On Wednesday, which has been deemed “Climate Day” by the White House, President Joe Biden signed a slate of executive orders with the goal of advancing climate policy, with an emphasis on environmental justice.
One order is focused solely on the issue of environmental justice, creating a justice council for the White House and an interagency justice council focused on monitoring and addressing historical injustices at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, and Department of Health and Human Services. It emphasizes that environmental justice will be an interest of every agency and directs them to develop programs and policies to advance justice. It also directs that 40 percent of funding spent on sustainable investments go toward disadvantaged communities.
Biden has also signed an order that establishes his administration’s “whole-of-government approach to the climate crisis,” and creates an office within the White House to coordinate the climate agenda as well as an interagency climate task force which assembles agency leaders to coordinate on how they can govern with the climate in mind.
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Another order centers the climate crisis as an issue of national security and foreign policy, kicking off the U.S.’s participation in the Paris agreement, which Biden signed an order to rejoin on his first day in office. The national security order says that Biden will host a Leaders’ Climate Summit on Earth Day in April and creates a position for a climate envoy in the National Security Council.
The orders also pause new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands and offshore “to the extent possible” while launching an investigation into fossil fuel leasing, partially to determine the next steps toward developing renewable wind offshore.
Many of Biden’s climate actions on Wednesday were reflective of demands that climate activists have been making for a number of years.
Environmental justice is something that many activists, especially people of color, have fought for over the past decades. Historically, poor minority communities have been overburdened by pollution, creating conditions that led to areas like Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.”
Robert Bullard, who many in the climate movement refer to as the father of the environmental justice movement, had praise for Biden’s actions on Wednesday. “When you have the most powerful legal department in the country saying that environmental justice is a basic right, I think that is a signal being sent across the country to say that this is real at the highest level,” he told The Washington Post.
Mobilizing the entire government to fight for environmental justice and against the climate crisis is reflective of a campaign by the climate community to raise awareness that climate affects nearly every aspect of the government. “Because climate change is an everything problem,” wrote Earther in December, “the entire and considerable weight of the federal government will need to be thrown into addressing it.” Things like banking, immigration and health are all intrinsically tied to the climate, journalists and activists say.
Biden’s climate initiatives also have a focus on creating jobs in the clean energy sector, and one of the orders creates a “Civilian Climate Corps” to direct the creation of climate and conservation jobs.
— Kara Voght (@karavoght) January 27, 2021
During his Climate Day speech on Wednesday, Biden said, “Today is Climate Day at the White House, which means that today is jobs day at the White House.”
This is a small but momentous change in rhetoric in D.C. politics. In past years, the climate community has emphasized that contrary to the stubborn and disproven Republican claim that regulations kill jobs, addressing the climate crisis is actually an opportunity to create jobs and mobilize the workforce. The Green New Deal, an ambitious progressive climate proposal that has acted as a litmus test for Democrats in the past few years, for instance, includes a federal jobs guarantee.
As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on Twitter, progressives and activists have had a large hand in shaping Wednesday’s orders. “It’s striking how much of Biden’s climate executive actions reflect major elements of the Green New Deal — tackling climate change while addressing economic/racial injustice,” noted an NBC reporter. “It’s almost as if we helped shape the platform,” Ocasio-Cortez responded playfully.