While January 27th, was coined “Climate Day” by the Biden-Harris administration, the weight of climate action it promises, cannot be captured in a single day. President Biden’s newly launched climate platform is poised to kickstart a new era of climate action.
In a series of executive orders, President Biden called for the prioritization of the climate crisis in national security and foreign policy considerations, took an important step towards ratifying the Kigali Amendment, ordered a pause of new oil and gas leases on federal lands, announced a plan for a national summit of climate leaders, established a Civilian Climate Corps to mobilize a conservation workforce, and aligned the Department of the Interior and others to conserve at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030. The executive orders centered on environmental justice, specifically through its Justice40 Initiative which aims to direct 40 percent of benefits from clean energy-related investments to marginalized communities, and signaled the administration’s significant shift in its approach to climate change in a number of other major ways from its predecessor.
Many of the Aspen Institute Energy & Environment Program’s initiatives over the last few years have worked to inform and educate policymakers about these monumental and influential priorities and our program will continue to accelerate its work to support the successful implementation of these ambitious goals.
The Biden-Harris administration has been quick to identify the disproportionate burden of negative environmental impacts on low-income and communities of color and has centered environmental justice in its climate platform. While we appreciate this step of the federal government to rectify generations of inequity, Biden’s is not the first administration to undertake this task. The first Office of Environmental Justice was created in 1992—yet injustice persists today. In June 2020, in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, we committed ourselves to the values of racial equity and environmental justice and we must continue to hold our partners and ourselves to account in this critical work.
Over the last year, the Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum explored the barriers that exist to achieving equity, affordability, and accessibility in drinking water and wastewater systems and the governmental partnerships that might help mitigate those barriers. By convening a cross-section of diverse water industry stakeholders, community activists, and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels, we facilitated a conversation around what a federal water assistance program might look like and what federal action should encompass. Our forum thought partner and co-chair, Radhika Fox, was recently appointed to lead the Office of Water at the EPA and we look forward to having this great champion in a position to implement recommendations and ideas that emerged from the dialogue and to continuing to advance systems-level innovative thinking to drive equitable water outcomes with the new administration.
Our Energy Forums also have a long history of facilitating these systems-level conversations, and with renewed optimism for increased federal action on climate change mitigation, will continue to foster collaboration between all levels of government and develop the public-private partnerships necessary to expedite the much-anticipated clean energy transition. The Biden-Harris administration has made it clear that clean energy jobs are key to both rebuilding our economy and lowering emissions and infrastructure development for clean energy and decarbonization projects will put skilled laborers to work on these long-term projects. Our program will work to continue to elevate these conversations and center environmental justice in considerations around the workforce transition, holding industry leaders and policymakers accountable for the disproportionate health impacts experienced by marginalized communities.
While these broad systems-level conversations can be impactful, we also recognize the value of uplifting and amplifying local partners. One of last month’s executive actions launched a stakeholder engagement process with agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, tribes, local officials, and others to engage broad participation in its 30×30 plan, a step that we appreciate and have similarly prioritized in an initiative focused on connecting Colorado communities with their forests and outdoor spaces.
In partnership with The Wilderness Society, we recently published a Public Lands report offering policy recommendations for more federal lands to be conserved, made more accessible and equitable, and leveraged as a solution to mitigate climate change. Many of the policy recommendations at the time seemed to be moonshot visions, but as of Wednesday, many have now been inked in some capacity into existence. In alignment with Biden’s 30×30 plan, which 23 former foreign ministers called for in a statement last year, and ongoing projects, our program remains committed to re-envisioning our public lands.
The Biden administration also identified its commitment to driving global climate action through bilateral and multilateral partnerships. Through our US Track II Dialogues on Climate Change and Energy with both India and China, we have placed deep value in the importance of fostering bilateral cooperation and trust on key policy issues through sustained, direct exchanges between influential civil society actors on both sides. Gina McCarthy, Brian Deese, and Andrew Light, all Biden administration climate leaders, have departed our Track II India Dialogue to enter their new roles in the administration. The dialogue continues to push for collaborative climate pathways in alignment with these new federal goals.
In this moment of extreme partisanship and faced with ambitious climate goals, the future of the planet teeters on whether the US has the stomach to come together and work in the bipartisan manner necessary to achieve its goals. On a global diplomatic scale, while President Biden has called for the nation’s leadership, it will take considerable humility and grace on the part of our leaders to reemerge on the climate stage after four years of meticulously extricating itself from any global climate leadership role.
Personally, my entire professional environmental career has been during the Trump administration. Meaning, I have spent my entire professional career, operating in a space of strange cognitive dissonance as my indoctrination to the sector was one of distress at the president’s climate denial and continual attacks on climate action—my everyday work and passion. For many, including myself, this dissonance served to harden my resolve and strengthen my commitment to this critical work. January 27th felt like my first deep breath of fresh air.
In this breath, however, we must not forget the lessons of this moment and of the last four years. We must not forget this resolve and determination to defend and fight for our planet, even when those ideas are under assault. We must not forget our hopefulness coupled with anxiety at our partisan divisions and our ever-stronger commitment to working with those who share our values to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. We must not forget the value of thoughtful diplomacy and cooperation, which cannot be taken for granted. And we must each commit to carrying this “Climate Day” much past its shining moment in the news cycle and continue this work in and out of the spotlight. The next era of climate action lies ahead, but this is not the work of a single day, week, or month—this is work that will occur over many years, decades, and across generations.