President Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders just hours after being sworn into office and reversed several Trump administration policies — including rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and asking every federal department “to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.”
“President Biden has delivered on his promises to restore science as the guide for sound decisions, and to take action on climate change,” UC Berkeley climate scientist Patrick Gonzalez said. “For example, under the worst case scenario, climate change could triple fire frequencies across much of California.”
Biden’s orders will revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, reverse decisions to reduce the size of national monuments, enforce a temporary moratorium on oil and natural gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and instruct agencies to consider reversing rollbacks to vehicle emissions standards.
Restoring California's authority is a big deal for the state because the Trump administration limited the state’s ability to set its own standards, says Gonzalez.
“California has been a pioneer in protecting the health and the environment by making cars more efficient,” he said. “This executive order now restores the ability for California to take the lead on clean, efficient technology.”
While the orders may give California back the authority to create its own emissions standards, the Biden’s administration is telling the state to do better, according to Cara Horowitz, the co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law.
“It's calling out California and some other states for not doing enough to meet some air quality standards, in particular ozone standards,” Horowitz said. “It's sort of a shot over the bow telling California they can't rest on its laurels … It's such a change in tone and dynamic from the prior administration, and really is a breath of fresh air.”
Horowitz said the strongest indicator that Biden is serious about tackling the climate crisis is that his administration wants to put a higher value on the damage caused by climate change. That value is called the social cost of carbon, an actual dollar value assigned to each ton of carbon emitted by human activities.
That value was greatly reduced by the Trump administration.
But increasing this amount will allow agencies to accurately know the benefits of new policies that could help solve the climate crisis compared to the cost.
“The more accurate we are in pricing the costs of climate change, the better we're going to be able to justify ambitious, appropriate levels of regulation to avoid that climate change,” Horowitz explained.
Increasing the social cost of carbon, methane and nitrous oxides — all pollutants that warm the atmosphere — allows climate change to seriously be included in new policies, regulations and projects.
Individuals are always weighing whether they should purchase an item and if it’s worth the cost. That’s what the federal government is doing, and Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh said the Biden administration is setting a standard to determine what projects and regulations to focus on.
“What the social cost of carbon does is that it allows climate change to be incorporated into the decisions that are being made in addition to a bunch of other factors,” he said.
Turning climate change into a dollar value that can be inserted into formulas is part of how Biden wants to have data and science lead his government. The order will create a working group, which will have 30 days to publish an interim social cost of the pollutants, so agencies can begin using it when considering new regulations and rules. The final cost is due next January.
The new price tag will be a big deal for a place like California where the effects of warming temperatures — drought, wildfires, extreme weather and sea level rise — are felt by all.
It could also mean finally controlling emissions, Horowitz said.
“Part of what they're going to do is think about how expensive it is to reduce those emissions from cars … and so the social cost of carbon will be used in that calculation,” she says.
The goal is to hold agencies and companies accountable, says Brett Hartl, government affairs director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“There's no charge to the polluter,” he explained. “So getting a real handle on the economic and the social costs of climate change run amok … will make it much harder for agencies in the future to make bad decisions that do have significant climate impacts.”
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