Jennifer Granholm and Pete Buttigieg—Two Biden Cabinet Picks to Help Steer the Country Toward a Better Climate Future

A pair of policy wonks with a shared goal of creating jobs while cutting carbon pollution: That sounds pretty good after the last four years.

Jennifer Granholm is President-elect Joe’s Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Energy.

Credit: Center for American Progress

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Jennifer Granholm and Pete Buttigieg for two Cabinet posts that will be crucial to his plan for creating jobs and resurrecting the economy—all while fighting climate change by weaning us from fossil fuels.

Granholm, the former Michigan governor who has become one of the country’s most prominent champions of clean energy since leaving office in 2011, is Biden’s choice to serve as the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Her nomination came shortly after Biden announced his nominee to head up the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana (and onetime rival to Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination), Pete Buttigieg.

In selecting Granholm, a vocal champion of electric vehicles who worked closely with the automotive industry during her eight years spent as Michigan’s governor, Biden is underscoring a central tenet of his campaign: Climate action, job creation, improved technology, economic growth, and clean energy production are inextricably connected.

Historically, the chief priority of the DOE has been overseeing and managing our nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear energy facilities, to which the department dedicates two-thirds of its annual $30 billion budget. But as the technologies supporting clean energy and energy efficiency have continued to advance, the agency’s mission has evolved to reflect the increasingly blurred lines between U.S. energy policy, economic policy, and national security. If confirmed by the Senate, Granholm will take the helm of an agency in flux: still concerned primarily with questions of nuclear safety but expanding to meet the challenges and opportunities generated by a quickly changing energy landscape.

Having a secretary of energy who understands the job and appreciates its many possibilities will mark a welcome change. Rick Perry, who served as Donald Trump’s first energy secretary, was derided for not fully grasping the full scope of the position; according to reports, he initially believed that his main role would be to promote the export of domestically produced oil and gas.

Granholm, by contrast, has spent the last several years working toward the creation of a clean energy economy and other goals shared by the president-elect. After her governorship, she worked as a senior research fellow at the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute, where she helped launch the American Jobs Project, which brought together leaders from academia and industry to create policy “roadmaps” for fostering job growth in the advanced energy sector (which includes renewable power and energy efficiency). She also served as a senior advisor to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Clean Energy Program, exploring and advocating for policies that would make the United States more competitive in the global market for renewables.

In a 2010 article, Granholm outlined a set of proposals, which, she said, could create three million new clean energy jobs across the country in just three years and help to revive moribund regional economies. Though the article is a decade old, the ideas expressed in it are at the foundation of Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which aims to create jobs while putting us “on an irreversible path to achieve zero net emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050” and “deliver an equitable clean energy future.”

To do that, the incoming president and his secretary of energy will have to work closely with the Department of Transportation—a crucial player in any plan to strengthen America’s climate resiliency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector currently accounts for nearly 30 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, more than any other sector. During his formal nomination of Buttigieg for transportation secretary, Biden likened his vision for overhauling our nation’s dated transportation infrastructure to the introduction of railroads—another revolution in mobility with effects that rippled through our economy and culture.

Pete Buttigieg, President-elect Biden’s nominee for secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation
Credit: Gage Skidmore

The president-elect sees improved infrastructure as a means of “helping cities across the country…build more climate-resilient communities, to deal with the more extreme floods, droughts, and superstorms,” and has framed the connection between mobility and equity as an opportunity to make sure that one’s “ZIP code doesn’t determine your access to a good job, a good school, a good education, [and] health care.” In a recent tweet, Buttigieg echoed these sentiments by stating that he sees his new role heading DOT as a “tremendous opportunity—to create jobs, meet the climate challenge, and enhance equity for all.” In the speech he gave at his nomination announcement, Buttigieg expanded on this idea, saying at one point that “America has given this administration a mandate to build back better. And step one in building back better—literally—is to build.”

If confirmed, Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay Cabinet member in U.S. history—and who noted that he proposed to his husband in an airport terminal, quipping, “Don’t let anybody tell you that O’Hare isn’t romantic”—will oversee an agency with an annual budget of more than $85 billion and a staff of more than 55,000 employees spread across the entire country. That’s more than half the population of South Bend, where for eight years Buttigieg served as mayor, the highest public office he’s held so far. But Cabinet-watchers point to his intelligence, formidable communication skills, and impressive understanding of transportation policy as signs that bode well for Buttigieg, should the Senate give him the green light.

After the past four years, during which so many Cabinet- and Cabinet-level positions functioned as little more than points of connection between the White House and polluting corporations, it’s a refreshing thought that the next two people who could wind up in charge of our nation’s energy and transportation departments are working toward a goal of making their policies mesh as the country renews its fights against social inequities, unemployment, and climate change.

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