
Biden emphasized climate change more than any past Democratic presidential nominee. He devoted multiple speeches to the topic during a summer when wildfires raged throughout the West, and the Atlantic Ocean saw so many hurricanes that meteorologists ran out of alphabetical names for the storms.
Biden and his environmental advisers share the view — widespread among climate experts and activists — that the world has an increasingly limited window to reverse course and try to curtail further global temperature increases.
“Scientists told us a number of years ago that we had 12 years within which to make decisions that would avoid the worst challenges of the climate crisis, the worst effects,” Kerry told NPR’s Morning Edition in an interview last week. “We’ve now squandered three and a half of those years. So we have to make up for that.”
McCarthy’s job will be to drive policies to address climate change beyond the usual departments’ work on it, and to coordinate planning across government agencies. On Thursday, Biden said in a statement that McCarthy will do that work as the head of “the newly formed White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.”
“It is being treated as a systemic issue, not something uniquely given to EPA or the Department of the Interior, but something that is all about using the entire federal budget, and the strength of the entire Cabinet, to actually move this issue forward in ways that were not available to us before,” McCarthy told NPR in an interview before her role was reported. “We have not had this kind of base of support, so I think this administration is ready to run.”
Intended nominees at the departments of Energy and Interior, the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality will join McCarthy and Kerry in the efforts. Biden formally announced his climate team Thursday, calling its members “brilliant, tested [and] trailblazing.”
In his NPR interview, Kerry set some of the stakes of their work.
“If we think migration was a challenge in Europe in the last years, or here in America on our border,” he said, “wait until you see what happens when places become completely unlivable, and you can’t produce the food. And people are fighting for a place to live, and what’s habitable.”
Facing “bitterness” on the global stage
Kerry’s immediate goal will be to reengage the U.S. in the international climate diplomacy it has avoided for the past four years. That might take some convincing.
“Countries will be wary of the United States,” said Todd Stern, who held the climate envoy job throughout the Obama administration. “Not of President-elect Biden or John Kerry or people working for this administration, but wary about, they’ve seen what happens in the United States when things go a certain way in elections. You can’t get away from that. It’s just a reality.”
Not only did the Trump administration withdraw from the landmark Paris agreement, but Trump’s EPA spent four years weakening and rewriting environmental regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions in vehicles, oil and gas extraction, power plants and other polluting sources.
Trump, a longtime denier of mainstream climate science, argued the regulations hurt the economy, and that a fracking-powered drilling boom created cheap fuel and high-paying jobs.
Said McCarthy: “There is bitterness, as there should be, about the way the U.S. has behaved. But I think that everybody has been waiting for the U.S. to rejoin.”
The most effective way for the U.S. to overcome that international skepticism, though, isn’t anything Kerry will be doing on the international front; it will be taking action domestically, and actually cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
“The only way that the rest of the world takes us seriously … is to do everything in our power to address the crisis domestically,” said Varshini Prakash, the executive director and co-founder of the progressive and increasingly influential Sunrise Movement.
“It will be up to us to demonstrate the priority is real, is genuine,” acknowledged a source familiar with the Biden transition who requested anonymity.
That makes Kerry and McCarthy’s tasks increasingly codependent.
Bridging domestic gaps and looking abroad
The two have worked together for a long time. McCarthy was an environmental adviser in Massachusetts state government during Kerry’s long tenure as one of the state’s U.S. senators. Kerry then ran the State Department when McCarthy led the EPA, and both played a role in international climate efforts, including an agreement to phase out a powerful greenhouse gas used in refrigeration and air conditioning.
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This summer, both Kerry and McCarthy sat on a task force charged with bridging various policy differences between Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the runner-up in the Democratic presidential primary.
The task force highlighted some of the internal policy and priority differences that the Biden administration will need to bridge among climate advocates.
It included members like Prakash, who criticized Biden’s initial climate platform as woefully inadequate, but also more moderate Democrats who aren’t quite ready to fully walk away from fossil fuels, especially natural gas.
“We definitely do have differences,” Prakash said, “and that was apparent on the task force. Sunrise believes, as we’re looking at the science, that we have to move way faster than a 2050 target. And if we don’t a lot of people are going to suffer.”
One big difference between climate activists and Kerry is how they think about and deal with big energy companies.
Groups like Sunrise see them as the culprits who ignored and worsened climate change. Kerry says he’s on the phone with them, talking about paths to clean energy.
The energy companies, he told NPR, “understand that there’s money to be made in producing the products. Anybody who has the breakthrough on battery storage is going to have the key to the future.”
Stern argued it makes sense for Kerry to have those conversations. “Nobody who knows Kerry would ever accuse him of being a go-slow, warmed-over, centrist blah blah blah. That is not what makes this guy tick at all,” he said.
Those sorts of talks are especially important, Stern argued, because the to-do list on the international climate front is much different than four years ago.
When Kerry was secretary of state, the main goal was crafting the sweeping Paris accord. Now, the much more important thing will be cobbling together agreements on how to meet those goals.
“Like,” Stern said, “putting in place stronger standards for industries that are highly global. So you could imagine global standards if you could negotiate a thing — things like cement, steel, plastics, chemicals. Very polluting, very global.”
A source familiar with the transition ticked off some of the other areas where the Biden administration will be looking to strike deals: “sectoral agreements, working on shipping, emissions from civil aviation, looking at financing.”
Another international goal will be convincing countries like China and India to stop building new coal-fired power plants.
How their roles are intertwined
And just as the domestic efforts McCarthy will coordinate could boost or undercut Kerry’s deal-crafting, any success Kerry achieves abroad could help in convincing skeptics in the U.S. that transitioning away from fossil fuels is worth the effort.
“We already went through this, at least twice, with coal and steel in this region. So people have a right to be skeptical,” warned Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate Democrat who also sat on the Biden-Sanders climate task force.
Lamb’s Western Pennsylvania district is on the front lines of the fracking-powered natural gas boom that has already undercut U.S. coal over the past decade and a half.
Unless China walks away from coal, he argued, any U.S. transition would be fruitless. “How do we get them to stop dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from their coal-fired power plants, and not take all our jobs and outcompete us economically in the process?”
Throughout his campaign, Biden framed his climate change agenda as something that would create, not take away, jobs. That sales pitch will likely need to take hold for the U.S. to successfully shift its energy production at the level needed to reach the goals he’ll recommit the country to when he rejoins the Paris agreement.
And doing that will most likely mean convincing Republicans in Congress, and conservative federal judges, to go along with policies that their party has opposed in stronger and stronger terms in recent years — and worked to unravel when they’ve held power.
McCarthy insists this is doable.
“We do have continued escalation,” she said, “in terms of people’s attitude and anxiety toward climate change. People are seeing it now like they’ve never seen it before.”