Biden and the Environment

A Talk with the Community Environmental Council

Credit: Nancy Rodriguez (file)

This month the City and County of Santa Barbara have kicked off their climate action updates through a series of workshops to gather community input on solutions and paths forward. As our region looks at how we can lead the nation on ambitious climate goals, CEC’s Board President Barbara Lindemann sat down with political strategist Laura Capps and Community Environmental Council’s Michael Chiacos to talk about what President Biden’s recent climate announcements mean for our region.

President Biden’s first order of business was to declare a climate emergency. Is this mostly a symbolic act, or does it send a meaningful signal?

Laura Capps: I think it’s very meaningful and it’s incredibly exciting. Our climate is now front and center at the White House, starting with signing a series of executive orders on January 27 that some have called the most important day in climate action in a decade.

Michael Chiacos: I agree and am really excited for this administration as well. Many communities around the country have been ringing this alarm and declaring a climate emergency for the last couple of years — including the County of Santa Barbara, so it would be difficult not to be happy in this moment. I’m really pleased to see this administration take such a strong and vocal stand.

Barbara Lindemann, Laura Capps, Michael Chiacos | Credit: Courtesy

Laura Capps: There are, of course, a lot of “ifs,” but we have some momentum that allows us to realistically envision a better future: a future where our homes will be powered solely by renewable energy, electric and hydrogen car charging stations will be as ubiquitous as gas stations are now, where our farmers and ranchers are heroes for repairing the carbon cycle, and where we won’t live in constant fear of fires and other catastrophic climate events on the Central Coast. 

Michael Chiacos: I’m hoping that these executive orders get codified into law and stick. But even if they don’t, I think that the market — particularly with renewable electricity and with zero emission vehicles — has momentum of its own. We’re going to be moving quickly towards a zero carbon society. President Biden also renewed our commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, which is amazing – plus he’s really stacked his cabinet and administration with climate champions.

In addition to declaring a climate emergency and, to Michael’s point, adding a strong bench, this president has put the climate as a national security priority. How exactly does that manifest? 

Laura Capps: Some of that we’ll have to see, but President Biden’s staffing choices are an excellent indicator of how important the climate is to his administration. Creating a new cabinet position — U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate — and appointing John Kerry, the former secretary of state (and my former boss), is a big step to reestablish U.S. leadership on the international stage. This move completely underscores the climate crisis as a core element of both our foreign policy and national security. Biden also appointed Gina McCarthy, one of President Obama’s former EPA administrators, to lead domestic climate policy and put back into place the more than 100 federal environmental protections that were rolled back under President Trump. 

What does this all mean for the Central Coast?

Laura Capps: Well hundreds of new rules were implemented through President Biden’s executive orders.

Michael Chiacos: This kind of climate policy momentum at the federal level — which we’ve never seen before — is right in sync with California’s leadership and CEC’s bold climate action plan. While over half of all climate actions that are outlined in national and international plans will actually be carried out at the local level, these new policies mean that we’re finally getting some federal help to achieve our goals.

What that means for us is that it’s time to lean into local solutions like never before – and that means unrelenting, focused, inclusive, and courageous climate action on the Central Coast. Now’s the time to really dig in and build a groundswell of community action that will reverse, repair, and protect against the impacts of climate change.

What about some of the specifics, like emission goals?

Michael Chiacos: President Biden has said he will put the United States on a path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050. There’s also a lot of international momentum on this front, all of which feeds into advocacy for bold policy to achieve carbon neutrality goals at the state and regional levels. That said, 2050 may be too far off, and the science appears to be requiring an earlier target. CEC has joined with the California Climate Center in working with a network of organizations throughout the state to try to bring California’s target for carbon neutrality by 2045 down to 2030, and having the federal government set out on this same path is immensely helpful. 

And the electric transportation goals?

Laura Capps: This is an area where the market really comes into play. Electric vehicles become more affordable and more ubiquitous, and automakers like GM respond with a pledge to a 100 percent electric future. I’m hopeful we’ll see this with other car makers.

Michael Chiacos: President Biden has also said that the federal agency fleet, which is 645,000 vehicles, will become zero-emission, which is a huge number of EVs. He’s ordered the deployment of 500,000 charging outlets by 2030 and said that the U.S. will facilitate a carbon-free electricity sector no later than 2035, an even more ambitious goal than California’s carbon-free by 2045 law. This gives us some additional momentum to bring forward our targets with this federal wind at our back with zero emission vehicles. 

We should see a lot more action around our electric transportation programs and federal grants that are coming out, which we didn’t see under President Trump.

Where does that leave us with fossil fuels?

Michael Chiacos: They’ve prohibited new oil and gas leases on public lands and waters, as well as eliminated fossil fuel subsidies and prioritized clean energy technologies and infrastructure — all of which will help to transition the U.S. off of fossil fuels. While we would have liked him to go further by banning fracking, cyclic steaming and other carbon intensive ways of extracting tight oil, this is a big step in the right direction. In addition, federal funding will be used to spur innovation, commercialization, and deployment of clean energy technologies, and infrastructure.

This is a really big deal for oil extraction in California, as well as nationwide. He has a goal of doubling renewable energy by offshore wind by 2030. Most of the renewable offshore wind is on the east coast, but we do have companies considering projects here on the west coast — including off of Point Conception on the Gaviota Coast, and in Morro Bay. It’ll be really interesting to see what happens with the deepwater offshore resources that we have, because we may see some of the development in the next five or 10 years. I love that he wants to eliminate taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuels.

Environmental justice is such an important piece of this whole puzzle. Where does the administration stand on that?

Laura Capps: This is a major move from our federal government, signaling a commitment to environmental justice by explicitly directing federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities and enforce a just transition to a clean energy economy. 

Michael Chiacos: The market is moving away from fossil fuels, and this will only help on climate justice. There’s also a Justice 40 initiative with a goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal investment to disadvantaged communities. 

What kind of role do our coastal ecosystems play in these new climate policies? 

Michael Chiacos: While the specifics are still unclear, the executive orders include a promise to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and 30 percent of U.S. oceans by 2030. There’s also a key acknowledgement that coastal communities have an essential role to play in mitigating climate change and strengthening resilience by protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems. In addition, the administration has taken a page from California’s playbook and vowed to create a Civilian Climate Corps to restore forests, build trails and push climate-friendly farming.  Working with Central Coast farmers and ranchers is a big part of CEC’s effort, so we’re watching this closely.

Laura Capps: Again, I think there’s some reasons to be very optimistic.

Michael Chiacos: Me too. We can expect to see billions of federal dollars invested in climate resilience. There’s also a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to collect input from farmers and ranchers and other stakeholders about how to use the federal programs to encourage the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices that produce verifiable carbon reductions and sequence durations. So there’s a lot of federal momentum for the things that we’re working on.

Are capitalism and climate action finally coming together?

Laura Capps: Yes, finally! While some people are arguing a choice between climate protection and economic recovery, all of the credible economic analysis research shows that climate policy and investments in low-carbon infrastructure can serve to reboot our economy and set us up for long-term success. As John Kerry stated on CNN, “Every economic analysis now shows it is more expensive to do nothing, not to respond to the climate crisis, than it is to respond.” 

So are you feeling optimistic for the Central Coast?

Laura Capps: One hundred percent optimistic.  The responsibility is still upon us at the local level to push for progress — every action both small and large helps — but now those actions will be fortified by meaningful national policy change.

Michael Chiacos: Our hope is that all of these new policies will be codified into law, which ensures our continued progress toward a sustainable climate and leaves us far less vulnerable to the type of rollbacks we saw under President Trump. The market can also have a positive momentum of its own, as we’ve seen with electric vehicles.  

While the majority of the actual work on the climate will happen at the local level, we’ve never seen this kind of emphasis coming from the White House before and it’s certainly cause for celebration and optimism, as well as for furthering our resolve to fight together to protect the Central Coast. Our work here is far from over, but we just got a big shot of encouragement from Washington, D.C., that’s for sure.

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