How the Biden-Harris administration can restore and strengthen U.S. climate leadership

After winning on the strongest climate platform of any major party presidential nominee in history, the Biden-Harris administration has a mandate to confront the existential crisis of climate change. This blog series will explore what it will take to restore and strengthen climate leadership both across the country and on the global stage.

Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

The leaders that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have selected for key positions send a clear, encouraging and necessary signal that climate action will be an embedded priority across the administration. This is promising news, as the mandate to address the climate crisis demands a “whole-of-government” approach that can improve public health and create jobs in communities from coast-to-coast, and launch a new era of consequential climate diplomacy with partners around the world.

A recent UN report underscores there is not a moment to lose: The world is on a dangerous path, heading toward a temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century. This projection comes as Americans have increasingly experienced the rising costs of climate change this year — from a record hurricane season in the Atlantic to wildfires that ravaged the West at an unprecedented scale.

This historic election made it clear that Americans want leadership that can tackle the biggest challenges of our time: the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, racial justice and climate change. The new administration can achieve the most transformative progress by championing solutions that address the interconnectedness of these urgent priorities. Ambitious climate solutions are particularly well-suited to also help deliver on critical promises to jumpstart the economy and advance equity and justice. But how exactly should the new administration and new Congress get started? Action in three key areas will be critical to restoring and strengthening climate leadership.

Bold action to cut pollution at home

A strong domestic climate agenda must put the nation on a path consistent with what science tells us is necessary to curb the worst impacts of climate change. That means cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050. Meeting these goals will require robust regulatory action under existing law, significant near-term investments as part of a 2021 Congressional stimulus package, and ultimately, new legislation that puts enforceable declining limits on pollution across the economy.

Leveraging existing authority

The new administration has powerful tools at its disposal to tackle the climate crisis. President-elect Biden can get started right away by issuing an executive order on his first day, announcing a bold new era of federal leadership in the fight against climate change. He will need to go far beyond simply rolling back the damage caused by the Trump administration – he must make up for precious lost time by acting boldly and swiftly to put the nation on track for meeting key climate goals.

The first step should be to deploy the Clean Air Act, a vital tool for protecting public health and the environment for the past 50 years. Under this authority, the EPA can advance a suite of climate and clean air safeguards that strengthen air quality standards; help achieve a zero-emissions power sector and new car fleet by 2035 and new truck and bus fleet by 2040; and cut harmful methane pollution from the oil and gas sector.

A whole-of-government approach means mobilizing all federal agencies to leverage existing authorities to cut emissions and to coordinate the climate agenda. The new administration can set new efficiency standards for appliances and equipment; implement clean procurement policies; institute mandatory climate risk disclosure requirements; and  strengthen federal rules that minimize flaring, venting and leakage of natural gas. It should also reinstate the Interagency Working Group tasked with updating the social cost of carbon — a critical measure of the economic harm from climate change impacts — such that federal agencies can once again rely on consistent, robust and science-based estimates when accounting for the costs and benefits of new rulemakings.

The Biden-Harris climate agenda must ensure that the benefits of a cleaner, healthier and safer environment accrue to all Americans. Low-income families and communities of color have disproportionately paid the health and economic costs of toxic pollution – and the pandemic has intensified these inequalities. The administration should also work to keep its promises to support workers and fossil-fuel dependent communities in the transition to a clean economy, and ensure that the benefits of clean energy are distributed equitably and fairly.

Economic stimulus and recovery

As the new administration works to galvanize post-pandemic economic recovery, they should aim to rebuild a stronger, more resilient economy while aggressively tackling climate change and promoting environmental justice. While the latest stimulus package provides some important provisions to advance clean energy and phase down HFCs (potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems), a much bigger down payment on climate action is still needed.

Cleaning up electricity and transportation can be a boon for the economy and for the climate.  These sectors together account for more than half of total U.S. emissions. The administration should work with Congress to ‘power up’ the country: accelerating deployment of existing clean energy technologies like wind and solar; modernizing the electric grid; incentivizing adoption of electric cars and trucks; building charging infrastructure across the country; and investing in domestic manufacturing of batteries, electric buses and other building blocks of the net-zero emissions future. A stimulus package could also supercharge federal research, development and deployment of innovative clean technologies, as well as prompt the clean-up of thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells.

Centering climate action in U.S. international policy

The appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as climate envoy is one of many signs President-elect Biden is poised to make climate action central to the nation’s foreign policy agenda. Since the election, he has revived relationships with world leaders and promised to work together to tackle the climate crisis. Most notably, he has committed to rejoining the historic Paris climate agreement on day one – and he should move quickly to develop an ambitious and credible nationally determined contribution (NDC) ahead of the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, that meets or beats the reductions necessary to put the United States on the path to net-zero by 2050, ideally a 50% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030.

Beyond the Paris Agreement, opportunities are ripe to marshal the full power and influence of American leadership around the world to promote climate ambition. That means advocating for climate action in key forums like the G7 and the G20. The administration should also strengthen and leverage powerful bilateral partnerships, including with the European Union, which has committed to climate neutrality by 2050 and to slashing emissions at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030; and with China, which has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and whose partnership with the U.S. was central to agreement in Paris five years ago; as well as other critical players like India and Brazil. Global leadership on climate also means working with other countries to tackle core challenges with outsized impacts, from tropical deforestation, which is responsible for more carbon pollution each year than all the cars in the world, to methane, a super pollutant which accounts for nearly one-quarter of the warming the Earth has experienced to date.

Accelerating state climate action

Even as President-elect Biden mobilizes the federal government by leveraging existing law and pushing Congress to act, he should also work hand-in-hand with states to encourage and enable ambitious climate policies. States are capable of swiftly putting in place policy frameworks that limit pollution consistent with science-based reduction trajectories, delivering critical near-term reductions as federal policymakers sprint to catch up. Over the last four years, many governors and state leaders have admirably stepped up to fill the void left by the Trump administration – but much more work is needed to hold these leaders accountable for translating their commitments into real emissions reductions and to push new states to join the fight.


A whole-of-government approach to climate change that starts on day one holds the promise of a future that is cleaner, healthier and more equitable for all Americans. Delivering on this promise won’t be easy, especially with four years of relentless rollbacks and hostility to climate science that have hollowed out the capacity and morale of many of the key offices within government. But we can and must turn the page and restore and strengthen U.S. climate leadership by deploying every tool in the federal government’s vast arsenal. A real full-court press on climate can promote and inspire climate ambition around the world, while supercharging clean energy and manufacturing jobs at home and making environmental justice a reality for every American.

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  1. Posted December 22, 2020 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    There are some organizations such as OAP Fund ( that are trying to do something about orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells now. OAP fund is working with scientist and industry to provide research opportunities for the study of methane and orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells on a much broader scale than has been done previously.

  2. Posted December 25, 2020 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree with everything Derek Walker writes with the exception of the idea that “we can and must turn the page and restore and strengthen U.S. climate leadership. Let’s forget the global leadership chimera and clean up and green up our own country first. Once the U.S. is able to lead by example it may again become a leader. But for right now, please forget the rethoric and get to work right here at home!

  3. Posted December 27, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

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