Biden’s legacy hinges on his ability to achieve major, lasting action on the climate crisis.
Biden’s legacy hinges on his ability to achieve major, lasting action on the climate crisis. (Photo: Courtesy Biden Inaugural Committ)
Indefinitely Wild

Biden’s First-Day Orders Are a Boon for the Environment

In one fell swoop, President Biden is undoing his predecessor's most harmful work on public lands, climate change, clean air and water, and environmental justice

Biden’s legacy hinges on his ability to achieve major, lasting action on the climate crisis.

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In a sweeping series of executive orders signed immediately after his inauguration on Wednesday, President Biden began undoing much of the harm the Trump administration tried to carry out on our country’s clean air and water, wildlife, natural heritage, and public lands. This is an encouraging start for an administration with goals that extend well beyond simply repairing damage. 

“The clearest mandate President Biden has is to save our planet for the future and offer good paying jobs that sustain our world rather than destroy it, and these first orders put us on our way to building a truly pro-worker, pro-family, pro-environment economy,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva in an emailed statement. 

Because President Biden’s predecessor was unable to build legislative consensus, despite enjoying Republican control of both houses of Congress during the first two years of his single term in office, many of his most harmful policies were achieved through executive orders. Plus, several of them are still being challenged in court. That gives Biden the ability to eliminate most of those polices and actions by simple proclamation, and the chance to enact permanent protections during his next four years in office. 

Take the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, for example. There, the Trump administration pushed hard to open up the area’s most ecologically sensitive area—denning habitat for the world’s most threatened population of polar bears—to oil drilling. Ignoring science, public comment, and backlash from Alaska Native groups, it conducted a flawed environmental impact assessment and rushed through a shambolic lease sale. The auction was boycotted by all major financial institutions, and no significant energy companies chose to participate in it. Just hours after being sworn in, Biden issued an executive order putting a moratorium on the implementation of those leases and mandating that a proper assessment be conducted. Not only will that process take years, but the proclamation also orders that the impacts of and on climate change be factored into assessments of all federal projects. The new assessment will also consider the social costs of pollution in that mandate. It’s science, democracy, and environmental justice all wrapped up in couple paragraphs of competent, humane governance. 

“The President acknowledges our voices, our human rights, and our identity,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, in an emailed statement. The Gwichʼin Nation relies on ANWR’s healthy caribou population and is opposed to extraction in the refuge. Biden’s order ensures they will have a say in future decisions made about ANWR and that the scientific assessment of the impacts of any proposed project that affects the Nation will also be included. 

That statement stands in stark contrast to the last one Demientieff issued about the Trump administration, in which she used words like “cowardly,” “disgraceful,” and “unlawful,” to describe its actions. 

Biden is taking a similar approach to overturning Trump’s other destructive polices. The impact of these first-day executive orders is going to continue to play out for years, but for a simple overview, here’s a list of the various projects and policies that he’s enacting:

  • Rejoin the Paris Climate Accord
  • Assess all Trump administration actions for impacts to climate change, pollution, environmental justice
  • Restore methane emissions limits for oil and gas industries
  • Restore Obama-era fuel economy standards; work with car industry to establish even better numbers
  • Restore appliance energy efficiency standards
  • Restore Clean Air Act emissions regulations
  • Create National Climate Advisor oversight office
  • Create stronger emissions standards for oil and gas industries
  • Prosecute polluters
  • Include the input of scientists, labor unions, environmental advocates, environmental justice, and state, local, tribal, and territorial officials, organizations in all environmental policy decisions
  • Restore Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante, Northeast Canyons, Seamount National Monuments
  • Restore Waters of the United States rule, protecting 50 percent of American water supplies
  • Restore Obama-era ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic
  • Account for global impacts of all greenhouse gas emissions in all federal permitting, including social costs
  • Cancel Keystone XL Pipeline
  • End COVID-19-related pollution loopholes 
  • End water rights giveaway to industry in California
  • Halt all construction on border wall-related projects

Perhaps the most important part of these executive orders, though, is the repeated inclusion of two simple words: environmental justice. The effects of pollution and climate change are disproportionately felt by low-income, marginalized, and communities of color. Acknowledging this disparity so prominently is more than just a symbol that the Biden administration intends to work in the interest of all Americans; it also makes a strong, practical argument for why climate change needs to be addressed—and why it needs to be addressed now. 

One of the few things Trump administration officials were good at doing was finding creative ways to work around bedrock conservation and environmental laws, or to bend those laws in the interest of polluters. Former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, for instance, successfully argued that because the impacts of a specific point source of emissions (a single power plant, for example) couldn’t be explicitly connected to a threat felt by an individual animal, climate change-causing emissions couldn’t be regulated under the Endangered Species Act. But, factor in human lives, create data around financial costs, and all of a sudden you have an argument involving constituents, budgets, and even plaintiffs, defendants, and liability. A polar bear can’t sue; human beings with evidence of financial harm created and vetted by the federal government can. 

If Biden’s time in office is to be judged a success, he’ll need to achieve more than governing by proclamation, and simply returning the country to Obama-era pollution standards. Biden’s legacy hinges on his ability to achieve major, lasting action on the climate crisis. And environmental justice could be one of the tools by which he convinces other branches of government to help him achieve it. If he succeeds, the true cost of pollution and climate change will never be denied again.