On Tuesday, an otherwise fairly boring confirmation hearing heralded a remarkable victory for climate policy. In response to several questions about climate, 74-year-old former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, now poised to become Joe Biden’s treasury secretary, called climate change an “existential threat” and said she would appoint someone at a “very senior level” to focus on rising temperatures. She pledged, as well, to create a “hub” for examining the risks global warming poses to the financial system. With Inauguration Day looming, few paused to note the importance of this moment: Starting with this administration, the U.S. Treasury Department will help write climate policy.
It won’t be alone. Numerous executive departments are now gearing up to fight climate change. Defense secretary nominee and retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III pledged at his own hearing to appoint specialized climate staff and work to bring down the military’s carbon footprint. Antony Blinken-Biden’s State Department pick-agreed with Senate Democrats Tuesday who peppered him with questions about the need to use the department to take on the climate crisis, which he called an “existential threat.” Biden has pledged he’ll move immediately after his inauguration to revoke the Keystone XL pipeline permit and reenter the Paris climate agreement, as well as prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His administration, at least for now, seems to be sticking with its “all-of-government approach” to climate change. That’s welcome news for the planet. The trouble is that what else that greener government is doing-on foreign policy, especially-could stand in the way.
Biden’s swearing-in may inaugurate a new era of U.S. climate politics. The great hope of many greens through the Trump era was to have something, anything, called climate policy, and get someone who didn’t deny the very reality of climate change into the Oval Office. But with this bare minimum now achieved, there are a lot of different ways to pursue climate policy having as much to do with quality as quantity. And while grafting a climate lens into every agency is clearly an improvement on the last four years, not all forms of that policy help build a more habitable future.
Newly in Democratic control, the U.S. government’s stated climate commitments have begun to loosely resemble those of a center-right Western European government. That is to say, they’re grossly underwhelming considering the pace of change needed and yet more ambitious on the issue than any administration’s in U.S. history. And Tuesday’s confirmation hearings seemed to display a Cabinet where climate change and decarbonization are treated less as political issues than administrative mandates. It’s an attempt, in some sense, to depoliticize climate change, weaving it seamlessly into the ordinary functions of a government and above the messy realm of democratic decision-making. It’s also an attempt to restore a mythical vision of pre-Trump Beltway life, when eager groups of post-partisan, dealmaking technocrats could tackle any problem thrown their way. If some of the substance of that era has changed for the better-the new technocrats are much more concerned about climate and less concerned about the deficit-much of the style remains intact.
To a certain extent, decarbonizing through administrative choices rather than through Congress is a matter of necessity. Every corner of government really does need to be engaged in bringing down emissions. And at least for now, the main opposition party mostly maintains its stance that the planet isn’t warming-at least not enough to warrant any action. Our antebellum e