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Opinion | Joe Biden’s Monumental Environmental Gambit

It is hard to overstate the joy of the environmental community when Joe Biden ascended to the White House. In place of a man who called climate change a hoax, it got someone who saw global warming for the grave threat it is, and who spoke, at his inaugural, of the world’s duty to respond to “a cry for survival” that “comes from the planet itself.” It got someone who saw government regulations not as “job killers” but as appropriate levers to achieve cleaner air and water. It got someone who viewed the public lands not as a resource to be exploited by commercial interests but as nature’s gift to future generations. A worthy custodian, in short, to the environmental ethic of Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. And someone who would spend trillions to make it all happen.

We are now at the midpoint of Mr. Biden’s first year. How has he done? In simplest terms, given the deep ideological divide in Congress, he has accomplished a good deal more than his chattering critics on the left wing of his party give him credit for, but still well short of his own hopes.

Those hopes were high. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Biden took seriously the scientific consensus that the world needs to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels in order to avert irreversible planetary damage — including, but not limited to, die-offs of coral reefs, sea level rise, drought, famine, wildfires and floods. Mr. Biden pledged to cut America’s emissions in half by 2030, eliminate fossil fuel emissions from power plants by 2035 and zero out all greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury, which is pretty much what scientists recommend for the entire world.

That, in turn, would require a vastly different energy landscape — massive investments in wind and solar power, a rebuilt electric grid, millions of electric vehicles. In recent weeks, the chances of this happening at the required scale looked dim as Congress and the White House wrangled over an infrastructure bill. The bill contains useful climate-related provisions including money for charging stations for electric cars, and communities that wanted to fortify themselves against climate-related disasters. This was less than Mr. Biden wanted, but his critics reacted as if there were nothing there at all, sending protesters to the White House and Capitol Hill. “No climate, no deal,” they said — and accused the White House of “climate denialism.”

“Democrats are once again throwing the climate justice movement under the bus,” declared Friends of the Earth last month. Hardly.

Last Wednesday came some good news: The White House and top Democrats agreed in principle to a $3.5 trillion budget package that includes many of the important climate provisions that did not make it into the infrastructure bill. The package is only a blueprint. Individual committees will make legislative recommendations that will then be bundled into a giant budget reconciliation bill. If properly drawn up, budget reconciliation measures can be approved with only 51 votes, thus avoiding a Republican filibuster and providing a political pathway for not only Mr. Biden’s climate policies but also a range of expensive programs involving health care, education and immigration.

There are two key climate provisions in the package. One is billions in tax incentives for electric cars and renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The other is a national clean electricity standard, a mandate requiring electric utilities to steadily reduce emissions. Unanswered so far is what that standard should look like. Moderates think the standard should be technology neutral, allowing utilities to use not only wind and solar but also nuclear power as well as a technique known as carbon capture and sequestration, which strips off harmful greenhouse gases and buries them in the ground. However, many climate activists, the very ones who have been on Mr. Biden’s neck, reflexively hate nuclear power, though it is carbon-free, and they argue heatedly that carbon capture simply throws a lifeline to fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. In sum, another fight is brewing.

In any accounting of Mr. Biden’s environmental record, the negotiations over climate, with their big ambitions and big numbers, occupy center stage. But other important initiatives deserve mention. In May, for instance, in response to a congressional directive, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulating hydrofluorocarbons, man-made chemicals used in refrigeration and air-conditioners that are many times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet. Earlier this year, Congress voted to reinstate an Obama-era rule designed to clamp down on emissions of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, from new drilling wells. Mr. Biden aims to go further, directing his E.P.A. administrator to write new rules in the coming months requiring oil and gas companies to control methane leaks from existing drilling sites.

The administration is also expected to reinstate Obama-era rules mandating reductions in tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases (vehicles are now the nation’s largest source of climate-warming emissions) and then begin work on even more ambitious rules that could force automakers to move more swiftly to a largely electric fleet.

Also worthy of note is the Biden administration’s attentiveness to what are loosely known as “nature-based” approaches to climate change, which also have the salubrious side effect of preserving valuable landscapes and helping endangered species. Climate scientists have long argued that the world cannot meet its increasingly ambitious climate targets without a lot of help from forests, fields and oceans. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stated flatly during April’s online summit with world leaders that “achieving net zero by 2050 will not be possible without nature,” by which she meant the extraordinary ability of forests, farmlands and oceans to draw down and store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

With that in mind, Mr. Biden, in May, unveiled an ambitious conservation agenda that, despite its hokey name (“America the Beautiful”), would align the United States with more than 50 other countries that have pledged to work toward preserving 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans in their natural or close-to-natural state by 2030. (At the moment, roughly 12 percent of the land mass in the United States and 26 percent of its ocean waters enjoy some level of official protection.) In what could be seen as down payment on that pledge, Mr. Biden on Thursday restored environmental protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rain forests that is not just home to an astonishing variety of wildlife but is also a vital sink for carbon dioxide emissions.

The environmental community eagerly awaits what it hopes will be Mr. Biden’s formal endorsement of Ms. Haaland’s recommendation that he restore protections for three sprawling national monuments, protections removed by Mr. Trump as part of his four-year campaign to pillage the public estate in service of a misbegotten strategy of “energy dominance.” The three monuments include Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears, established, respectively, by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both in Utah and both greatly reduced in size by Mr. Trump; and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off the New England coast, established by Mr. Obama, which Mr. Trump opened up to commercial fishing.

Saving these monuments will also present Mr. Biden with an important teaching moment. The legal basis for establishing them is the little-known Antiquities Act, one of President Theodore Roosevelt’s many environmental legacies, which gives presidents unilateral authority to set aside threatened land and marine areas when it becomes clear that the danger is imminent and Congress is unlikely to act. Mr. Roosevelt created 18 national monuments in the course of protecting 230 million acres of public lands, and subsequent presidents have added to the inventory.

Apart from its distinguished pedigree, the act will be important in meeting the conservation goals of the 30×30 preservation effort. The act has critics in Congress who believe that protecting public lands is exclusively their responsibility. Mr. Biden should use the occasion to educate the public about its importance and legitimacy.

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