The team of people President Joe Biden tapped to head up his agencies have significant roles to play in delivering on his climate agenda. Biden’s Cabinet — the folks who will lead the departments that make up the executive branch — will execute the president’s executive orders halting drilling on public lands, implementing new emissions control measures, conserving land, and launching a Civilian Climate Corps, among other things. But before they do that, Biden’s nominees need to be confirmed by the Senate, which has been busy squabbling over the filibuster and the forthcoming impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
Even so, the upper chamber’s committees have found the time to hold hearings over the past two weeks to examine Biden’s candidates for a slate of departments. More hearings will take place in the coming weeks.
On the climate front, the Senate held hearings for treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen (former chair of the Federal Reserve), transportation secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg (the South Bend, Indiana mayor who ran for president in 2020), and energy secretary nominee Jennifer Granholm (former governor of Michigan). Some of these positions don’t seem like they’re directly related to executing Biden’s climate agenda. But the president has promised a “whole of government” approach to dealing with the crisis, and these three players will be key to making that happen. Yellen has already been confirmed by the Senate. Buttigieg has advanced past the Commerce Committee to a full Senate vote, which means he will be confirmed imminently, and Granholm is likely to be confirmed soon as well.
Here’s what the three nominees said about rising temperatures at their confirmation hearings and what that signals about how they’ll approach climate policy in the future.
Yellen served under former President Barack Obama as the first female chair of the Federal Reserve and has long warned of the risks of climate change to the economy. As secretary of the treasury, she will shape the federal budget and Biden’s tax and spending policies. She’s a big proponent of the carbon tax.
“Climate change is an existential threat to not only our environment, but also our economy,” Yellen wrote in response to questions posed by Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and the chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, on January 21. “I believe we must seriously look at assessing the risks to the financial system from climate change.” At her Senate cross-examination a couple of days earlier, Yellen promised to set up a new Treasury “hub” that would assess those risks. “We should take these risks very, very seriously,” she said. Climate change is risky business, and Yellen is on a mission to make it less financially fraught.
Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will lead Biden’s Department of Transportation. Buttigieg will oversee a sector that’s responsible for 28 percent of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions. During the presidential primary, Buttigieg released a $1 trillion proposal for sustainable infrastructure with the aim to boost public transit, passenger rail, and electric vehicles.
At his hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee last week, Buttigieg promised to make climate change a top priority for the department. “When the books are written about our careers, one of the main things we’ll be judged on is whether we did enough to stop the destruction of life and property due to climate change,” he said to Senator Ted Cruz, Republican from Texas, during a heated moment sparked when Cruz challenged Buttigieg on Biden’s decision to cancel a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Buttigieg also said that the U.S. has a “unique window of opportunity” for investing in infrastructure and addressing climate change at the same time. Bullet trains and electric vehicle charging stations, here we come?
Granholm is a former energy advisor to Hillary Clinton and worked with the Obama administration to push automakers to invest in green technologies after the Great Recession. As head of the Department of Energy, the former Michigan governor would help lead the transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles and start work on Biden’s stated goal of a 100 percent clean electrical grid by 2035.
She emphasized climate change and job creation at her hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. “I am obsessed with creating good-paying jobs in America,” she said. Fossil fuels aren’t off the table for the former governor. “I think it is important that as we develop fossil fuels that we also develop the technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she said in response to a question from Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming. “If we’re going to get to net carbon zero emissions by 2050, we cannot do it without coal, oil, and gas being part of the mix.” The Michigander mentioned that she drives a Chevy Bolt, an electric vehicle that Granholm told senators has great acceleration.
Senators also heard from Gina Raimondo, the governor of Rhode Island and Biden’s pick to head up the Department of Commerce, which houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Tackling climate change,” she said at her hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, “goes hand in hand with creating good, paying jobs.”
Biden’s so-called Climate Cabinet still has a long way to go before getting down to business. Next week, Senate committees will hear from Environmental Protection Agency administrator nominee Michael Regan and agriculture secretary nominee Tom Vilsack. Stay tuned.