Biden’s challenge: rebuilding climate expertise in government

By on 20/01/2021
US President Joe Biden promised a “clean energy future”. But he will need to repair expertise in government to achieve that. Credit: Science in HD/Unsplash

Climate change was central to US President Joe Biden’s election campaign. But to deliver his promises he will need to rebuild personnel, budgets and regulation. Catherine Early reports

“The Trump administration essentially took a wrecking ball to federal agencies’ ability to react on climate change,” says Gretchen Goldman, research director at US-based science advocacy organisation the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Science plays an important part in federal agencies’ work across government. Thousands of scientists, employed directly by departments, provide evidence for policy and regulatory decisions, while others work on independent advisory committees.

Research suggests that this has been eroded under the Trump administration, however. Climate science has suffered from budget cuts, personnel changes, blocks to research and censorship, according to the Silencing Science Tracker, an online project run jointly by the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

For example, between 2017 and 2019, more than 1,600 scientists – or 1.5% of all federal scientists – left government, the tracker found. Moreover, in a 2018 survey conducted by UCS, 90% of scientists at the EPA reported workforce reductions due to hiring freezes, departures, or retirements. Some 80% of those scientists felt that the reductions made it difficult for them to do their jobs properly.

“When it comes to addressing climate change, we wasted four years we didn’t have under Trump,” Goldman says.

The new administration

President Biden made climate change a central plank of his election campaign. He pledged $1.7 trillion of federal investment in a “clean energy future” over the next 10 years. He wants the US to reach net zero emissions no later than 2050 and his manifesto outlined ambitions to slash emissions from vehicles, buildings and the power sector.

Biden has also promised to re-join the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, meaning the US will contribute to the international goal of limiting warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels. Government departments will have to coordinate work to develop a national emissions reduction strategy ahead of the next UN negotiations in November 2021.

This will call upon the expertise of federal scientists to enact these agendas. “President Biden will need to re-establish science as the core driver of policy, and rebuilding the capacity of the EPA, Department of Energy and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is going to be a key priority,” says Dan Lashof, director at US think tank the World Resources Institute.

The new president has already made his first steps towards elevating science in government. Last weekend, when announcing his science team, Biden nominated mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy. For the first time ever, he also made this a Cabinet-level position. “We’re going to lead with science and truth,” he said. “We believe in both.”

Expanding climate change across policy areas

The Biden-Harris team has also embedded climate-related roles across government. There are two new climate positions in the White House. Former EPA head Gina McCarthy will be climate tzar, tasked with coordinating domestic efforts to tackle climate change across federal agencies. John Kerry, who was involved in negotiating the Paris Agreement during the Obama administration, will be climate envoy, working within the US National Security Council to coordinate international climate negotiations and actions.

Kerry’s appointment suggests that climate change and the clean energy transition will become central not only to economic and environmental policy, but also to security and diplomatic policy. “Biden campaigned on the idea that it requires the whole of government to attack the climate problem, it’s not the province of one single agency or individual,” says John Podesta, founder of think tank the Center for American Progress.

Biden nominated climate champions across government to take this further forward, Lashof notes. For example, Secretary of Transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg backed strong climate action when campaigning to be Democrat presidential candidate. Janet Yellen, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is also a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, an international policy institute that supports national carbon pricing.

Challenges ahead

One of the administration’s first priorities will be to recruit people and rebuild expertise, according to commentors. “There’s no shortage of people who have expertise and enthusiasm for doing federal work on climate,” says Goldman. But it will take some time to recruit new staff particularly at the lower levels, and to undo the impact of Trump’s anti-science agenda before the government can move forward its climate change action, she says.

There will also be the issues of funding. Boosting departmental budgets so they can deal with big threats like climate change and environmental injustice will take time, according to Jeremy Symons, a consultant who worked at the EPA until 2001. “The president will propose the first budget in the next couple of months, but it takes the course of the year for Congress to enact a budget for 2022,” he says. In the interim, there is potential for congress to pass COVID-19 stimulus bills that could add targeted resources this year, he suggests.

An opportunity to move forward

But there is an opportunity for progress. While it will take some time to undo more than 100 rollbacks of climate and environmental regulation by Trump, Lashof says, departments can mitigate this by focussing on replacing these with much stronger regulations. This will mean that efforts to tackle climate change move forward, rather than just back to where it was previously, he adds.

Furthermore, Symons is optimistic that federal climate workers and scientists will recover from the Trump era. “For the first time in a long time, EPA staff will have political leadership that is ready to listen to their advice and recommit to the mission of the agency, which is to protect public health and the environment.

“When they no longer have to put science on a back shelf or hide it under the rug, that will be a morale boost from day one,” he says.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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