Dirty dozen: Biden remakes government in climate effort

Here's how 12 top federal agencies are joining the fight against climate change

By Sydney O’Shaughnessy

(Sydney O'Shaughnessy is an environmental journalist working as a communications associate for the Environmental and Energy Study Institute in Washington, D.C. where she reports on issues ranging from plastic waste and agriculture to energy and housing inequity. Connect with her on Twitter @SydneyRaeO.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — President Joe Biden has promised to take a “whole-of-government” approach to tackling climate change — a first for a sitting president. Four months in, that plan is taking shape. From the Internal Revenue Service to NASA, federal departments are mobilizing for climate action. 

In previous administrations, climate action was predominantly carried out through the Environmental Protection Agency, if at all. Biden signed an executive order in his first days aimed at centering the climate crisis in national and foreign policy. 

“Climate change is an economy-wide challenge,” said Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “The interrelationships between high-emitting sectors are complicated, but critically important to understand if we want to make progress with the necessary urgency.”  

Here’s how 12 top federal agencies are joining the fight against climate change: 

Treasury, IRS, and Federal Reserve

Though the IRS, Federal Reserve and Treasury typically steer clear of climate issues, new guidance is emerging under the new administration. For example, the IRS finalized a set of rules to advance carbon capture and sequestration in the U.S. The development of these rules began under former President Donald Trump but have just recently been finalized. The IRS also expanded Safe Harbor. The Safe Harbor expansion provides relief for federal and offshore renewable energy projects. 

Most recently, the Federal Reserve also established a new Supervision Climate Committee (SCC) to assess the risks climate change poses to the banking system. This work will be complemented by the also newly formed Financial Stability Climate Committee.

Securities and Exchange Commission

Similarly, the SEC avoided climate change under former President Trump. But since Biden has taken office, the commission has been busy updating its procedures. In March, the SEC announced the formation of a new Enforcement Task Force focused specifically on climate and environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG). This task force will work to identify climate- and ESG-related misconduct through data analysis. 

“Climate risks and sustainability are critical issues for the investing public and our capital markets,” Acting Chair Allison Herren Lee said in a statement. “The task force announced today will play an important role in enhancing and coordinating the efforts of the Division of Enforcement, the Office of the Whistleblower, and other parts of the agency to bolster the efforts of the commission as a whole on these vital matters.”

Most recently, the commission also invited public input for its other climate-related disclosures. 

NASA

While NASA has long been a national leader on climate and planetary observations, since Biden’s inauguration the agency has stepped up climate change action back on earth as well. 

First, the agency created a new role of Senior Climate Adviser and named Gavin Schmidt to serve in it. This role is a direct result of the climate change executive order signed by Biden at the end of January. In March, NASA also joined the National Climate Task Force, another initiative created by Biden in the executive order. 

“Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing us today,” Schmidt said in a statement. “Given our unique ability to observe the planet from space and the long-term data records we’ve been able to assemble, NASA is in a prime position to inform policy decisions in the current administration and beyond.”

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Touting itself as an economic regulator above all else, FERC has largely failed to use its influence over the natural gas, oil, and electricity markets to decrease emissions in the past. The agency was also largely politicized under former President Trump, but now, for the first time, FERC has assessed the climate impacts of a proposed natural gas pipeline, started a new proceeding to examine how climate change threatens electric reliability, and announced a new technical conference to discuss climate change, extreme weather, and electric reliability.

General Services Administration

The Biden Administration has also established a team of GSA officials to focus on his four key priorities, including infrastructure and climate. The appointees have public and private sector experience and will primarily focus on technology and climate. 

In February, GSA also made seven investments in infrastructure, focusing on strengthening sustainability and infrastructure in an effort to promote economic development across the nation. 

Department of Agriculture

The USDA has made several significant contributions to conservation, rural development, and emissions reductions in the last decade. Since Biden’s climate order, USDA has invested $218 million in land and water conservation.

“These investments reflect President Biden’s commitment to supporting locally led conservation efforts from coast to coast and to honoring and building on the proud private land stewardship traditions of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “The investments will not only protect our natural heritage, they will also create jobs, expand access to the outdoors, and help tackle climate change.”

The USDA also has committed $598 million to modernize rural electric infrastructure through the Electric Loan Program. This investment will help rural communities in 11 states improve grid technology, increase community access to broadband, decrease electricity costs, and foster the transition to a clean energy economy.  

The USDA has requested public input for a Rural Renewable Energy Pilot Program as well as on the climate-smart agriculture and forestry strategy.

These recent actions compound on the USDA’s long-standing programs including the Rural Energy Savings Program, which provides grants to “rural utilities and other companies who provide energy efficiency loans to qualified consumers to implement durable cost-effective energy efficiency measures.” 

Department of the Interior

Like the USDA, the Interior Dept. is taking several steps to address climate change. This year, the Interior Dept. has allocated $249 million to Gulf Coast states for coastal conservation, restoration, and hurricane protection — the second largest amount allocated since 2009.  

The Interior Dept. also invested $1.6 billion to improve infrastructure on public lands and tribal schools. In conjunction with the departments of energy, transportation and commerce. the Interior Dept. also plans to advance offshore wind. 

The four federal agencies set a target of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 while strengthening the national workforce and improving infrastructure. The plan is predicted to create tens of thousands of new renewable energy jobs, establish a new wind energy area, and support wind energy research. 

This coordinated approach between agencies is another first to combat climate change.

“For generations, we’ve put off the transition to clean energy and now we’re facing a climate crisis. Not every community has the resources to rebuild, or even get up and relocate when a climate event happens in their backyards. The climate crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income families,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement. 

Department of Energy

In addition to advancing offshore wind, the DOE announced $35 million to go toward developing new technologies to reduce methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. The DOE also plans to invest $61.4 million in biofuels research, which could be used to power heavy-duty vehicles more sustainably.

Department of Transportation

Transportation accounts for roughly 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions. So, in addition to funding new infrastructure projects to increase resiliency and advance offshore wind energy, the DOT is also joining forces with Canada to decrease transportation-related emissions. The DOT will accomplish this by improving vehicle standards and fuel efficiency with the goal of 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2050.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Biden has introduced a plan to allocate $10 billion from the federal emergency fund to FEMA to use to proactively address potential climate disasters. The plan anticipates increasing disasters in the U.S. from rising seas, hurricanes, and wildfires, among other things.