Opinion | The Task Ahead for Biden on Climate

The new president has shown a welcome interest in combating climate change. But more will need to be done.

By The Editorial Board

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

After four years of scorn, the issue of climate change has risen near the top of the American political agenda, where it deserves to be and where, even accounting for the efforts of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it had never been.

That is the happy message contained in the blizzard of executive orders and press briefings emanating from the Biden White House over the past couple of weeks. Put simply, the richest and most powerful nation in the world is back in the fight to rescue the planet from the fires, floods, famines, rising sea levels, human dislocations and other consequences of a warming globe.

Though less noticed, there was one other uplifting development with important implications for the climate that had little to do with President Biden. That was the announcement from General Motors’ chief executive, Mary Barra, that the company is getting out of the internal combustion game and plans to sell only zero-emission cars and trucks by 2035. The company has already invested $27 billion to introduce 30 electric models in the next four years and will build a plant in Ohio to make the batteries for these vehicles.

G.M.’s move was in part a competitive response to Volkswagen and other foreign automakers, including ones in China, that have announced fundamental shifts toward electric vehicles. It fits nicely with some of Mr. Biden’s climate goals, including zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions in America by midcentury. Importantly, it is also a reminder of the power of free market forces, without whose constructive engagement — and the private investments necessary to build out clean vehicles and clean energy sources like wind and solar — the climate crisis cannot be solved. No government, however committed, can go it alone.

Mr. Biden’s executive orders on climate were nonetheless important. They do not have the permanence or bipartisan imprimatur of laws, and are subject to reversal by later administrations, but they send powerful policy signals to the federal bureaucracy. One needs only think back to the early Trump days, when a suite of executive orders aimed at delivering on Donald Trump’s boastful promise of “energy independence” — which in fact the country had mostly achieved — consumed various federal agencies for the next few years. This led to weaker regulations on coal-fired power plants and methane emissions, decimated clean water protections, gave over large swaths of public land to oil and gas exploration and shrank two magnificent national monuments designated by Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama. It is these actions — which, along with Mr. Trump’s contempt for science, cost the country four years in what is essentially a race against time — that Mr. Biden, in his executive orders, is telling his cabinet officers to review and reverse.

In many cases, that won’t be easy. To take one example, Mr. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency followed a legal path that took more than two years and involved many complex technical studies in order to roll back Mr. Obama’s rule ordering automakers to rapidly increase fuel economy standards, thus reducing tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide. The same laborious timetable now awaits Mr. Biden’s E.P.A. as it seeks to reinstate the Obama standards. Similar obstacles will complicate efforts to restore rules on methane emissions and the broad protections of the Clean Water Act narrowed by Mr. Trump.

On the plus side, the president can fairly quickly restore the original boundaries of the shrunken monuments, a matter that lies within presidential jurisdiction, and possibly prevent drilling from proceeding in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Of course, nothing prevents Mr. Biden from acting unilaterally on matters within his powers, as he has in rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and canceling a problematical oil pipeline from Canada. The moratorium he announced last month on new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters is similarly within his writ.

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