In This Episode
This week on Rubicon: Brian Beutler talks to climate science writer Emily Atkin about the predictable first steps President Biden has taken to fight climate change, and the exciting but under-the-radar ways that Biden has woven climate science into offices throughout his administration. They discuss the more difficult, lasting steps that have tripped up progressive officials and activists for decades (carbon tax, legislation, regulations, it’s all here!) Learning from the Obama years, they survey the roadblocks Biden will likely encounter in the Senate and the courts, and hunt for ways around them.
Want to know more? Check out Emily’s newsletter, Heated: https://heated.world/
And here are some related climate reads:
[voice clip] What he is doing is a complete affront to the democratic process.
[voice clip] He has issued more executive fiats than anyone in such a short period of time, ever. More than Obama . . .
Brian Beutler: You may have gathered that President Biden has been busy.
[News clip] Mr. Biden wasted no time getting to work in the Oval Office, signing executive orders ending construction launched by President Trump on the southern border wall, scrapping his so-called Muslim travel ban . . .
Brian Beutler: In part because of the mess he inherited and in part because his predecessor governor lazily, Biden, has already uncorked dozens of executive orders and other administrative actions, setting a pace to rival FDR.
[News clip] In his first two weeks in office, President Biden has signed nearly as many executive orders as FDR signed in his entire first month and President Roosevelt holds the record. In all, more than 40 presidential directives and actions, creating task forces, directing agencies to begin a regulatory process or to explore a policy change.
Brian Beutler: And after years of applauding or tolerating every one of Trump’s abuses of power, Republicans want you to believe they’re very upset that Biden is using his legitimate authority to undo what Trump did.
[voice clips] These executive orders are just—frankly, this is dictatorial . . .
Brian Beutler: At about 50 and counting, we couldn’t get into great detail about every new policy Biden has adopted if we tried. But some of these actions stand out more than others, and that’s where we come in. In his first week in office, Biden adopted a raft of executive actions meant to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions and kindle a new national identity as a global leader in the fight against climate change. Unlike all the infrastructure weeks that came before it, this dramatic departure from existing policy will have a real impact. And it won plaudits from environmentalists across the board, even those who had been skeptical of Biden through the Democratic primary. With these actions. Biden committed to presiding over a whole-of-government response to climate change. The actions themselves call for the creation of a national civilian climate corps, reduced vehicle emissions, the termination of the Keystone XL pipeline, and an end to new drilling on public lands. The youth-led Sunrise Movement, which once gave Biden’s climate plan a big fat F., praised him.
[News clip] Joe Biden is off to a good start. I think a number of the executive orders that he has put into motion, and has been in line with his campaign promises. You know, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline . . . the plan of creating a civilian climate corps . . . is something that Sunrise and many other organizations championed for and pushed for. So I think this is a great start.
Brian Beutler: But before anyone unfurls a huge Mission Accomplished banner, some questions remain. As executive actions go. Are these enough? How durable are they, particularly given how fully Trump stacked the courts with right-wing judges? And what, if anything, will Biden need a narrowly-divided Congress to do to make sure we don’t go backward again? My guest this week is Emily Atkin. She writes a daily newsletter about the climate crisis called Heated and is here to answer these and additional questions about the other, other, OTHER crisis Biden inherited. I’m Brian Beutler. Welcome to Rubicon.
Brian Beutler: Before we get into the specific details of President Biden’s climate actions, tell us a story about how climate activists went from being sour on Biden as a primary candidate to being pretty enthusiastic about his administration’s early policies. Like what did he change and what changed about their outlook?
Emily Atkin: What changed about Biden, I think, was the entire Democratic field changed and that entire Democratic electorate changed. And I think Biden realized really quickly it wasn’t just climate activists he was going to lose if he didn’t step up his game, so to speak. It was, it was voters. I’ve been saying this for years and years, that the young, diverse part of the electorate for Democrats really is just, they’re really focused on the climate crisis because that’s, that’s their future. You know there are so many people who are in school thinking about what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They don’t get to think about it the way that maybe we even thought about it growing up, because they say that if we don’t do something about climate change, they’re not going to have the future that they want. And the polling was really, it was indisputable. And then I think that plus all of the energy of especially the youth climate movement, it was effective and it was more effective than than any effort from the climate movement I’ve ever seen. And I think that also—I mean, if we’re going be honest, I think they’re also helped by the fact that during the primaries we were seeing some of the worst extreme weather, wildfires, the hurricanes—.
[News clip] Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires . . . at least 16 weather and climate disasters exceeding one billion dollars each. But it’s not so much the number of storms, it’s the rate at which some strengthen.
Emily Atkin: And scientists were saying: yeah, there’s climate change. Like they weren’t mincing words. It was pretty obvious. So that’s sort of how it happened.
Brian Beutler: OK, so let’s talk about what Biden did last week. But instead of just ticking off various items, give us some context. Like, which policy in your mind offers the most bang for the buck? Which is maybe the most overhyped? Or if you want to do it another way, you could talk about how would you help non-experts understand the significance of the actions in total?
Emily Atkin: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I would say in terms of what I think is overhype is the administration’s pause on the Keystone XL pipeline and the pause on new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters. Those are two sort of big actions that are tangible in your brain but in the scheme of things, probably not as important as the the ramping-up that Biden has done to make climate change more of the center of all domestic policy, establishing an Office of Environmental Justice Policy in the White House, right? Creating climate focused and environmental justice focused offices, creating a domestic Office of Climate Policy, appointing all of these really smart people to those positions. That’s going to have a longer term impact to how we deal with climate change in the next four years.
Brian Beutler: So you’re talking about this “whole of government” approach. This is, like, the term of art, I think, for what you’re describing. And what’s the idea there? Is the idea that the federal government is this big entity that interfaces with individuals, communities, businesses, et cetera, in a million different ways, and that the more expansive the federal government’s intention to, to combat climate change filters down to those relationships, to those interactions.
Emily Atkin: It’s that. But it’s more than that. It’s that any goal that Biden has with any other part of the administration, whether it be HHS, you know Health and Human Services, Immigration, Defense—any of these priorities that he has, if he doesn’t have climate experts in there telling everyone how these policies are going to be affected by the coming climate crisis, which is, is we’re in and is happening. I mean, right now we’re on track—the world is on track to warm right now about three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels just where we are, and that’s like a scientific term for basically: oh, crap! Like that’s bad. You know, and if you’re not doing long-term planning for, for that in your policy priorities, your policies are simply not going to be successful. It’s the only smart way to govern anymore. You cannot, you cannot govern without having climate change experts in every single area of government. Otherwise, you’re just being stupid.
Brian Beutler: It works not just on this like, you know, hopefully fortuitous positive feedback cycle, but also you want policies that reduce the risks of climate change, the, the amount of climate change we’re going to create. But you also want to have backstops in place for how much warming we end up having to deal with. And this is how you make sure that that happens in advance. You’re not scrambling, you know, when, you know, the big wave takes out all of Florida, or whatever.
Emily Atkin: Exactly. Like you need measures for equity in that adaptation, resilience planning that’s happening within all areas of government. Because not only are we like, living through the climate crisis right now, it’s happening, it’s going to get worse even if we did a bunch of stuff to solve it tomorrow. Bad things are going to happen that we can plan for in all areas of government. But then also it’s not going to affect everyone the same. So . . .
Brian Beutler: You know, you mentioned Keystone XL or we could talk about fuel economy or the federal government basically creating rules for, four businesses or whatever, right? And then on the other hand, you have more abstract changes: I feel like building climate considerations into everything the federal government does. So if that’s the framework we have, what, what’s durable in your mind? Like what is the likeliest to outlast the Biden administration versus like what’s more vulnerable to legal challenge or rapid reversal if and when a Republican administration comes to power?
Emily Atkin: Everything right now is super fragile, at least in my mind, at least in the analysis that I’ve done. I mean, I got to be honest with you, in general, these are all executive actions. A lot of them are just redoing things that Trump undid. And I think that’s the fragility of them is also the reason for the rapid pace of them. They’re easy to do and they’re easy to undo. The things that will be more durable—like legislation—those aren’t going to happen very fast.
Brian Beutler: But I mean, OK, so I take your point about nothing that the president signs on the 10th day of his administration or whatever that, that just rearranges how the federal government conducts business is like, can be guaranteed to be permanent. But some of it can lead to things that a new administration can’t just easily undo. Or I mean, like I’m thinking specifically about, about fuel economy—
Brian Beutler: Here’s why Trump was unable to rollback fuel economy standards in real life, despite having the theoretical power to do it. The story begins in President Obama’s first term. After rescuing the auto industry, Obama got car companies to agree to heightened regulatory standards that would significantly increase the average fuel efficiency of vehicles sold in America. Several years later in the spirit of spiting Obama and catering to the oil industry. Trump tried to weaken those standards, but not all car companies were interested. California and a few other states decided to keep the Obama standards, and that put car companies in a pickle. They had already retooled their fleets, and they knew that over time the pressure on them to decarbonize would only increase. So why not have everyone move forward under a single set of rules?
[News clip] Seventeen automakers, including Ford and General Motors, writing a letter to President Trump urging him to restart negotiations with California to come to a definitive policy on vehicle mileage standards. Now the letter says—
Brian Beutler: Given another term. Trump might have won the ensuing tug of war, but he lost. And Biden has already ordered agencies to begin reinstating higher standards before the Trump plan can do any damage. Obama improved things through executive action, and the changes outlasted his successor.
Emily Atkin: The good thing about making policy, climate policy for industry is that they want consistency and they know that the Biden administration is basically going to do all of the things that Obama did, but more. Like all of those climate regulations that Trump tried to undo on their—or did undo on their industry are going to come back. Fortunately, what I’ve been seeing on the EPA regulation front lately is that the Trump administration was actually very bad at repealing some of these regulations and judges are just kind of vacating. And it’s, it’s nice to know that they were stupid, right? I mean, thank God.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. It turns out that a big subplot of this whole series that we’re doing is that we’re very lucky, luckier than I think we realize, that the Trump administration was so lazy and half-assed. And also I feel like they assumed: oh we own the court so we can, like, scribble some shit on toilet paper and they’ll uphold it as a new rule. But yes, like right before the inauguration, you know, the, the rule that the Trump administration wanted to put in place instead of the Clean Power Plan.
Emily Atkin: They ACE rule, yeah.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. They were like: no, this is this is bullshit law and you can’t do it.
Emily Atkin: One of the things that Trump administration failed to do, which is a huge relief to anyone who cares about the climate, is that they failed to undo the so-called ‘endangerment finding’, which was this finding by the EPA under the Obama administration that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, basically—that it’s a pollutant that endangers human health and therefore it can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. And that’s super important. It was huge priority for climate deniers, oil industry people, to undo the endangerment finding because then legally you can’t regulate carbon dioxide. And they didn’t do that. That’s great. And, as, you know, one of our strongest things that, that will help us address climate change is how strong the science of climate change is getting and how much more scientists can really show not only that carbon dioxide endangers human health, but how it really endangers human health, and what is justified to prevent that harm.
Brian Beutler: Coming up, why Emily thinks Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico may be the key to future climate legislation passed in Congress. And later, I’ll answer your questions about how long it will take Congress to pass Biden’s o1.9 trillion dollar coronavirus relief package through the budget reconciliation process, when we return.
Brian Beutler: Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is Emily Atkin, who writes the daily climate newsletter Heated. We’re talking about the first steps President Biden has taken to address the climate crisis and whether they’re bold enough to meet the moment.
Brian Beutler: On day one, he reentered the Paris accord. I wonder what you make of that as a, as a gesture versus a policy, right? Do you think the Biden administration believes that international efforts to curb emissions via any kind of binding constraints like treaties can work? Like, particularly given what Trump did and also that the previous efforts have fallen apart. And if that’s not the case, to what extent is this just something more abstract messaging or a diplomatic statement to the world about America’s identity and what direction it’s going in?
Emily Atkin: It’s weird because half of me wants to be like: who cares about the Paris climate agreement? It’s like what Cory Booker said during the campaign, which will always stick with me, like—.
[clip of Senator Cory Booker] Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accords. That is kindergarten. We have to go to far advanced and make sure that everything must be sublimated to the challenge and the crisis that is existential.
Emily Atkin: But at the same time, I don’t want to undermine the importance of actually making a symbolic gesture internationally. Because I think a lot of people, myself included, I get so I get so caught up in our domestic actions and you just realize that we actually only contribute 15 % of all global emissions right now. We’re the largest historical contributor, climate change. We have, you know, the United States has, has done the most to make the climate as terrible as it is, right now, and therefore, we have the most responsibility. But we’re not developing any more. So we’re not emitting a ton and ton of carbon the way other nations are. And so reentering that is, is an important first step on the way to do that, and making it a priority-first, day-one action. One of the other things that I think sort of slip by was that, you know, that first day and first week and even beforehand, Biden was having all these calls with international leaders, countries, leaders of countries all over the world and there would be summaries of each call that would come out, press release and all the reporters’ inbox, and every single one it was: Biden talked with this leader about reestablishing international cooperation on climate change. And it was always a prominent sentence in the readout. So that, I think, is also just as important. Having John Kerry be the international envoy for climate, reestablishing a familiar face for all of these international players. I mean, I think that for the last four years, it’s been really—for lack of a better word— annoying for other countries to feel like they have to they have to take the lead on solving the climate crisis now, even though the United States is the one that made it, everything so bad and has the most money and should be the one leading the way.
Brian Beutler: Is it wrong of me to kind of sense that there’s an analogy between what Biden is doing globally and his whole of government effort at home in so far as you just kind of hope to embed within American relationships, certain understandings about how the two countries will cooperate or whatever, that you hope can last beyond your term in office?
Emily Atkin: I honestly don’t know, because we just have never had any successful international treaties to fight climate change. Like even if we had stayed in the Paris climate agreement for the last four years, Kerry has been admitting it himself that the goals are great, but that the commitments made are nowhere near what, nowhere near what needs to be done and that it’s not binding. I don’t even think, we don’t even know what stability on this scale looks like. And I think one of the reasons you don’t hear a lot of criticism yet from environmental climate people is that this is all just rebuilding what we had before and there, we have, we don’t have new ideas for how to do things differently yet, how to do things more aggressively. Replicating the Obama administration isn’t going to do much to address the climate problem because unfortunately, the Obama administration didn’t do much to address the climate problem, at least not enough. And I’ve spoken to a number of former Obama officials that will, will freely admit that they didn’t do enough, that they didn’t take it seriously enough, that they prioritized other things and that they wish they had done more. And you see that, you see that regret and desire in new administration officials. But yet we still don’t have enough ideas on how to really radically change things and do things really differently, which is what I think is going to need to be done.
Brian Beutler: Let’s jump back to learn a couple of additional lessons from the Obama era. Even before Obama became president, every serious climate change plan on Capitol Hill included a price on carbon. Some of those plans even had Republican support, and the hope was that taxing emissions one way or another would ratchet down pollution all on its own. Of course, when Obama actually took power, Republicans abandoned their support and retreated further into climate change denial. When it became clear that pricing emissions had reached a political dead end, the administration tried to bring about the same automatic reductions in emissions by regulation through something called—
[clip of President Obama] America’s Clean Power Plan, a plan two years in the making and the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change.
Brian Beutler: The Clean Power Plan proposed to cap emissions on a state-by-state basis and allow states to figure out how to clean up their industries under the threat of federal intervention.
[voice clip] It requires a 32% cut in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030. Lots of arguments against this, including you know, this will hurt our industries like our coal industry. And so two dozen states have sued the EPA over this rule, which I think gives you some sense of its magnitude.
Brian Beutler: But by then, it was already 2015. The plan got tied up in court right away and remained in limbo until Donald Trump won and withdrew it. You know, the old joke about assuming a can opener? Well, the lesson here is don’t assume a one and done solution to climate change will materialize. You have to attack the problem on all fronts regardless.
Brian Beutler: Do you think that some of the policy makers in the Obama administration who think maybe they didn’t do enough, were lulled into a level of complacency because they assumed the carbon would be priced, and it would take care of a lot of problems on its own just by having the pricing mechanism in place? And given that, you know, that idea has sort of fallen out of the discussion so much, A) do you think that now they realized they have to be very hands on about, about taking action directly? And why did the carbon pricing idea just kind of fall away like this?
Emily Atkin: Yeah, it’s a good question. I’ve never asked former administration officials about this, former Obama administration officials. But what I have asked them about and what, what I do know is that they really thought that the Clean Power Plan was going to be something that continued. It was a big deal. I mean, it was the Clean Power Plan, our first ever regulations on carbon dioxide, the main pollutant causing climate change, from the fossil fuel industry, the main driver of climate change. So, you know, that was a pretty big deal and I think that there just was a lack of understanding about how it can be a big deal and also not be near enough. That’s sort of the, the main lesson for all climate policy. And it’s also the reason why I think carbon pricing has really fallen off because carbon pricing could have done a lot if we had had a carbon price for the last 30 years, 20 years, 16 years, 8 years, whatever. Now it’s like raising the minimum wage, you know, a dollar, after not raising it for many, many, many years—it just doesn’t make that much of a difference. And if, and if a carbon price is going to make a huge difference now, it has to be very high and it has to be done in a way that doesn’t punish low income and middle income people, people who drive a lot. It has to be done in a way that’s not regressive. Now, it’s like a carbon price has to be very aggressive for it to be, for it to be significant enough to make a meaningful difference.
Brian Beutler: You mentioned the Clean Power Plan when it became clear that carbon pricing had hit a dead end. Politically, I feel like now the Biden administration has to decide whether to reinstitute it, roll it up through the courts again or something similar to it anyway. What are his options and what do we expect him to do on that front?
Emily Atkin: This, it’s like a really complicated legal issue on what his options are at this point. Obviously they could try and reinstate the Clean Power Plan. I think that’s probably their easiest option because it’s already written and all of the work has already been done. That’s going to be a lot easier. I mean, I think speed is a huge, is a priority for any climate policy. Anything that’s going to take a super long time to create legally is probably not as good of an option.
Brian Beutler: So in theory, if Biden picks up the Clean Power Plan, I think the issue is that they’re going to end up basically where the Obama administration left off, which is that a judge somewhere is going to say: no, you can’t implement this until every challenge has been run through the ringer. Except this time the ringer ends at the Supreme Court, which is now six three. It will end up with a lot of litigation that probably ends with the Supreme Court just throwing it out on some pretext. I don’t know. I mean, all roads kind of seem to end in that spot anyway. So what do you do if, if you have lots of good ideas, lots of good lawyers and you think you found a way to do it that is should be legally bulletproof, but no matter what, you’re going to spend years in court and you might lose anyway? What what’s the strategy for that? Other than packing the court?
Emily Atkin: I mean, democracy reform is a huge topic in climate policy right now. There’s a growing faction of people who think that the best way to ensure long-standing climate policy is not to prioritize climate policy, first. It’s to prioritize democracy reform. I think the biggest thing that he can do to leave a long-standing climate legacy that will ensure that we keep addressing climate change for a long time is make D.C. the fifty first state.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, democracy reform is climate reform.
Emily Atkin: Yeah, no, it really is. Because we can’t be relying on Joe Manchin from West Virginia to be the deciding vote for climate policy. But we have a bunch of citizens in the United States that are not represented in the Senate—me being one of them and, and you being one of them! And a bunch of people in Puerto Rico who are getting smashed by hurricanes every year and they don’t get to vote on climate policy. That’s wild. I think that if Biden prioritizes that, all of these questions are going to become moot because democracy is going to work for the climate.
Brian Beutler: So here’s where I want to end: I feel like over 15 or so years I have experienced the climate conversation evolve from a state of urgency, like in the mid ought’s, to a state of near hopelessness in recent years. But in more recent days to something, if not exactly like optimism, than at least like, non-fatalism. The old strategic thinking that you can’t do this without huge political majorities and big blunt bills did not pan out. But climate activists won the culture war on climate change and austerity didn’t work out when we tried it and that means that we can still do what needs to be done. It’ll just happen in chunks and it’s not going to be this one and done thing, but that the path to doing this the right way still exists. Do you share this optimism? If so, why? And if not, why not?
Emily Atkin: Oh, I’m incredibly optimistic, and I think it’s because I don’t see this growing up generation, the generation that’s going to soon take over politics, as backing down on this. Because they understand, unlike a lot of Millennials, Gen Z’ers, people who are a little older, that it’s not an all or nothing thing. It’s first of all, it’s not either we solve climate change or it’s all over. There’s a huge spectrum of in between. They understand that and they understand that the goal is not—where we’re far past the point and we have been for a long time of preventing bad things from happening. Bad things are going to happen. How much bad stuff are you going to let happen? Number two is that they have an understanding that this is not something that is happening to them. It is something that’s being done to them, and it’s something that’s being done to them by people who profit in the short term, from bad things happening in the future, and from them not having a future. I think that in the last 15 years, that’s been the number one progress and understanding about climate change. We felt hopelessness and apathy because we thought that this was the cost of human progress. This was just something that happened and, you know, we can all try and do our part, but we’re all responsible. And that’s just not the case. I think the more that I see how the extent of how intentional disinformation, profit-driven disinformation, by the biggest polluters and the politicians that they bought, has caused this problem, the more I clearly see what the answer is to solve it. It’s to get that interest out of there, to expose that interest, to let more people know about that interest. I mean, what really galvanized me as a climate reporter and made me passionate about this beat was when I realized that that was the whole story. That’s the whole story. You know, that I didn’t need to just keep reporting on these studies that said “bad thing going to happen. Ice sheet breaking. Sea level rising. Miami going away.” You know, like that was not, that was not my job as, as a reporter. My job as a reporter was to say, you know: corporation spreading widespread misinformation about severity of climate science in order to delay climate policy as long as possible so that they can make billions and billions of dollars off of the destruction of black and brown lives and et cetera. Right? I mean, that’s outrageous. And the more people wake up to that, the more I see you have the, you have the political will necessary to change things. And if you don’t see it now, I always say this, you’re going to see it in five years, in 10 years because this isn’t going away. It’s just going to get worse and worse. Your job, you might think you know what your job is right now, but in five years, you’re going to be a climate reporter too. Everyone on TV who talks about politics now is going to be a climate reporter in 10 years. They just don’t know it yet.
Brian Beutler: That’s a fascinating place to end it.
Emily Atkin: Always nice to talk about this cheery stuff. [laughs]
Brian Beutler: No. Well, it’s funny that you were like: I’m, I’m super optimistic because things are going to get so horrible that everyone is going to be a climate reporter.
Emily Atkin: [laughs]
Brian Beutler: Oh?! What a happy thought.
Emily Atkin: Yeah, well, I didn’t say nothing bad was going to happen. I said: I think we’re going to do something about it.
Brian Beutler: Keep sending us your questions. Our email address is Rubicon@Crooked.com. We got a lot of questions after last week’s episode about the timeline for COVID relief—how soon will those checks come? The answer is it’s mostly up to Democrats. The Senate rules and the rules of budget reconciliation imposed some time requirements on Democrats, but they’re pretty minimal. The bigger question is how quickly can Democrats align on a version of the Biden plan that all 50 of them will support? As we record this, they appear to be pretty close. The reason it took Republicans months to vote on their reconciliation bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act back in 2017 was that they had no plan and couldn’t agree on one among themselves, which is ultimately why that effort failed. Assuming these negotiations continue along their current pace, I peg final passage four days or maybe a few weeks, rather than months. As Senator Bernie Sanders said this week:
[clip of Senator Bernie Sanders] I know that for the rest of the world, people are saying: why are you taking so long? But for the US Senate, this is lightning speed.
Brian Beutler: Rubicon has written and hosted by me, Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Brian Semel. Thanks for listening and we’ll be back next week.