There is certainly much enthusiasm and great expectations on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean regarding what can be expected from the new U.S. administration’s climate change policy. I offered somewhat modest expectations in an essay posted at this blog in mid-January before the Biden-Harris team was inaugurated. But now – in early April – major appointments have been made, executive orders announced, and new policies floated. So, this is a good time take a preliminary look at what has been accomplished in the first 10 weeks or so of the administration.
For that purpose, an exceptionally qualified observer is my friend and colleague, and most recent podcast guest, Jody Freeman, the Archibald Cox Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where she founded both the Environmental and Energy Law Program and the School’s Emmett Environmental Law Clinic (which was directed for many years by Wendy Jacobs, who sadly passed away in February after a long illness).
Professor Freeman worked in the Obama administration, and before that she was closely involved in the Massachusetts vs. EPA court case that eventually led – via a U.S. Supreme Court decision – to EPA’s endangerment finding in the Obama years, which precipitated policy action on climate change under the authority of the Clean Air Act. You won’t be surprised that she pulls no punches in her comments on the Trump administration’s moves in the environmental realm, nor in her judgments and hopes regarding the Biden administration. You can hear our complete conversation in the Podcast here.
In these podcasts – “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program – I talk with well-informed people from academia, government, industry, and NGOs. Jody Freeman very much belongs in this group, as one of the world’s leading authorities on environmental law, a former Federal government official, and a participant in deliberations in private industry.
Jody Freeman has this to say about the previous administration:
“The Trump Administration unraveled, weakened, or rescinded every climate regulation that the Obama Administration had put in place. And they went beyond that to weaken many other environmental rules too. And so, it’s an across-the-board effort to pull environmental protection back as much as possible and weaken the agencies that are responsible for putting rules in place to protect public health and to address climate change. In environment, climate, energy, it’s really hard to think of a major policy that was left untouched.”
On the other hand, Professor Freeman commends the Biden Administration’s early actions to reverse much of the climate policy damage caused by the previous administration.
“The president signed two sweeping executive orders on climate change within the first month. And they encompass everything you could possibly do with the agencies of the federal government, from how the Treasury Department finances overseas projects to how the Agriculture Department sends money to farmers. The administration is on the hunt for all of the policies that any agency can use to support its clean energy agenda.”
However, looking ahead, she recognizes that the Biden administration probably does not have the necessary votes in the Senate to pass any meaningful legislation placing a price on carbon. Short of that, she says there are many other actions the administration can take on climate and energy policy.
“Presidents like to use executive branch power. So, you can count on the Biden Administration to be trying to deploy all of the levers, all of the tools that it can use. And they include adopting new rules … for power plant emissions of CO2, adopting new rules for car and truck emissions, adopting sector by sector rules that EPA has the authority to do. There are other agencies too, like the Department of Energy, which sets appliance efficiency standards. The Department of the Interior regulates extraction of oil and gas on public lands. You’ve already seen them freeze new leases on public lands, and they’re going to favor wind and solar siting on public lands.”
When I ask her about the negative perception of the fossil fuel industry among many climate policy advocates in the United States, Professor Freeman, who sits on the Board of Directors of ConocoPhillips, remarks that there are signs of progress on the horizon.
“I think the industry is in a moment of transition. I do see, for example, the European oil and gas companies are already making pledges and investments in alternative business models. By no means are we down the road far enough or fast enough, but you can see that they’re starting to think about becoming different kinds of companies over time. And I think the U.S. companies are following suit.”
My complete conversation with Professor Freeman is the 22nd episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month. You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Previous episodes have featured conversations with:
- Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Nick Stern of the London School of Economics discussing his career, British politics, and efforts to combat climate change
- Andrei Marcu, founder and executive director of the European Roundtable on Climate Change and Sustainable Transition
- Paul Watkinson, Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Jos Delbeke, professor at the European University Institute in Florence and at the KU Leuven in Belgium, and formerly Director-General of the European Commission’s DG Climate Action
- David Keith, professor at Harvard and a leading authority on geoengineering
- Joe Aldy, professor of the practice of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, with considerable experience working on climate change policy issues in the U.S. government
- Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, and an authority on infectious disease policy
- Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University, and founding co-director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard Business School.
- Sue Biniaz, who was the lead climate lawyer and a lead climate negotiator for the United States from 1989 until early 2017.
- Richard Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Kelley Kizier, Associate Vice President for International Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
- David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell International.
- Vicky Bailey, 30 years of experience in corporate and government positions in the energy sector.
- David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego.
- Lisa Friedman, reporter on the climate desk at the The New York Times.
- Coral Davenport, who covers energy and environmental policy for The New York Times from the Washington bureau.
- Spencer Dale, BP Group Chief Economist.
- Richard Revesz, professor at the NYU School of Law.
- Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environment and Law at Yale University.
- William Hogan, Raymond Plank Research Professor of Global Energy Policy at Harvard.