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Biden’s running for reelection. Here’s what he’s done for climate and environmental justice so far

Biden stands behind a podium outside with his black ray bans on
Image Credit: White House // From: President Biden Delivers Remarks on Building Healthy Communities and Advance Environmental Justice

President Joe Biden hails himself as America’s “first climate president,” and in 2020, Biden ran on what many cite as the most ambitious climate action platform of any major presidential candidate in U.S. history.

Since the successful election in 2020, the Biden administration has made some sweeping moves for climate, conservation, energy, and environmental justice, as well as reestablishing America’s place on the international climate stage.

These moves were hailed as both positive and negative, ranging from the biggest climate bill in U.S. history and rejoining the Paris Agreement to creating the first American Ocean Climate Action plan shortly after greenlighting the largest proposed oil drilling venture on U.S. public land ever.

On Tuesday President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris launched their bid for reelection, with the slogan, “‘It’s Time to Finish the Job.” As the pivotal race of 2024 nears, it’s crucial to take note of what President Biden has done for the planet so far, what actions he takes leading up to the 2024 debate stage, and what is needed to ‘finish the job.’

In January, the World Resources Institute (WRI) tracked Biden’s progress on the institute’s top ten priorities for tackling the climate crisis.

First listed in 2020, the top ten priorities align with action necessitated by the Paris Climate Agreement, and include setting targets to cut emissions by in half by 2030, passing a climate-smart stimulus package, requiring all new vehicles to be zero emission by 2035, taxing carbon pollution, tackling super pollutants, scaling up carbon removal, ramping up clean energy standards, and so on.

On the Friday of Earth Day weekend, three days before the reelection campaign announcement, Biden signed his latest executive order on environmental justice which, most notably, takes into account previous and current exposure to pollution and climate change for government approval of new industrial projects.

Environmental advocates have been pushing for this type of legislation for decades, and under the order, Biden said “Environmental justice will become the responsibility of every single federal agency. I mean every single federal agency.”

“Environmental justice will be the mission of the entire government woven directly into the local, Tribal, and territorial governments. This is an order that directs federal agencies to address gaps in science and technology,” he said pointing to the cracks in our knowledge about wastewater, air quality, and the long-time impacts of pollution.

Ultimately the new order creates the first White House Office of Environmental Justice, building both on decades of work in the private and public sectors, and what Biden says is “two years” of “real progress on the most ambitious environmental justice agenda.”

Let’s look back on those last two years.

Coming into office, there was a double-pronged task at hand: 1) introducing a litany of measures to reverse the more than 125 environmental rules the Trump administration rolled back, and 2) introducing more measures to keep the ball rolling on climate after undoing the damage.

Some of the most notable actions Biden has taken on these fronts include his signature Build Back Better legislation, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, which together focus on modernization, expanding climate infrastructure, renewable energy, affordable electrification, and decarbonization technology for both now and for the future.

“We have to commit ourselves to action,” President Biden said during his Friday remarks. “Will we step up to our ambitions? Will we stand together to meet the great challenges we have? Will we preserve our planet for future generations? History is going to judge us by how we answer these questions,” he said. “And that’s not hyperbole; that’s a fact. Today, I hope the answer is going to be a loud and clear yes.”

Answering those questions with a yes, he says, is the reason why he and Harris developed what he referred to as “the most ambitious climate and environmental justice agenda in American history,” on both the domestic and international fronts.

Internationally, there has been notable progress on getting America back on the climate world stage including, most recently, offering a billion worth of long-awaited funds to the United Nations’ global climate fund after a six-year hiatus and stagnation on the topic of loss and damage for western-fueled environmental impact on poor countries.

Domestically, the administration introduced the Justice40 initiative which aimed to confront and address decades of underinvestment in disadvantaged communities impacted by climate change, pollution, and environmental hazards.

The intiative promises 40% of federal funding to these communities and is baked into the IRA, with the goal of ensuring “clean air, clean water, clean transit, and more to communities that are disproportionately impacted by the environmental degradation,” Biden said.

“Imagine being a parent scared to death about what the air and rain was going to do to your kids. Landfills and garbage incinerators located right in the middle of communities. Drinking water contaminated by radon and arsenic. This kind of inequity and injustice goes against everything we stand for as a nation, but it continues to exist,” he remarked.

The biggest wins so far from the Justice40 initiative, has to be the Environmental Protection Agency’s February announcement of half of a billion dollars to be deployed through environmental justice grants, how the initiative has already been used to fund electrification in lower-income communities through projects like community solar and school bus electrification, and how its set a precedent leading to the new office and the preceding environmental justice advisory councils.

The WRI rates that Biden has either achieved or made “significant” progress on about half of the climate priorities while making “some” progress or being off track on the other half.

Namely, WRI notes there is still major work to be done to ramp up clean energy standards so that Biden can make good on his executive order to achieve 55% carbon-free electricity in the next two years and reach a 100% carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035, as well as a net-zero emissions economy-wide no later than 2050.

Additionally, over the next two years, we should be watching for more action regarding emission limits on cement, steel, and plastics, in accordance with his executive order; and appliance and equipment standards for fossil fuel replacement, especially following the overturning of the nation’s first natural-gas ban in Berkeley and the likelihood of similar ban attempts in other states.

Other progress to be watched for includes a further reestablishment of international leadership throughout COP28 and COP29, especially on the front of international climate finance; and most notably, emission caps and taxes for carbon pollution.

While there is a range of progress on almost all climate fronts listed by WRI, the Biden administration is not on track for enforceable pollution caps or pollution taxing the institute says is necessary to complement U.S. investments in climate-smart infrastructure and incentives to deploy climate solutions.

On top of what is yet to come, some less-than-positive climate action has also been taken recently. In spite of the action listed above, the New York Times reports that many young voters are alarmed by the decision to approve the $8 billion Willow oil drilling project, the biggest oil drilling project on Alaskan land in decades.

When about 62% of young voters support phasing out fossil fuels entirely, the Times reports that this and other approvals like the new oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, send a “mixed message.”

Still, taking a tally of the administration’s entirety of climate action over the last half term, Biden walks into this reelection campaign with confidence in his climate agenda.

The IRA is “the most significant investment in dealing with climate change ever anywhere in the history of the world,” Biden said during his Friday remarks. “Literally, not figuratively,” he added.

By 2030, the bill is expected to reduce annual carbon emissions by one billion tons. That’s equal to taking over 200 million gas-powered cars off the road a year.

“It offers working families $1,000 a year in savings by providing rebates for to buy new, efficient appliances, weatherize their homes, get tax credits for purchasing heat pumps and rooftop solar, energy-efficient ovens, dryers, and so much more,” the President said tacking on the IRA’s incentives for buying EV’s and the goals of automakers to go electric near term.

A crowning achievement, the WRI analysis shows that the administration is on track for the EV revolution, carbon dioxide removal through both natural and technological measures, and has already achieved an economic stimulus package needed to jumpstart the clean energy economy through the IRA.

“Look, this is about people’s health. It’s about the health of our communities. It’s ultimately about the future of our planet,” Biden said.

“Just since I've become President, I’ve flown over literally thousands of acres of land burned flat by wildfires because of environmental changes — more acres burned to the ground that I’ve witnessed from a helicopter in last 19 months than [there] are in the entire state of Maryland."

“It’s as if the entire state of Maryland burned to the ground,” he said. “I’ve seen too many communities turned to rubble by storms that are growing more frequent and ferocious. And it’s an existential threat to our nation and literally to the world.”

As the administration marches into a reelection campaign, how they deal with that threat will take center stage.

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