Nov 24, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Biden's emerging climate orbit

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

As of Tuesday morning, we know a lot more about President-elect Joe Biden climate personnel orbit, even as picks for agencies like EPA and DOE are outstanding, so here are a few early conclusions.

Why it matters: They're the highest-level names yet announced who will have a role in what Biden is promising will be a far-reaching climate and energy agenda.

Catch up fast: Biden's team yesterday either announced or sources indicated his choices, which include...

  • Former Secretary of State John Kerry will be his full-time special climate envoy.
  • Biden will select a separate, "high level" White House climate policy coordinator next month.
  • Biden plans nominate former Fed chair Janet Yellen as his Treasury secretary.
  • Antony Blinken will be the nominee for secretary of state.

The big picture: Here are a few takeaways...

1. Biden is sending early signals that climate change is a priority. Kerry is the highest-profile selection yet for his government (h/t NYT on that point). And Biden's team says he'll have influence via a seat on the National Security Council.

  • It's the first time the NSC has had a dedicated climate official, per the transition team.
  • Kerry's role, and news that a separate White House coordinator is en route, shows that Biden is keen to show that he's taking climate seriously.

2. Familiarity and experience is a theme. As we noted in Axios PM yesterday, lots of early picks held senior roles in the Obama administration, such as UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

  • The choices reflect the desire from Bidenworld to bring trusted and familiar voices into his orbit.
  • Kerry and Biden were Senate colleagues for 20+ years, with Kerry assuming the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee when Biden became vice president.

3. Treasury could become a climate-related job in this administration, and Yellen has long expressed interest in the topic.

  • There's pent-up interest among advocates to see Treasury become more focused on global warming.
  • For instance, check out these recommendations from the Climate 21 Project, a group that includes lots of Obama alums.
  • Yellen is a founding member of Climate Leadership Council that pushes for a carbon tax. And via her work with the Group of 30, she helped launch recommendations in October for policymakers and businesses worldwide.

4. I'm not seeing squabbling yet, so Biden may have threaded the needle. So far it looks like the picks are fine with the left, while providing a path through what's likely to remain a GOP-led Senate. And Kerry's job doesn't require Senate confirmation.

  • "After progressives pushed Larry Summers out of the conversation and once it became clear that our options were Lael Brainard and Janet Yellen, the choice was obvious," Data for Progress' Julian Brave NoiseCat tells me.
  • "Yellen — like pretty much every economist — is a bit too focused on a carbon tax, but overall she can be an ally," he adds.

One more Yellen thing: Like many economists, she has long advocated for imposing a price on carbon emissions as a principal climate policy tool.

Yes, but: Carbon taxes or national emissions trading proposals — which would require congressional action — don't have political juice.

  • The left no longer prioritizes taxes or trading, although it's seen as one tool in the toolbox. Plus, there's barely any support among GOP lawmakers.

What we're watching: Keep an eye on what other steps Yellen may take. As I noted above, there's no shortage of advice.

  • For instance, the sustainable investment group Ceres quickly called on Yellen to have the Treasury-led Financial Stability Oversight Council "incorporate climate risk assessment and management across all financial regulatory agencies."
  • One thing to watch is how hard she'd push to have climate-friendly investments in a potential pandemic recovery deal with Congress, which could face heavy pushback from a GOP-led Senate.
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