With Biden declared the winner, a window opens for climate, equity and public health

Fred Krupp

It’s the moment millions upon millions of people across the United States and around the world have been waiting for: The Associated Press has declared that the U.S. has a new leader.

Stopping the spread of COVID-19 and getting help to struggling workers and businesses must be apparent President-elect Joe Biden’s first priority. As he turns toward building a better future, he has vowed to take bold action to repair America’s frayed social fabric, grow a clean and equitable economy, and confront the existential threat of climate change.

It’s a tall order, especially after such a close election and with divided government in Washington, D.C. So Biden needs to choose policies that put America back to work and bring us together — policies that are inclusive rather than polarizing. If he does that, a window of opportunity may be opening to drive progress in all three of these areas.

Environmental Defense Fund has three policy priorities that can help make it happen.

1. Meet the moment: Power up a better America

It’s time to make a big, fast down payment on jobs and clean transportation. A recent poll by Hart Research showed that 63% of likely voters in swing 2022 Senate states support moving to more electric trucks, buses and cars — including a majority of independents and a plurality of Republicans.

The new administration needs to fast track the availability and use of electric trucks, buses and passenger cars, and invest in infrastructure to power those vehicles, with an emphasis on the communities experiencing the greatest burdens of environmental harm. And it should supercharge our transition to renewable energy and modernize the electric grid to make it cleaner and more resilient.

Boosting American innovation and building our manufacturing base will have appeal across the political spectrum.

By leaning into this effort with bipartisan appeal, Biden can make good on his promise to create 1 million clean transportation-related jobs in the next four years, and millions more in clean energy.

Our goal must be a transition to 100% clean electricity and 100% clean for new vehicle sales. American innovation can deliver 100% zero emitting new cars by 2035, and 100% zero-pollution new freight trucks and buses by 2040.

Taking these steps can also bring significant health benefits, potentially saving 20,000 lives a year by reducing the pollution that causes asthma attacks, heart disease and other serious health problems.

For too long, economic and policy choices have isolated Black and Latino communities and subjected them to higher levels of deadly pollution. A well-designed plan for clean transportation and power — one that takes into account the existing pollution burdens and underlying health risks — can deliver equitable benefits from clean transportation investments.

2. Lead again: Take responsibility for climate change

We are on an urgent timeline to cut climate pollution. There is no more time to lose.

Biden has promised to bring the U.S. back into the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office. A meaningful new U.S. commitment to match — one with an ambitious and credible emissions reduction target — will require sustained effort.

The European Union, China, Japan and Korea have recently stepped up their timelines for achieving net zero by 2050 (or 2060, in the case of China) and are expecting the U.S. to make a similarly ambitious commitment — which would translate into a near-term reduction of 45-50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Credibility requires follow-through: not only taking strong actions under existing statutory authorities and making climate, clean energy and environmental justice central to economic stimulus and recovery investments, but pressing for bipartisan support for reductions in climate pollution across the economy.

This is what’s needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 — releasing no more climate pollution into the atmosphere than we can remove — and avoid climate change’s worst impacts.

The single fastest thing we can do right now to slow the rate of warming is to reduce the amount of methane coming from the oil and gas industry. Methane is a powerful pollutant responsible for more than a quarter of today’s warming.

The Trump administration rolled back vital methane protections at the very time we need them most — a backward step so big even major oil companies objected. Concerted methane policy in North America and Europe could deliver a meaningful climate impact, and U.S. leadership on this is imperative as we prepare for COP26.

Leadership also means restoring science to its rightful position at the center of environmental decision-making.

Repairing America’s scientific integrity begins with strong, evidence-based leaders at the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and independent scientific experts on federal advisory committees that ensure the use of best available science.

The EPA needs to rebuild its scientific staff and get back to the business of safeguarding the environment and public health. NOAA must scrub itself of past political interference and ensure that the government is again providing objective information about climate change.

Only when we acknowledge our climate responsibility on the global stage, follow and fund the science, and bring the right experts to the table will we be able to reclaim U.S. leadership in driving lasting environmental solutions.

3. Repair the damage: Protect our communities

America’s safety standards for clean air, water and toxic chemicals are in tatters after four years of Trump administration rollbacks.

Regardless of party, nobody wants dirty air or water. But infants, children, pregnant women, workers and the elderly are all facing increased health risks because of Trump’s policies, as are low-wealth communities and communities of color, as well as “fenceline” communities — those closest to the sources of pollution, which have long faced greater pollution burdens.

It’s time to not only repair the damage, but rebuild better. That means developing protections that fully take into account the cumulative impacts of pollution exposure, health disparities and economic inequality.

The new administration should use its full existing environmental authority to strengthen protections for communities and individuals at high risk, while expanding the collection of data on exposures to better characterize the health impacts of pollution and health risks associated with climate change.

This includes expanding air and water monitoring, particularly in areas with the greatest dangers. And importantly, the administration should fulfill its commitment to expand upon Executive Order 12898, which President Clinton signed 26 years ago. It requires the EPA to work with, support and enable highly impacted communities to fully participate in the administration’s decision-making process.

The Biden administration also has a historic opportunity to bolster our rural fishing and farming communities through investment in climate resilient food systems.

Our rural economies have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, trade wars and the changing climate. Jobs, food security and sustainable natural resources like water, forests and coasts will be critically important to our future economic and environmental health as a nation.

Investing now in natural infrastructure on our farms and coasts, building tools to thrive in the face of changing climates, and advancing policies that help farmers and fishers manage for future conditions will position the U.S. to lead both here and abroad.

With these priorities as our guide, we can turn this historic opportunity into concrete progress for healthier communities, more jobs and less climate pollution. It’s not enough to make up for four lost years, we have to rebuild an America that’s healthier and more equitable than it has ever been.

It’s a new day. Let’s seize it.