Joe Biden will become our 46th president tomorrow with a scaled-down, masked-up inauguration, an evenly divided Senate, and a gargantuan amount of work to correct course on the pandemic, our racial justice reckoning, and an increasingly urgent climate crisis.
Of course, Biden won’t face these challenges alone. He has spent weeks assembling a Cabinet and naming people to key White House positions. Climate and social justice advocates have watched the process closely, and the ratings are in: The president-elect is bringing an A-team.
If the Senate confirms the entire slate, Biden’s Cabinet will represent several historic firsts. Most notably, it will be the first to achieve gender parity, and the first with a majority of positions held by people of color. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico will be the first Native American woman to lead the Department of the Interior; retired four-star General Lloyd Austin will be the first Black secretary of defense. And, of course, Senator Kamala Harris is the first woman and the first woman of color to serve as vice president.
Biden’s choices reveal a commitment to mobilizing the entire government to address climate change, a promise he made a pillar of his campaign. Climate advocates have been impressed by Biden’s picks not only to lead agencies like the EPA that are central to environmental stewardship, but also by the climate-conscious nominees slated for departments like Health and Human Services, Transportation, and Treasury.
“I think these picks indicate that Biden is taking his mandate to act on climate seriously,” says Gabe Vasquez, a conservation advocate and city councilor for Las Cruces, New Mexico. “He has selected a diverse, experienced, and passionate group of leaders to take on this challenge.”
We asked a group of experts for their take on, well, the experts. Four Grist 50 Fixers share their perspectives on what these Cabinet selections signify and what Biden’s team might accomplish in the next four years. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Once Biden becomes president, he will have already done more for the climate, institutionally speaking, than any other president by adding domestic and international envoys for climate in Gina McCarthy and John Kerry. And picks like Deb Haaland and Michael Regan tell us he is serious about bringing on people who place justice at the heart of their work. But those leaders must live up to their records — and improve upon them. They need to prioritize public health whenever they’re thinking about environmental protection and climate change, and they need to fill their agencies with people who are from, or have worked with, vulnerable communities.
Our cities are not green enough. They don’t have enough parks, trees, or landscaping. With all that asphalt and concrete absorbing sunlight, many cities suffer from the heat-island effect. As flooding intensifies, those surfaces can’t prevent runoff. The EPA can revise its Clean Water Act permits and enforcement to incentivize utilities to play the long game. Instead of building massive underground tunnels to avoid sewage outflows and backups, they can plant urban forests for stormwater management. Those kinds of improvements provide ancillary public-health benefits while building up communities that historically have been deprived of economic development and access to green spaces.
I’m excited to see mayors appointed to key positions, whether it’s Marty Walsh from Boston to the Department of Labor or Pete Buttigieg to the Department of Transportation. When you bring a localized problem-solving approach to the federal level, it creates a huge opportunity to strategize across sectors. For example, Marcia Fudge of the Department of Housing and Urban Development can fund housing projects that are closer to where people work, learn, and access healthcare, and coordinate with the Department of Transportation to connect that housing to public transit. Both agencies can work with the Department of Agriculture to make it easier for people to travel between rural and urban communities and create strong consumer-to-product relationships so farmers are growing the food people need, closer to where they buy it. All of this can cut carbon, strengthen regional economies, and prevent the supply-chain disruptions we’ve seen throughout the pandemic.
I’m looking forward to seeing Buttigieg address climate change through transportation. In South Bend, Indiana, he implemented “complete streets” policies that redesign roads and transportation networks to support more active modes of transportation like walking and cycling, as well as electric vehicles, shuttles, even car-share services. Rethinking roadway safety is key to challenging the car-dominated norm and helping people feel more comfortable opting for healthier and greener ways of getting around.
Daniel Blackman, policy advisor and impact investor
We talk a lot about reparations for people of color in this country, but less about the non-financial side of that. To repair communities means offering better opportunities. Deb Haaland’s appointment indicates that we’re heading in that direction for Native American communities, and Michael Regan’s appointment to lead the EPA does the same for Black communities. It’s important for me to see people who look like me in leadership positions within the climate fight. And while nominees like John Kerry and Janet Yellen aren’t as progressive and exciting, they’re seasoned government officials — and perhaps that stability is exactly what our nation needs right now.
But as great as it is to have those experienced leaders, we also need a commission consisting of individuals under 35 to make sure young people are calling the shots. I think this presidential election has shown the power of an educated, active, young electorate that’s saying, “Look, if you’re not talking about equality, the climate crisis, or criminal justice reform, then we’re not voting for you.” They don’t want lip service, they want their demands met. They want job opportunities in green technology and renewable energy. I’d like to see Isabel Guzman of the Small Business Administration and Gina Raimondo of the Department of Commerce come together to build ideas and infrastructure that promote entrepreneurship around the green-energy economy.
Gabe Vasquez, conservation advocate and city councilor for Las Cruces, New Mexico
I’m excited about Representative Haaland’s nomination to lead the Department of Interior. She’s going to be the first Native American woman to lead that department, which is historic. She has championed the 30 by 30 initiative, part of a global effort to protect 30 percent of the world’s lands and waters by 2030. The United States has a key role to play in that effort, and I’d like to see Biden direct his climate team to figure out how to get us there. To truly mitigate the impacts of climate change, we need a strong, fierce leader like Representative Haaland, whom I have seen lead with courage and whom I know will stand up to polluting industries.
Equally important, Haaland will administer the various bureaus and departments that help govern Indian Country, giving her an opportunity to right many historic wrongs and ensure this country honors its treaties with Native people. I’m expecting Haaland to be one of the most influential and powerful interior secretaries that we’ve ever had.
Two other appointments I’m excited about are Gina McCarthy — someone I’ve met and admired in her role as EPA administrator with the Obama administration — as Biden’s White House climate czar and Brenda Mallory to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality. That’s a bit of a lesser-known arm of the White House, but it’s incredibly important. It supports the administration in protecting public lands, lowering carbon emissions, and reducing pollution. It also administers and regulates the National Environmental Policy Act, which faced severe rollbacks during the Trump administration.
I think these picks indicate that Biden is taking his mandate to act on climate seriously. He has selected a diverse, experienced, and passionate group of leaders to take on this challenge. Biden’s approach to climate should be intertwined with racial justice and equitable policymaking — as grassroots advocates, we’ve been screaming this from the rooftops for so long — and the roster of appointees that he has brought forward represents some progress in that area. These are the right people to lead these efforts.