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Political Note #348.                Joe Biden’s Climate Team

2020 General Election            Getting Ready to Govern

Dealing with climate change will be hard.  It is a hard problem with many competing special interests.  The  United States government is not organized to address the crisis of climate change.  That’s why Joe Biden needed a Climate Czar.  He needed two of them.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

John Kerry

As Secretary of State, John Kerry was responsible for the negotiation of the Paris Climate Accords.  As Joe Biden’s Envoy for Climate, he is appointed to regain the world’s confidence that the United States of American will contain global warming and help focus the world on that task.  Most of us know his history.

His route to being becoming the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate:  His mom was a New England aristocrat.  His dad was a foreign service officer, unknown to John until he was a political figure, his grandparents were Jewish converts to Catholicism and refugees from Austria. He went to St. Paul’s Prep School and Yale, served in the Vietnam war, earning the Bronze Star and the Silver Star. After his service, he was an anti-war activist and testified before Congress.  He lost a Congressional race in 1972 when his activism was attacked as unamerican. He went to BC Law School and became an Assistant District Attorney. He was elected Massachusetts Lt. Governor in 1982 and US Senator in 1984. He was nominated for US President in 2004 and lost that race when his military service was questioned.  He was appointed Secretary of State in 2013 by Barack Obama.

National Climate Advisor

Gina McCarthy

We don’t know Gina McCarthy nearly as well as we know John Kerry.  Like John Kerry she is from Boston.  She has no connection with New England aristocracy.  She grew up in Dorchester and went to UMass Boston.  A few years later, she got a Master’s degree from Tufts.  In Massachusetts, she was a civil servant before she was an appointee.

Able to find the sweet spot of support for the environment without being threatening, Gina McCarthy was appointed by Republicans – by Massachusetts Governor Paul Celucci as Assistant Secretary for Environmental Affairs, by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as Deputy Secretary for Development, and by Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell as Commissioner of Environmental Protection.  In Connecticut, she created the “No Child Left Inside” initiative to get more families to visit state parks.  She also created a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the nation’s first cap and trade effort, to reduce power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions.  Her popular programs appealed to Republicans and Democrats.

In 2009, Gina McCarthy was appointed by a Democrat.  Barack Obama appointed her Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.  He appointed her again in 2013 as the Administrator of the EPA.  Despite her record as a Republican appointee, Republican Senators fought her – delayed her confirmation, tried to impeach her after she changed the definition of waters of the United States, and tried to blame her for the water problems in Flint, MI.  After the Inspector General found the EPA had some responsibility for Flint, she resigned.  She worked for a private investment firm, became the head of a health science center at Harvard, and in 2019 was appointed President and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As National Climate Advisor she will work at integrating measures to address the climate crisis throughout the entire administration.

Deputy National Climate Advisor

Ali Zaidi

Born in Pakistan, his family immigrated to Pennsylvania where he grew up.  He went to Harvard and Georgetown Law School, organized for Obama during the presidential campaign.  He worked in the administration for Obama’s entire two terms.  The final three years were as a senior economic and environmental official at the Office of Management and Budget.  During the interregnum, he worked at law firms and universities, the last three years at Stanford.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator

Michael Regan

Michael Regan is a North Carolinian – born in Goldsboro, lives in Raleigh.  He went to North Carolina A & T State, an Historically Black University.  From there he went to George Washington for a Master’s in Public Administration.  He was in just the right place to work for the federal government.  He worked at the Environmental Protection Agency from 1998 to 2008 – beginning in the Clinton administration, ending in the Bush administration.  He went from the administration to the Environmental Defense Fund, eventually becoming the director for the Southeast region and vice president for clean energy.  He was in just the right place to be found by North Carolina’s Democratic governor intent on addressing environmental justice.  As Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, he created an environmental justice and equity advisory board, developed a state clean energy plan, and negotiated an agreement with Duke Energy to undertake the largest coal ash cleanup in the country.

The Coordination problem

Gina McCarthy will have to do a lot of coordinating.  The EPA isn’t the only agency with responsibility of climate related issues.  She and her deputy are going to have to work with all the Cabinet Departments.  Connecting with these four stands out.

Secretary of Energy

Jennifer Granholm

If Jennifer Granholm had been born in the United States, she would have been a presidential or vice-presidential possibility.  Or a character from Wonder Woman.  She was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  Her family moved to California when she was four.  After high school and after winning a beauty pageant, she tried acting.  She became a citizen when she was 21 and worked on John Anderson’s independent presidential campaign.  When she spent a year in France, she smuggled food and clothing and medicine to Jews in Soviet Russia.   Older than most students, she went to the University of California, Berkeley for her BA where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She went to Harvard Law School for her JD, where she was Editor in Chief of their civil rights law journal.   After Law School, she clerked in the Sixth Circuit, then worked for the US Attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan.  In 1995 she became Corporation Counsel for Wayne County (Detroit is the County Seat).  She was elected Michigan’s Attorney General in 1998, Michigan’s Governor in 2002 and 2006 after which she was termed limited.  She has been teaching at Berkeley and hosting television programs for the past 10 years.  No one is questioning her ability to take on the Energy Department.  She won’t make Rick Perry’s mistake of thinking the Department was responsible for sources of energy other than the country’s nuclear resources.  She will, however, be part of what Gina McCarthy will be coordinating.

Secretary of Agriculture

Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack is a Democrat who could win in Iowa.   Elected to his first term as Governor in 1998, he and his immediate successor, Chet Culver who lost seeking a second term, were the only Democrats elected Governor since 1966.  As Governor he worked on the economy, on reducing meth use, and allowing felons who served their sentences to vote. As Agriculture Secretary under Barack Obama, he had a racial scandal as he fired an African American staffer based on what turned out to be a selectively edited tape by a right wing organization.  His critics on the left, and they have surfaced with this appointment, criticize his support of corporate interests in selling trimmings from butchering as processed beef and his minimization of the role of agriculture in global warming.  The critics add that he is President of the Dairy Export Council.  Assuming he is confirmed, Gina McCarthy will have substantial coordinating to do.  These days, scientists describe the agricultural sector as responsible for 13% of greenhouse gases – as opposed to the 9% Vilsack minimized in 2015 at a Drake University Forum.

Secretary of Transportation

Pete Buttigieg

In the 2020 campaign, Pete Buttigieg was the first serious openly gay candidate for President ever.  Mayor of South Bend Indiana, he is a graduate of Harvard and, as a result of a Rhodes Scholarship, has a Master’s Degree from Oxford.  He earned positive attention during his campaign for his presence in debate and for his experience in the military, including a deployment in Iraq.  He grew up in South Bend, son of an immigrant from Malta who taught at Notre Dame, who met his American wife at new Mexico State where they both taught.

As a high school senior, Pete Buttigieg won the JFK Presidential library Profiles in Courage award for an essay he wrote about Senator Bernie Sanders – who he defeated in the Iowa presidential caucus with 26.2%to 26.1% for the highest percentage of the total vote. Buttigieg’s withdrawal from the 2020 election campaign after Joe Biden’s victory in the South Carolina primary was an important factor in consolidating moderate support in favor of Joe Biden in his contest against Bernie Sanders for the nomination.  The Secretary of Transportation will have a role in the climate change effort.  There is already conversation about work with the EPA on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

Secretary of the Interior

Deb Haaland

The first Native American woman in the Cabinet, Haaland is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo.  She and Sharice Davids of Kansas, also elected in 2018, were the first two Native American women elected to Congress.

Her nomination was lobbied for by advocates for Native Americans and welcomed enthusiastically by those advocates.  Deb Haaland is impressive.  She grew up in a military family.  Her mother, with Native American forebears, was in the Navy. Her father, a Norwegian American, was in the Marines.  He earned a Silver Star fighting in Vietnam and was buried in 2005 in Arlington National Cemetery. She attended 13 schools, as her parents moved from assignment to assignment, and graduated from high school in Albuquerque.  After graduation, she worked in a bakery.  She enrolled at the University of New Mexico at age 28, graduated nine months pregnant, giving birth four days after graduation.  A single mother, she started a salsa company and struggled. Twelve years after graduating from high school, in 2006, she graduated from the University of New Mexico Law School.  Talented and hardworking, she was elected Chair of the Laguna Development Board of Directors overseeing, among other things, the largest tribal gaming operation in the state.  She lost a campaign for Lt. Governor in 2014.  Elected Chair of the state Democratic Party she reorganized it, paid off the party’s debts, and regained control of the New Mexico House and the Secretary of State’s office.  Since then, Democrats have elected a Governor and maintained control of the State Senate.

Native Americans have seen the Interior Department as a source of oppression rather than support.  Founded in 1849, the Interior Department’s oversight of Native American affairs has been described as corrupt and paternalistic. With the possible exception of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the oversight has rarely turned out well for Native Americans.  Deb Haaland will bring a Native American perspective to the Interior Department’s oversight responsibilities.

The Interior Department’s responsibilities bear on the climate crisis in ways that could be enormously important.  Land and mineral management, ocean energy management, safety and environmental enforcement, when coordinated by the National Climate Advisory, are all Interior Department responsibilities.   These jobs done well, with the climate crisis in mind, can be important for the future of the world.

Concluding thoughts

Gina McCarthy has her hands full.  Coordinating a group with diverse views will require clarity about the mandate and oversight by a relatively small office.  The world’s climate may depend on how well she does.