What Biden Should Get Done on Day One (or Close to It)

Our next president could address many pressing environmental and public health issues right away—some with just a stroke of the executive pen.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Politicians talk a lot about what they would do “on Day One,” and Joe Biden has already amassed a pretty long to-do-immediately list, which includes crucial work on COVID-19 policy and recovery, voting rights, corporate tax rates, immigration, and climate change. Hours before his swearing-in ceremony, his team made clear that by the end of Inauguration Day, he plans to sign a number of "executive orders, memoranda, directives, and letters" that address a number of pressing issues, from the ongoing COVID-19 and racial justice crises to climate action, including revoking permits for the Keystone XL pipeline. Here's a list of what we hope to see him accomplish before he turns in tonight at the close of this historic and long-awaited day.

But there are only so many hours in anybody’s workday—even the president’s. Prioritizing tasks, and understanding what it takes to get them done, is key to making a big impact in a short amount of time.

In that vein, we’ve compiled a checklist of actions Biden should take right out of the gate to make meaningful progress on slowing climate change (something that really can’t wait any longer), protecting the environment and public health, and bringing justice to the communities that have been bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and industrial pollution.

Some of these tasks are remedial; others are proactive. But all are achievable, swiftly, with some careful crafting and a signature.

Say Hello (Again) to the Paris Agreement

Nearly 200 nations signed the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which every country committed to national targets to reduce carbon emissions and to regularly strengthen them in an effort to keep global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (ideally, lower than that). Thanks to Trump—and despite our country’s former status as a global climate leader—the United States is the only country that has formally abandoned the accord. Fortunately, rejoining the Paris Agreement is relatively easy for Biden to do: He needs only to send the United Nations a letter indicating the United States’ willingness to recommit, and we’re automatically back in after 30 days. Voilà!

Invest in Frontline Communities

Pollution and climate change affect us all, but their negative impacts are felt more acutely in low-income areas and communities of color, especially Black and Latino neighborhoods. During his campaign, Biden didn’t just make a vague promise to redress this injustice: He attached an actual number to his pledge in a highly detailed climate plan. It states that his administration would ensure that no less than 40 percent of the benefits reaped from climate spending—investments in clean energy deployment, mass transit, water infrastructure, affordable housing, and other sustainability measures—will go to frontline communities. With the wind of a Democrat-controlled Senate at his back, Biden can start taking steps toward implementing his climate agenda, including making good on this promise, on his very first day.

Cut Air Pollution from Power Plants

The burning of fossil fuels by power plants in our country not only contributes significantly to the warming of the planet but also to about 16,000 premature deaths in the United States every year. Biden wants the U.S. power sector to go carbon-free by 2035, which his transition website states, “will enable us to meet the existential threat of climate change while creating millions of jobs” in a clean energy economy. He can get started on this important task immediately by directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set stringent new carbon emissions limits for power plants, as well as updating national ambient air quality standards for fine particles and ozone, and strengthening toxic air pollution standards for toxins like mercury. These actions would fall under the Clean Air Act and do not require Senate approval—or anything, for that matter, beyond thoughtful rulemaking and presidential resolve.

Get Back on Track with Clean Car Standards

In 2010, President Obama introduced a plan to steadily raise fuel efficiency for vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon, on average, by 2025. The standard would dramatically cut tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, spur the auto industry to develop new technologies, and save drivers more than $1.7 trillion at the pump. Against the wishes of many carmakers, President Trump opted to gut those standards last spring in one of his many rollbacks of Obama-era environmental protections. But Biden can put Trump’s reversal in reverse and send the country back on its way to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050—a key part of Biden’s climate plan, which can’t be achieved without cleaning up a transportation sector that currently emits nearly a third of the country’s carbon emissions.

Restore and Protect National Monuments

Under Trump, we lost more than two million acres from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah—lands that Indigenous tribes in the region have considered sacred for millennia and that continue to hold immense cultural, historical, and archaeological value. After quickly restoring these monuments to their original sizes, which he says he intends to do, Biden will need to work with tribal governments to craft management plans that provide the on-the-ground protections these special places need and deserve. He should also reinstate protections against commercial fishing for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the first and only one of its kind in the Atlantic Ocean.

Get On Board With “30x30”

One of the most notable aspects of Biden’s environmental platform has been his promise to protect biodiversity, slow extinction rates, and mitigate the climate crisis by conserving 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, “focusing on the most ecologically important” examples of both. In doing so, he would be adding the United States to the list of nations that have already signed onto a conservation framework first proposed by an international team of scientists who believe that only by taking this step—all around the world—can we avoid worst-case climate scenarios and ensure the persistence of biodiversity that keeps our natural systems healthy and intact. During his first days in office, Biden can enlist his administration’s Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce and other members of his environmental team in this task, making sure that this global priority becomes their priority too.

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