Last week, Joe Biden skillfully avoided America’s fiscal default and managed to save the massive environmental funding of the Inflation Reduction Act. Had America defaulted, the economic disruption would have delayed the transition to a renewable resource-based economy as the capital needed to fund the transition would have retreated to the type of assets you can hide beneath your mattress. To get the bill passed, he was compelled to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act-based process for environmental review of energy projects and fast-track the Mountain Valley Pipeline. When a president’s political opponents control one house of Congress and the Supreme Court, his ability to maneuver politically is limited. Projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline or drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic are foolish. Someday these projects will be seen as the last gasps of the dying fossil fuel industry. But while fossil fuels are on the way out, it will take a generation before they are eliminated, and, in the meantime, I am writing this piece on a computer powered by fossil fuels. Nearly all of us still need fossil fuels, so let’s give up the fantasy that all fossil fuel burning should stop immediately. The environmental reviews streamlined by the budget agreement will not only benefit fossil fuel projects. Renewable energy projects and modernized energy transmission lines are also being delayed by the same processes used to hold up fossil fuel projects. I’m happy that all these lawyers and environmental interest groups can raise money and make a living off of these constant appeals, but an endless process without final decisions serves no one.
The fact is that nearly everything we humans and our lifestyles do damages the environment. The choice is always around the degree of damage. We need to be more mindful of the tradeoffs we are making and more realistic about our actual choices. We should also pay more attention to the record of accomplishment and what is happening in the real rather than symbolic world. Rather than focusing on targets and symbols, let’s look at performance: how much progress have we made in transitioning to an environmentally sustainable economy? How much renewable energy is now in use compared to last year? How many electric vehicles have been sold compared to last year? How does this year’s record of pollution compare to last year’s? Joe Biden’s administration followed the president with the worst environmental record of any American leader since the creation of the EPA in 1970. Donald Trump and his cronies did everything they could to destroy environmental protection policy in the United States. They eliminated rules, stopped enforcement, questioned settled science, and always prioritized private profits above public health.
Let’s look at the EPA itself. In 1970, when the Agency was created, it had 4,084 staff. By the time then-President Nixon left office in disgrace in 1974, it had already grown to about 10,000 people. At its peak in Fiscal 1999, the EPA had 18,110 staff (thank you, Bill Clinton). Under President Obama (yes, Obama), it shrunk from about 17,000 to 15,000, and under Trump, it bottomed out at 14,172. And during Trump’s term, many of the agency’s top scientists fled due to political interference in their work. In fiscal year 2023, the EPA is back to 15,115 staff and still growing. Its budget has increased one billion dollars to over 10 billion since Biden took office. The agency under Donald Trump was run first by an incapable, corrupt ideologue and then by a more skillful, but still ideological, bureaucrat. Under Biden, the EPA is headed by the experienced and dedicated Michael Regan. Just as Bill Ruckelshaus had to rebuild the EPA after the disastrous reign of Anne Gorsuch (later Burford), Regan is doing the same after Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler decimated the agency and its morale. Unlike Trump, Ronald Reagan knew that his reelection in 1984 would benefit from a viable EPA; he couldn’t and didn’t allow the EPA to collapse.
In addition to starting the reconstruction of the EPA, Biden has led the enactment of the largest environmental funding laws ever enacted by an American government. Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in 2021 included over $300 billion for public green investment. The Inflation Reduction Act included another $400 billion for renewable energy subsidies. These public investments have already stimulated billions of dollars in private investment for electric vehicles, charging stations, and batteries.
Given the nation’s political polarization and his own pragmatic streak, Biden has decided he could achieve more greenhouse gas reduction by lowering the price of renewable energy rather than raising the price of fossil fuels. He recognizes our current dependence on fossil fuels and wants to keep the price low by allowing continued supply. He knows that energy comprises a higher portion of lower-income household budgets than those of households with higher incomes. Over the last year, gasoline at the fuel pump has dropped by about a dollar a gallon. Biden is betting, I believe correctly, that the market will eventually move away from fossil fuels since renewable energy continues to come down in price and grow in reliability and convenience. But Biden is not simply using subsidies and infrastructure to accelerate the transition to a green economy. The president has not given up on the use of regulatory tools. Three regulations demonstrate his commitment and savvy. The first is the proposed regulation to gradually increase gas mileage requirements for motor vehicle fleets so that the only way they can be met over time is through the sale of electric vehicles. The second is power plant-specific regulations on greenhouse gas emissions—a direction mandated by the Court’s rejection of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The third is the proposed Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulation requiring that publicly traded corporations disclose their carbon emissions and environmental risks. This SEC rule will have a massive effect on private sector behavior. It is as important as the development of generally accepted accounting practices that began in the 1930s. It will enhance the role of chief sustainability officers, just as financial disclosure led to the development of corporate chief financial officers.
The Biden administration is also using the federal government’s massive purchasing power to decarbonize our energy system. The Post Office has changed course and is buying electric vehicles. In addition, by executive order, every federal agency is establishing chief sustainability officers to monitor and reduce agency environmental footprints.
Taken together, the Biden administration’s environmental funding, practices, and policies are a stunning example of environmental progress and leadership. Despite this outstanding record, Biden and his team are being slammed by environmental interest groups for “selling out” and linking their support of the Fiscal Responsibility Act to connections to the fossil fuel industry. I consider this to be part of the monetization of political polarization that now characterizes interest group politics in America. While fundraising for interest groups always had an element of fear involved—calling out the potential harm that could be caused by political opponents—there was also a call to support a positive agenda as well. Many of today’s environmental interest groups focus more on fear and even paint allies like Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer as enemies. In a press release by the Climate Justice Alliance, its co-executive director Ozawa Bineshi Albert, when commenting on the environmental elements of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, observed that:
“By allowing these provisions to be proposed and move through the legislative process, President Biden, Senator Schumer (who second top donor is the company behind the Mountain Valley Pipeline), and House Minority Leader Jeffries have invigorated corporated-backed politicians who are already signaling more harmful bills and bills with this win. This is not climate leadership, this is not justice.”
I know that these views are genuine and represent real disappointment with our political process. But compromise is not corruption. The people who disagree with you are not evil and corrupt, they simply see the world differently. In the polarized political environment we live in, we are fortunate that we have leaders working to find common ground. Moreover, it is clear that President Biden believes in environmental justice and in building a green economy. Perhaps attacking him can help raise money from people who think that all politicians are corrupt and self-serving. But think of the alternative. The right wing in America could care less about environmental protection and environmental justice. I suspect that Biden doesn’t mind being attacked from the left since when coupled with the steady attacks from the right, it makes him seem more moderate and centrist.
Joe Biden and his team have put together a stunning record of environmental success. They have navigated a political environment characterized by extreme and often strident advocates. Our success in environmental policy has always come from bipartisan dialogue and agreement. In the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans worked together to enact landmark environmental laws. Today, there is a quiet consensus on the need to rebuild our energy infrastructure and move away from fossil fuels. Corporations are responding to employee and investor pressure to clean up their operations. President Biden was able to win extraordinary amounts of environmental funding for energy, water, and other key programs because he understands that incentives for building a green economy are easier to sell than punishments for pollution. No elected official has a perfect environmental record, but Biden has the best environmental record of any president in American history.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.