An Analysis of President Biden’s Plan to Combat Climate Change

Published May 24, 2021

Economist Dr. Rachel Cleetus digs into the specifics of the Biden administration’s ambitious climate plan.

In this episode

Colleen and Rachel discuss

  • the Biden administration's commitment and its implications
  • the Justice40 Initiative and how we have the chance now to make real systemic change
  • how we can still make progress regardless of who’s in office
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:28)
Intro (0:28-2:08)
Interview part 1 (2:08-15:14)
Break (15:14-16:10)
Interview part 2 (16:10-23:04)
Ending segment throw (23:04-23:31)
Ending segment (23:31-27:52)
Outro (27:52-29:00)\

Related content

Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: I’d like to start by sharing a somewhat sad but also touching little anecdote. Which is that nearly every single one of my climate scientist colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists has been approached… at conferences, talks, panels, lectures, any kind of speaking engagement… by audience members who want to ask them the same question: Knowing everything they know about climate change, do they still have hope?

It’s a heavy question, which I guess goes along with all the other heavy aspects of being a climate scientist. And I feel privileged to know the answer they tend to give, which is: Yes, they have hope, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing the work they do.

Because they are such gracious and caring people, anything that gives my colleagues reason to stay hopeful is something I’m excited about. And these days, my colleagues are feeling hopeful about President Biden’s pledge to cut emissions in the US by 50 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2035.

That sounds pretty good, you might be thinking, but what does it mean? I invited Dr. Rachel Cleetus, an economist and policy director at UCS, to break down this commitment and its implications, including her own sense of hope about what we can do in the next few years to address climate change. We also talk about the Justice40 initiative, how to be sure we can still make progress regardless of who’s in office, and how we have the chance now to make real systemic change. It’s my hope… that you will feel hope listening!

Colleen: Rachel, welcome back to the podcast.

Rachel: Thank you so much for having me, Colleen, it's great to be here.

Colleen: So last month, coinciding with an Earth Day climate summit of international leaders, the Biden administration committed the U.S. to cut its heat-trapping emissions 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030. What’s your assessment of the plan?

Rachel: Well, let me speak about two aspects of this plan President Biden from day one has signaled that climate change is going to be one of his top priorities. On day one, he signed the paperwork to get the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement, which the previous administration had shamefully withdrawn us from. But not only that, within weeks, he had issued very broad-ranging executive orders that laid out a vision for both domestic and international climate action. Both of which are vital as we all know.

This is a global challenge, we're going to have to act at home and together with other countries. So, on the international front, what we saw with the Earth Day Summit was the beginning of a drumbeat of actions that will raise ambition, hopefully globally ahead of the next international climate talks, which are scheduled for November in Glasgow. And the centerpiece of that was that the U.S. is not just back in the Paris Agreement, but we're back with a robust commitment to cut our emissions.

On the domestic front, equally, President Biden has been very active. The vision that he's laid out is a very broad-ranging one that is both ambitious in terms of cutting emissions, but also centers equity and justice in how we achieve those emission reductions and how we build climate resilience here at home. So, we were starting to see pieces of that agenda come into focus, for example, with the American Jobs Plan, a major infrastructure investment that the president announced a couple of weeks ago, and followed by the American Families Plan. And we saw a major speech to Congress that President Biden gave where again, he pulled all of these strands together, connecting the moment we're in right now, still grappling with a public health crisis and an economic crisis, but the promise and the vision of building a better country together, a country that is more just and fair, where we're aligned with our climate goals, both domestically and internationally and where we're in a space of prosperity, not just for an elite few, but really broad-based prosperity for everybody.

Colleen: I'd love to dig into the justice angle here because that really is different from any other recovery plans that we've seen before. Can you talk a little bit more specifically about that?

Rachel: President Biden has been very clear from the campaign trail and once he's taken office that we are going to address the crisis of systemic racism, of longstanding social-economic inequities, and that that frame will be brought into all of the policies of his administration. And in the context of climate change, the vision is one that is connecting people's daily life concerns. For example, the disproportionate impact of pollution from fossil fuels that falls disproportionately on communities of color and low-income communities. That that will be addressed even as we transition away from fossil fuels to cut our heat-trapping emissions and address climate change. That kind of perspective is not just words or rhetoric, it's being now embedded in the form of what's being called the Justice40 Initiative where the administration has pledged that 40% of the benefits of federal investments will flow to communities that have been until this point marginalized. Again, these are often black and brown communities, low-income communities, and also communities in places like Appalachia that are struggling as coal is on the decline and jobs are being lost. Communities are losing their tax base.

So, really thinking about rural communities, communities that have been cut out of the broader wealth and income gains that an elite in our country have been able to access. So, the Justice40 Initiative is now well underway. The White House has convened an Environmental Justice Council that is holding public hearings. They are working on some tools that they plan to release this summer, an environmental justice screening tool that will help agencies across the federal government ensure that as they execute their mission, they're doing so in a way that centers equity and justice.

Colleen: So, how specifically can an infrastructure plan help with inequity?

Rachel: So, for example, President Biden's American Jobs Plan, which is this big infrastructure plan that was announced a couple of weeks ago, contain some really important elements that address the fact that infrastructure in our country, of course, needs to be upgraded and modernized. We know that we have failed to invest for a long time. But the other thing that we know is the ways in which we've invested in infrastructure in the past has often reinforced systemic racism and adverse outcomes. For example, we've located highways in places that cut through communities, as well as expose them to the pollution that's coming from the vehicles that are on those highways. Many of our ports are very polluting and we've located them next to low-income neighborhoods or communities of color, where again, they face the pollution that's coming from those facilities. Industrial facilities, petrochemicals, fossil fuel facilities in the Gulf South, for example, in Louisiana, in a place that environmental justice leaders call Cancer Alley, where there's a highly disproportionate impact from this kind of pollution.

President Biden is talking about a vision that proactively invests in the kinds of infrastructure that communities want to improve their public health, to improve their economic opportunities, clean climate-resilient infrastructure. He's also talking about addressing the legacy pollution from the existing dirty infrastructure. That means cleaning up toxic coal ash sites, it means capping wellheads, cleaning up sites, and other toxic waste sites. So, this vision where we clean up legacy pollution, invest in cleaner climate-resilient infrastructure, and create jobs as we do that is sort of the centerpiece of the infrastructure plan.

Colleen: So Rachel, I think many people are familiar with the Paris Climate Agreement and that in the previous administration we pulled out of that. But I wonder if you could just give a quick overview of sort of the international climate negotiations and why that agreement was so important and why it's so important that we are now back in it.

Rachel: Yes. As many might remember, in 2015, over 190 countries in the world came together to sign the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. And the agreement was the first time that countries were coming together to agree to an ambitious science-informed global climate goal. And the goal they agreed to was to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C and pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. So, that science-informed goal is what tells us that we need to make sharp cuts in our emissions not just in some distant mid-century timeframe, but in the near term by 2030. In Paris as well, nations asked for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global scientific body to prepare a report which came out in 2018, the IPCC 1.5 C Report, which laid out that the science is clear we need to cut global emissions at least 45% below 2010 levels by 2030. So, this is where the near term comes into focus.

And based on that, nations were supposed to make commitments to cut their individual emissions to help ensure the goals of the Paris Agreement. Now, unfortunately, in the five years since the agreement was reached, the global emissions trajectory is far off-track from where it needs to be. We had a brief dip last year because of the very harsh COVID and economic crisis, but emissions are continuing to rise. Global average temperatures are continuing to rise. And at a little above 1 degree C increase in global average temperature that we've already experienced, we're seeing some truly devastating climate impacts around the world and here in the U.S.

Colleen: Have we, in essence, lost five years? If we have until 2030, have we squandered one-third of that time?

Rachel: There's no question that not having federal leadership in the U.S. was a major barrier to progress. But let's be clear, that was not the only story here in the U.S. States around the country, local jurisdictions businesses, ordinary people around the country did not give up. And there was an entire movement framed around the theme of We Are Still In. And We Are Still In was basically a commitment that folks who were not the U.S. federal government were making to say that we still believe in delivering on the goals of the Paris Agreement. And we saw a tremendous progress at the state level. Many states adopting 100% clean goal in the power sector, for example. We saw businesses make commitments to cut their emissions, and we saw an incredible diverse climate movement gather steam around the country. Everybody from young activists to labor leaders, to environmental justice leaders, to scientists really continuing to press for greater ambition.

Colleen: The Biden plan calls for 50% to 52% reduction by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, that's a higher percentage of reduction. Is that a realistic goal? And is it really enough?

Rachel: It's absolutely realistic. It's a necessary goal. There are now numerous technical analyses out there that show that that goal is well within reach. Yes, it will take robust policies. It will take acting across the entire economy, but there are tremendous opportunities to cut emissions. And the key thing to remember in this moment is that this climate challenge is very much tied to the current challenges we find ourselves in. If we implement the right policies, we can jumpstart an economic recovery. We can create millions of good-paying jobs, even as we cut emissions. Let's invest in the kind of infrastructure that's low carbon and climate-resilient. Let's build a power sector that gets us to 80% clean by 2030 on a path to 100% clean by 2035. Let's make sure we're electrifying as much of our vehicle fleet as possible. Let's make sure that we're investing in affordable public transit options, that we're safeguarding our forests that right now are being highly put at risk by drought and heat that's exposing them to wildfires. We have to invest in making sure that we safeguard these forests, including boreal forests in Alaska so that that carbon remains sequestered.

There are lots of policy opportunities and the infrastructure plan that President Biden laid out is a very important down payment to get us to that 50% to 52% emissions cut. It is a plan that's talking about making investments, rapidly scaling up investments in clean energy and climate resilience and clean transportation. It is also a plan that connects to building domestic supply chains here. So, not just the rhetoric of clean energy jobs, but making sure that they actually happen in reality. How do we do that? Well, we have to invest in job training, education, creating supply chains and manufacturing bases right here in the U.S. so that workers can access these clean energy jobs. And when we do that, we have to make sure that we are making those jobs available to everyone. We are still grappling with the legacy of systemic racism in our country. Our clean energy workforce needs to be diverse, needs to have good-paying jobs, needs to be supported in terms of unionization to create the kinds of family-sustaining jobs that are desperately needed around the country.

Colleen: As we saw with the previous administration, it wasn't difficult to derail the process and pull us out of climate negotiations. Is that something we should be worried about with the next administration or the administration after that?

Rachel: I think what this administration is trying to do and what we need Congress to do as well is put down a very firm foundation here that cannot be turned back easily, and that means putting down stakes on multiple fronts in every sector of the economy. We need to be making sure that the Biden administration can and will act through the authority that already has executive orders, regulatory actions, etc. And we need Congress because Congress can pass legislation that's durable, Congress has the power of the purse. We need to be acting on all fronts. And I think that's where the climate movement is right now. We are not putting our eggs in one basket. We understand the risks and we understand the need for durable policies. So, we're going to act on all fronts on the federal level, as well as right down to the local level. Because as we saw under the previous administration, even though the national government stepped away, we still had action all around the country. And even as we're doing this, we have to be pushing for real systemic changes. We cannot accept status quo politics. It takes time to build these kinds of movements, but the movements are so ready right now. And they are looking for policymakers from the local to the national who will support climate action.

Colleen: In the coming year, two years, next couple of years, what are some milestones or deadlines that we need to meet or that we can be looking for to map progress?

Rachel: Yeah. One of the things that we're fighting for right now is for this infrastructure bill to also include a clean energy standard that will help ensure 80% clean power by 2030 and on our paths to 100% clean by 2035. That's the kind of goal in the power sector that we think is really important to make sure that we are on track to cutting our emissions overall. We're similarly fighting for strong vehicle carbon pollution standards, for vehicle electrification standards as well because the transportation sector is the largest source of U.S. heat-trapping emissions right now. These are some of the handholds that we need to get in place quickly so that we're ensuring economy-wide emission reductions. There are obviously actions that we'll need to take to cut methane emissions, which are also growing. Methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, in particular, we need to sharply curtail those.

So, in the next few years, we will be looking for actions like this across the economy in different sectors to curtail emissions. And we'll be looking to make sure that those investments, those policies that help cut emissions, that address climate change are also being done in a just and equitable way. We're looking for making sure that there's a fair transition package for coal workers and coal mining communities so that they are not being left behind in this transition to a clean energy future. That the Justice40 Initiative is implemented in a very robust way. And the final piece I want to mention which is very important and often gets left by the wayside, we have to invest in climate resilience as well. Right now, we do not have a coherent national climate resilience or adaptation strategy, and that has to change. We cannot deal with these climate impacts as one-off disasters. The science is very clear around sea-level rise, around extreme heat, wildfires that these risks are growing and communities are already feeling their devastating toll.

So, we have to ramp up our investments in climate resilience because even if we sharply curtail our heat-trapping emissions, the sad reality is we've already locked in a lot of really dire climate impacts. And then the one final piece on the international front, we have to scale up climate finance for developing countries. The U.S. as a relatively rich nation, it is the largest historical contributor to heat-trapping emissions since the industrial revolution, the largest by far. On an annual basis, we are no longer the largest, but we are the largest cumulative contributor to heat-trapping emissions. And therefore, we do have a unique responsibility to help developing countries make a low-carbon transition and deal with the climate impacts that they are having to face right now. Those impacts are result of our emissions. Many of these small developing countries, small island nations, climate-vulnerable countries in Africa, they have contributed so little to the problem, and yet are on the leading edge of the devastating impacts.

Colleen: Rachel, do you have any final thoughts for our listeners?

Rachel: I'm definitely feeling more hopeful than I have in a long time because we now have an administration that has promised to be guided by the science that's centering equity and justice and their approach to tackling climate crisis. I think this is a moment of real promise, but these moments can pass quickly. And so, all of us all around the country, we have to put our shoulder to the project right now. We have to put pressure on our policymakers right now to secure the policies we need right now to get on this path to our climate goals. So, we feel hope, we feel promise, but we also recognize that there's a lot of work ahead to realize that promise, and we had UCS will be acting on all fronts to make sure that we get that infrastructure package done and then the next thing, and then the next thing, to help cut our emissions.

Colleen: Well, Rachel, how amazing is it to have a hopeful conversation and be poised to tackle climate change in a smart, science-based, realistic and achievable way.

Rachel: Absolutely.

Colleen: I want to personally thank you for the tireless work that you've been doing for years on the front lines fighting for science-based solutions, and more importantly, doing that for the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Thank you.

Rachel: Thank you, Colleen. It's a privilege to work in a place like UCS, and I'm always mindful of the communities that are actually on the front lines of these threats. We all have the privilege to do this work and push our policymakers, and I hope I and others can play a small part in securing these wins.

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