We now know the core group of people who will implement President-elect Joe Biden’s climate agenda. While Biden has promised an all-of-government approach (and he should certainly do that), the leaders of the agencies with the biggest say on climate and environmental rule making and R&D are set.
They range from progressive champions like Rep. Deb Haaland for Interior secretary to some ???? choices like former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for transportation secretary. Ultimately, the grouping reflects Biden in a nutshell: An imperfect bridge between competent but flawed Obama era and the progressive future that could be the Democratic Party. But assuming all the nominees are confirmed, Biden’s cabinet will also be light year’s beyond Donald Trump’s choices. And perhaps most importantly, it’s now clear where activists will have both allies and those they need to push harder to ensure Biden meets the moment.
The biggest progressive win on the nominee list is clearly Haaland, who will be the first Indigenous person to run any federal agency if she is confirmed. It’s a huge win in terms of her values, representation, and the clout of Indigenous activists to make it happen. She will oversee 500 million acres of land and have a huge chance to end fossil fuel leasing, restore Bears Ears National Monument, and so much more. She’ll be replacing a fossil fuel lobbyist, who replaced a faux cowboy, which is truly some poetic justice.
Michael Regan, the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, got the nod for Environmental Protection Agency administrator. While he wasn’t on activists’ short list, he ended up being the choice after front-runner Mary Nichols fell out of favor after California environmental justice advocates pushed back for her record on market-based policies that disproportionately hurt poor communities of color.
Activists also played a role in sinking the nomination chances of Ernest Moniz’s—a front-runner to head the Department of Energy—due to his love of natural gas, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel for Department of Transportation for his love of being a pugnacious asshole. The folks whom Biden nominated for those roles—former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Buttigieg, resepctively—aren’t exactly progressive climate champions. It’s fair to look at Biden and see the left “getting rolled” as really bad people get replaced by less-bad options or position being doled out to those who helped him win election. (As the mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana who also happened to help save Biden’s campaign, Buttigieg is a particularly egregious example). And there’s plenty of room to criticize Biden passing over Rep. Marcia Fudge to lead the Department of Agriculture in favor of Tom Vilsack, an Obama throwback and Big Ag supporter.
The climate left was never going to get everything it wanted out of Biden, nor were some of the people it championed necessarily interested in administration jobs. Sure, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at EPA would’ve been great, but he has repeatedly said he wasn’t interested in a cabinet post, and having him continue to shape his state’s climate plan is arguably more important. But it’s the holiday season, and it’s fair to celebrate the wins and plan for what’s next.
At the end of the day, this will be the most serious climate cabinet to ever take office. Of course, it could be improved. But as we’ve seen with Biden’s climate plan, pressure can work. The first draft of his plan had some high points but also some notable low ones. But over the course of the primary and into the general election, activists convinced him to raise his ambition, shaving years off his plan to decarbonize the grid and massively boosting how much money he was willing to plow into addressing climate change and creating jobs for the 21st century. The Green New Deal it isn’t, but Biden’s plan was the most ambitious presidential climate plan in history. Since the election, he has further raised the prominence of climate for his administration by naming former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and former Secretary of State John Kerry as domestic and international climate czars.
There are still ways for all this to go sideways, whether it’s the prospect of a Republican-controlled Senate dragging out confirmation hearings or industry groups gaining a stronger toehold with the administration. A lot is also riding on the less-flashy political appointments below the cabinet level, which will end up doing a lot of the policy heavy lifting. But in naming Haaland, an Indigenous woman and fierce fossil fuel fighter who showed up to cook during protests at Standing Rock, as the last of the big climate-focused cabinet positions, Biden has shown he’s willing to listen. Now, activists need to keep shouting in his ear.