What Biden’s Done for the Climate in His First 100 Days
The 46th president made big promises to move the United States toward a carbon-free future. What he’s accomplished so far has been impressive, but can he keep up the momentum?
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Since his first few days on the campaign trail, Joe Biden has held the line that addressing the climate crisis is one of his top priorities, calling it “the number one issue facing humanity.” In January, in anticipation of his inauguration, Outside published an ambitious outline for what we thought Biden should do to steer the United States out of its Trump-era nosedive and protect the planet and country from impending fiery doom (or at least to try to slow the burning).
Now, President Biden is 100 days into his term, and we’re not just speculating anymore. “The Biden administration has hit the ground running. I’m really pleasantly surprised at the speed at which they’re moving,” says Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the nonpartisan conservation group Center for Western Priorities. “When you look at the concrete actions that they’re taking, they’ve gotten an amazing amount of stuff done in a short amount of time.”
So, what has the Biden administration accomplished for the climate and environment since taking office? And where does it have work to do? Here’s our report card on Biden’s first 100 days.
What He’s Gotten Done
Within hours of taking the oath of office, President Biden signed a slew of environmentally focused executive orders. He rejoined the Paris Agreement (more on that later), canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, and committed to upholding environmental justice. “We always hear about day one objectives, but they literally did it,” says Nat Keohane, senior vice president for climate at the Environmental Defense Fund and former special assistant to the president on energy and environment during the Obama administration. “He had half a day in the White House, and it was on the docket. Right out of the gate, this administration made it clear that they were really putting climate at the center.”
Personnel is politics, and Keohane says the Biden administration has put climate leaders into power across the board, from Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to National Economic Council director Brian Deese, the former head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager. “Having someone with that depth of understanding advising on the economy is huge,” Keohane says.
For those of us who prize public lands, Deb Haaland’s appointment as secretary of the interior was extremely impactful, and she’s already come out with two significant secretarial orders. The first revokes a series of Trump-era orders that her team found to be inconsistent with science and public health, including Trump rules that opened up and expedited drilling on federal lands and a Trump order that diminished the power of the National Environmental Policy Act, which ensures that environmental impacts are considered in any federal projects. “Those previous orders unfairly tilted the balance of public land and ocean management toward extractive uses without regard for climate change, equity, or community engagement,” Haaland said in a Twitter statement.
Weiss says that revocation might seem backward-looking, but it’s really a huge step forward. “That order does a lot to wipe the slate clean so the agencies can get back to following the law, consistent with the best science. It’s huge just in terms of the number of bad things that it removes,” Weiss says. Then, looking forward, Haaland established a climate task force within the Department of the Interior, which, among other things, will incorporate the social cost of carbon into the department’s work. “That’s a big change, even just from the sheer scope of what they touch,” Weiss says.
Finally, it’s not just the president and the cabinet working toward emission reductions. Congress used the Congressional Review Act to roll back a Trump EPA rule to limit regulations on methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon.
What’s Still in Process
One hundred days goes by fast, so many plans and policies are still in the works. The most significant one—which will trickle into many aspects of how we live, move, and grow—is the president’s commitment to cutting U.S. house gas emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, which he announced at a summit of world leaders on Earth Day. “It’s a big deal. It puts us in the top tier of ambition globally, well on target to meet net zero by 2050, which science demands,” Keohane says. “And there’s a huge amount to do to implement that.”
We have the technology to get to those targets. We just need the funding, plans, and political will. Those are rolled, in part, into the $2.65 trillion infrastructure plan that President Biden proposed in March, which a majority of Americans support and includes funding for electric vehicles, a revamped power grid, climate research, and much more. It’s ambitious and expensive, but the president is touting it as a way to heal the economy and the climate at the same time. “This is about all the ways that investing in climate means better jobs, healthier communities, and more equity,” Keohane says. A significant amount of money is earmarked for climate resilience, including $450 million for tribes and $161 million for agriculture.
Land conservation and designation is another big ball in the air. Secretary Haaland recently visited Bears Ears National Monument, protection for which has bounced back and forth between the previous two administrations. She’s expected to make a recommendation soon. Zooming out, Biden has committed to preserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, and Weiss says the so-called 30-by-30 plan will have a huge bearing on how land is preserved and how conservation can connect public and private land. He believes it should be a bottom-up process that involves Indigenous, private, state, and city lands to protect landscapes in a collaborative structure.
Weiss says the other big policy change in play on public land is oil and gas leasing, which the Biden administration has paused and is still reevaluating. “It’s a giant ball of yarn to unwind, but they’re taking the right steps in terms of considering greenhouse gas emissions and total cost of carbon,” he says. Weiss has his eye on well bonding and royalties and how the Interior Department is proposing to fix and modernize the leasing system. And he’s hopeful that Congress will come together to pass new bipartisan regulations. A bill to modernize royalty rates was introduced by Chuck Grassley, a seven-term Republican senator from Iowa who has historically voted against environmental regulations. That kind of cross-aisle bill could be a sign of turning tides.
Where He’s Floundering
While Biden has set serious carbon reduction goals and announced impressive future plans, he hasn’t been as decisive on curbing existing pipeline projects, like the Line 3 Pipeline in northern Minnesota, which Indigenous groups have asked him to stop because it threatens their water and ancestral lands and will add 193 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. If we’re going to hit those science-based targets to cut emissions—and respect tribal sovereignty—the federal government has to move quickly and decisively to stop carbon-based projects like Line 3.
But the biggest stumbling block to emission reductions is Congress, where Republicans in the lockjawed Senate have said they won’t pass any sort of climate policy. Democrat Joe Manchin, from red-leaning West Virginia, will likely be the deciding vote on infrastructure and has been cagey about anything involving green energy. Biden’s infrastructure plan includes a clean electricity standard, which would require power utilities to generate electricity using entirely carbon-free sources by 2035. On April 26, a group of 150 businesses and environmental groups endorsed the clean electricity standard in a letter to Biden and congressional leaders, underlining the fact that it’s broadly popular. But the bill still has to pass through Congress. “We can’t let Congress off the hook. There’s a lot the administration can’t do without 60 votes,” Keohane says. “If we want to meet that 50 percent reduction goal, the most important sector will be the power sector, and that will take policy to set an enforceable limit on carbon pollution.”
Keohane says his other concern is the administration maintaining momentum and following through on its targets. “This needs to be a four-year effort, not just 100 days,” he says. “I was there in the Obama years, so I know that every term a crisis will come up. The challenge in the face of that is keeping climate at the top of the list and central to the agenda.” Time is crucial when it comes to addressing climate change and environmental degradation. Biden and his team have been moving impressively fast so far, but the rest of his term will have to be both a marathon and a sprint.