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Friday, September 17, 2021
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Biden Starts to Walk the Walk on Climate Resilience

Upon his election as President, Joe Biden wasted no time in setting out his priorities on the Biden-Harris transition website. One of these was climate change, representing a stark difference to his predecessor who omitted mention of climate change from many policies and rolled back almost 100 environmental rules and regulations during his four-year term. Agencies such as the Department of Defense took it upon themselves to introduce and develop climate resilience planning and policy in the absence of presidential leadership in this area.

Climate Change as a National Security Priority

Perhaps President Biden’s clearest message on climate to date, and one that is of particular interest to the security community, is his executive order, signed on his seventh day of office, that made climate change a national security priority. The EO states, “It is the policy of my Administration that climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.” At the same time, Biden appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to be his Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, along with a seat on the National Security Council. At the time of writing, Kerry is in China to discuss climate change, making him the first Biden administration official to visit the country. China and the U.S. disagree on many things, not least on coal and clean energy funding. But if diplomacy can be reached, it is here, with both countries committed to not just talking about climate change, but acting. If the two superpowers could find some common ground on climate, the almost insurmountable job of getting the planet back on an even keel will be made far easier. In addition, it could pave the way for better relations on a host of other matters. 

At the end of March, Biden launched his American Jobs Plan. This wide-ranging plan for investment and policy change gave more than a nod to climate concerns. It sets out how expansion and improvement projects must be carried out appropriately to avoid worsening environmental impacts, highlights critical infrastructure resilience to climate events, and called for an additional investment of $35 billion in emerging technology and innovation to tackle the climate crisis.

On April 9, the President announced his detailed discretionary budget request. By now, it comes as no surprise that climate should feature heavily. His discretionary request includes major new climate change investments— an increase of more than $14 billion compared to 2021—across nearly every agency to invest in resilience and clean energy, enhance U.S. competitiveness, and put America on a path to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

Biden’s Climate Shopping List

The discretionary request invests $1.7 billion in energy saving retrofits to homes, schools, and Federal buildings. This investment includes $800 million in new investments across Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs for rehabilitation and modernization to further climate resilience and energy efficiency, which would lower the costs and improve the quality of public and HUD-assisted housing, and $400 million at the Department of Energy for the weatherization of low-income homes. 

The request includes $600 million for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure in the individual budgets of 18 federal agencies, including dedicated funds at the General Services Administration for other agencies and for United States Postal Service charging infrastructure. Some $2 billion is allocated to put welders, electricians, and other skilled labor to work building clean energy projects across the U.S.. This investment supports a historic energy efficiency and clean electricity standard that would transform the electric sector to be carbon-pollution free by 2035 and create good-paying union jobs. 

Crucially, the discretionary request provides $815 million—a $540 million increase above the 2021 enacted level—to incorporate climate impacts into pre-disaster planning and projects to ensure that the U.S. is rebuilding smarter and safer for the future. The discretionary request also provides more than $1.2 billion above the 2021 enacted level to increase the resilience of ecosystems and communities across the country to wildfires, flooding, and drought, including an additional $100 million for the CDC’s Climate and Health program. 

Along with climate, and a certain public health crisis, another of Biden’s focus areas has been on equality. To support marginalized and overburdened communities across the U.S., the discretionary request invests more than $1.4 billion, including $936 million toward a new Accelerating Environmental and Economic Justice initiative at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The administration says the initiative would create good-paying union jobs, clean up pollution, and secure environmental justice for communities that have been left behind. In order to hold polluters accountable, the initiative includes $100 million to develop a new community air quality monitoring and notification program, which would provide real-time data in the places with the highest levels of exposure to pollution. 

Furthermore, the discretionary request includes over $550 million to remediate thousands of oil and gas wells and reclaim abandoned mines. This more than triples the current annual discretionary funding, building on the President’s commitment to create 250,000 good-paying union jobs for skilled technicians and operators in some of the hardest hit communities in the country, while cleaning up hazardous sites. In line with the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, the discretionary request more than doubles funding for the Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Assistance to Coal Communities program. 

Ensuring clean, safe drinking water is a right in all communities—rural and urban, rich and poor. Consequently, the discretionary request includes significant funding—$3.6 billion—that could be used to advance water infrastructure improvement efforts for community water systems, schools, and households, such as repairing up to 180,000 septic systems as well as broader efforts to improve drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, while creating good-paying construction jobs across the U.S. and in tribal communities. 

The discretionary request also includes a number of proposals to invest in the assets of rural communities and create opportunity for rural Americans in rural America. This includes more than $300 million in new investments in the next generation of agriculture and conservation, including support for private lands conservation, renewable energy grants and loans, and the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps to create a new pathway to good-paying jobs in rural America. 

A further $6.5 billion in lending would support additional clean energy, energy storage, and transmission projects in rural communities, including communities of color. 

Biden is keen that America should lead the world on climate, not only on policy and action, but also in the field of emerging innovation. The discretionary request proposes over $4 billion to fund a broad portfolio of research across multiple agencies including the Department of the Interior, NASA, the National Science Foundation and others to improve understanding of the changing climate and inform adaptation and resilience measures. 

The discretionary request invests more than $10 billion—a more than 35-percent increase over 2021—in clean energy innovation across non-defense agencies. These investments would help transform the Nation’s electric, transportation, buildings, and industrial sectors to achieve net-zero carbon economy by 2050. 

The request also includes a total of $1 billion to create a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Climate and invest in the existing Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Together, these initiatives would support high-risk, high-reward solutions for adaptation and resilience against the climate crisis and enable robust investments in clean energy technology research and development. 

The discretionary request includes $6.9 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an increase of more than $1.4 billion from the 2021 enacted level. These additional funds would allow NOAA to expand its climate observation and forecasting work and provide better data and information to decision makers, support coastal resilience programs that would help protect communities from the economic and environmental impacts of climate change, and invest in modern infrastructure to enable these critical efforts. 

To accelerate progress toward the Paris Climate Agreement targets, which Biden famously re-signed upon taking office following his campaign pledge to do so, the discretionary request includes a $1.2 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund—the first American contribution since 2017—to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. 

The discretionary request also proposes $485 million to support other multilateral climate initiatives, including $100 million for international climate adaptation programs. In addition, the request provides $691 million for the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development to assist developing countries in adapting to climate disruptions, expanding clean energy production, and reducing landscape emissions. 

What Next?

On April 15, POLITICO reported that it had obtained a draft executive order that would instruct federal agencies to take sweeping action to combat climate-related financial risks to government and the economy, including moves that could impose new regulations on businesses.

The order would be timely as the U.S. prepares to host a major international climate summit on April 22-23. If POLITICO’s intel is correct, and it usually is, the executive order would be far-reaching but perhaps not universally popular. Biden has shown however, that he is happy to forgo his Uncle Joe persona if it gets the work done. And America has shown that when faced with a crisis, it can adapt to new measures. In this respect, the way in which countries, industries and citizens have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, may provide an indicator of how they will cope with emerging climate change policy.

America’s new leader has taken the crucial first steps to addressing the growing problem of climate change. These steps have not been as tentative as we have seen in some countries whose leaders often merely pay lip service to the problem. Biden has shown he is ready to act and to put his money where his mouth is. To do this, he will need Congress to support his climate goals and require the cooperation of not just all of America, but much of the world, to make the kind of impacts he desires.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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