Biden’s ‘climate cabinet’: The good, the bad, the ugly

Photo of Deb Haaland, John Kerry, Gina McCarthy, Janet Yellen, Michael McCabe, Tom Vilsack
Top, Left to Right: Deb Haaland, John Kerry, Gina McCarthy Bottom, Left to Right:, Janet Yellen, Michael McCabe, Tom Vilsack

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fter the chaos of the Trump presidency, many are looking to the Biden-Harris administration with starry eyes and a budding hope for the future. President Joe Biden has hit the ground running with executive orders that are effectively canceling former president Donald Trump’s most heinous offenses, many of which were essentially aiding and abetting climate change.

Biden has also made it clear that tackling climate change is a top priority, assembling a “climate cabinet,” and setting a plan to ban new drilling for fossil fuels on federal land. However, some of the president’s choices for his climate cabinet have progressives on edge. While it is important to acknowledge that his administration is the most diverse in the history of the United States, and while some members of the climate cabinet are poised to shine, others are far from ideal.

It’s easy to take President Biden’s climate cabinet appointees with a sigh of perfunctory relief because, well, Trump didn’t pick them. But if these past four years have taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t take the actions of our nation’s authority figures with cursory indifference. You can’t hold power accountable if you don’t know who’s in charge or what they’re about.

One of the most exciting — and most progressive — members of the climate cabinet is Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM-01, the first Native American to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. Haaland is an advocate for the Green New Deal — a plan for the U.S. to reduce its fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions — and is the champion of the 30 by 30 initiative, a campaign to conserve 30% of the planet by 2030. In this historic position, Haaland has the opportunity to tackle the Department of the Interior’s savage history of injustice toward Native Americans, their land and their culture. Additionally, Haaland is in the powerful position to hold President Biden to his word that no new fossil fuel permits will be administered on federal land.

The significance of Haaland in this position cannot be stressed enough. It is my sincere hope that she will lead us into a new era where the federal government finally prioritizes the health and well-being of the fragile ecosystems in the U.S., as well as the health and well-being of the marginalized communities that bear the heaviest burdens of climate change and political injustice. In a way, Haaland’s biggest and most challenging task will be dismantling a department that has so haphazardly exploited natural resources and Indigenous people.

It is my sincere hope that she will lead us into a new era where the federal government finally prioritizes the health and well-being of the fragile ecosystems in the U.S.

Another superstar of Biden’s administration is John Kerry, who will serve as the first special presidential envoy for climate. Kerry, former senator of Massassuchets and former president Barack Obama’s second-term secretary of state, has a long history as a U.S. diplomat and advocate for pro-climate legislation. His selection shows that President Biden is adamant about restoring tattered international relations and ensuring that the U.S. will play an active role in the necessary, global action to combat climate change.

Though President Biden has already rejoined the Paris Agreement, Kerry has his work cut out for him. Kerry will likely help actualize President Biden’s promised virtual global climate summit, to be held within his first 100 days in office. The summit is yet another strategy meant to show that the U.S. is serious about tackling climate change and repairing the tattered U.S. relations with global leaders.

Even though Kerry did not endorse the Green New Deal, it seems he understands and is serious about the intersectionality of the climate crisis. While mending global ties, he needs to prove that the administration is serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, the biggest challenge Kerry faces is taking global climate justice into account because the impacts of climate change disproportionately burden developing nations. Kerry must use his leverage as a diplomat to ease friction between the U.S. and other countries and hold this country accountable for its role in exacerbating the climate crisis.

Gina McCarthy, the new White House Climate Coordinator, will be leading the new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. Serving as the domestic counterpart to Kerry, McCarthy will coordinate efforts across the federal government to efficiently lower U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The fate of Biden’s climate goals and the U.S. energy economy, according to NPR, rests in their hands.

McCarthy has been working to reduce harmful emissions throughout her career and oversaw Obama’s Clean Power Plan. She led the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, under Obama and is currently the chief executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Overall, McCarthy is a crucial pillar in the climate cabinet and should be a central figure in Biden’s efforts to eliminate carbon emissions.

One of the most important aspects of McCarthy’s role will be driving climate policies in coordination with other departments — Department of Energy, Department of Interior, EPA — and framing climate as a systematic issue. In a statement to NPR, McCarthy noted that tackling the climate crisis “is all about using the entire federal budget, and the strength of the entire Cabinet” to advance climate solutions in ways the federal government has never done before. While consolidating a divided government on this existential issue will be incredibly difficult, I am confident that McCarthy, with her experience, will be successful in her role.

Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve, is taking on the role of treasury secretary. She is the first woman to hold this position. According to the Sierra Club, she is “likely to be the most climate-conscious person ever to inhabit the top post at the Treasury Department.” Yellen is responsible for helping President Biden see his $1.9 trillion stimulus package through. On top of this, Yellen is responsible for mending tense global economic relations, which will be critical on all fronts, including that of climate mitigation.

Although Yellen has a history of advocating for carbon taxes, her endorsement record is far from squeaky clean. In fact, as a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, she has been backed by energy companies such as BP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Shell. Yellen is tied to an economic orthodoxy that might work in some case but is not as effective when it comes to climate reform, which requires new ways of thinking and innovative policy approaches. Maybe Yellen’s relationships with Big Oil companies will make it easier for Biden to negotiate carbon taxes and phase out fossil fuels, but that’s optimistic.

In spite of this, it has been reported that Yellen plans to use the power of the U.S. Department of the Treasury to address racial inequalities, assess the economic risks of climate change and incentivize the transition to clean and renewable energy technologies.

While the appointments of Yellen, McCarthy, Kerry and Haaland leave me hopeful for President Biden’s future climate policies, some of his appointments have the potential to dismantle any promise of a greener tomorrow.

President Biden selected Tom Vilsack to be the secretary of agriculture for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA. The USDA is an extremely important sector because it could play an enormous role in mitigating the arduous environmental harms of agriculture, yet, Vilsack, who worked in this position for eight years under Obama, is in cahoots with big agricultural businesses. He has a long and friendly history with polluters, and his loyalty to the agrochemical industry means he is likely not opposed to the fertilizer overuse that results in nitrate runoff — one of the reasons why we have a toxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico today.


In 2018, agriculture accounted for 9.9% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is one of the most destructive economic sectors, responsible for incomprehensible amounts of havoc wreaked on the land, biodiversity and humans. Agriculture is also one of the sectors with the greatest possibility for reform, but Vilsack is not the man for that job.

How can we expect necessary change from someone who was named “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, representing agricultural monsters such as Monsanto, DuPont and BASF? After his failed efforts to cut the concentration of livestock, only to have factory farms expand by nearly 8%, is Vilsack really the kind of figure a “climate cabinet” should have? I think not.

How can we expect necessary change from someone who was named “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, representing agricultural monsters such as Monsanto, DuPont and BASF?

Finally, President Biden made the egregious selection of Michael McCabe to the EPA’s agency review team. McCabe is a chemical industry insider who worked as a communications consultant for DuPont during its fight on perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, chemical regulations. This is a toxic, man-made chemical that has been linked to numerous cancers and diseases. According to a review by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor Philippe Grandjean, exposure to these chemicals could possibly reduce the efficiency of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Anyone affiliated with supporting an extremely dangerous company such as DuPont shouldn’t be offered a place on a climate cabinet where its sole purpose is to curb climate change and increase environmental justice for all. If Biden wants the dramatic progress in environmental policy that he says he does, it’s hard to understand some of the choices he’s made in staffing his climate cabinet.

Contact Rochelle Gluzman at [email protected].