As soon as President Biden took office, his administration announced a “whole-of-government” approach to climate change that would “ensure that every federal infrastructure investment reduces climate pollution and that steps are taken to accelerate clean energy and transmission projects under federal siting and permitting processes in an environmentally sustainable manner.” Climate hawks appear to have interpreted this language as a promise to elevate carbon-emissions reductions over all other government priorities.

It’s understandable that climate advocates got their hopes up. Taken literally, a whole-of-government approach to climate policy signified a potentially far-reaching agenda. The federal budget contains over $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending, at the disposal of well over 100 agencies and sub-agencies. If leveraged aggressively toward emissions reduction and climate adaptation, the aggregate outcomes could be substantial. Indeed, the administration’s supporters and critics hoped and feared, respectively, that the White House would go so far as to employ the Federal Reserve to restrict lending to fossil fuel interests, or use the Department of Justice to join lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry.

Such outcomes were never likely, however. To the keen observer, the whole-of-government framework was a tacit admission that the administration would steer clear of marquee climate policy that its Democratic predecessors had tried and failed to pass, such as putting a price on carbon or imposing strong federal regulations on carbon emissions. Marshaling the authority of the DOJ or the Fed in a knives-out battle against Big Oil was not realistic. And even within the more prosaic operations of the federal government, public officials have not made emissions reductions and clean energy their overarching priorities. This has frustrated the advocates, but it reflects little more than the balancing of interests, practicalities, and constituencies that constrains any policy agenda.

Consider, for example, the U.S. Post Office. In February, the Postal Service announced that it would purchase almost 150,000 gasoline-fueled trucks to replace its current fleet, in direct violation of a Biden administration goal of electrifying all federal vehicle fleets before 2035. Environmentalist groups were apoplectic, and they have sued the Postal Service in an attempt to reverse the procurement decision. But the decision was understandable. The Postal Service is famously broke, having suffered 14 consecutive years of financial losses. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy cited these financial concerns as he defended the new vehicle fleet. “Delivering for America, we will continue to pursue the acquisition of additional [battery electric vehicles] as additional funding—from either internal or congressional sources—becomes available,” he said. “But the process needs to keep moving forward.” It’s understandable that a cash-strapped federal agency would be reluctant to overhaul its operations with a more expensive and technically untested electrical vehicle fleet.

Or consider the Commerce Department’s recent initiation of an investigation into Chinese solar manufacturers. That move came in response to a petition filed by U.S. solar manufacturer Auxin Solar, which alleges that Chinese solar interests are circumventing U.S. solar import tariffs by laundering Chinese-produced solar components through other East Asian countries. The investigation has already led to the delay or cancellation of more than 300 solar projects in the United States. At least one coal plant’s closure has been reportedly postponed by the stall in solar deployment. The solar industry and clean-energy advocates have been calling on Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to end the investigation, their exasperation shared by the White House and the Energy Department.

Once again, however, it should not surprise anyone that parts of the solar industry are sensitive to competitive pressure from China or that the federal government would act defensively against one of its two chief geopolitical adversaries. U.S. solar manufacturers have voiced concern about Chinese dumping of solar components onto global markets for over a decade now. And Auxin is not alone in its concerns about Chinese solar sourcing and production. Early in Biden’s term, the White House announced its intent to impose “additional costs on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for engaging in cruel and inhumane forced labor practices and ensuring that Beijing plays by the rules of fair trade as part of the rules-based international order.”

Such intramural inconsistency within the federal government is the rule, not the exception. Take, for instance, the EPA’s recent rejection of a Clean Water Act permit for a mine in Minnesota that would have produced copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum, palladium, and iron. The EPA has thus thwarted the Biden administration’s own invocation of the Defense Production Act to increase domestic mining to materials critical to the clean energy transition. Here again, the priorities of one federal agency wind up blocking the White House’s agenda.

Reasonable people can disagree over the best way to balance climate, economic, local conservation, international trade, and human rights priorities. But they cannot deny that some kind of negotiation is required. (The whole-of-government posture initially welcomed by the climate advocacy community bears a strong resemblance to the “oblique” approach to climate action, according to which policymakers would seek to reduce emissions quietly, through the vestibules and corridors of the sprawling federal bureaucratic apparatus. But to imagine that the imperative to reduce emissions would supersede all other considerations within that apparatus is to misunderstand the nature of obliquity.)

A whole-of-government approach to climate action from the Biden administration was always going to disappoint the fiercest climate hawks, who have called for a “wartime-like mobilization” of national resources to deploy clean energy. But for even the less hawkish, the reality of Biden’s first 16 months should serve as a reminder that, despite some early executive actions and ambitious rhetoric, the federal government will always weigh competing priorities in making decisions about spending, procurement, and personnel.

Advocates for climate policy would do better to focus on harmonizing environmental interests with other interests instead of expecting public officials to play the climate-change trump card every chance they get. Doing so would ensure that the emissions-reducing option satisfies other priorities as well, from economic growth and government functionality to international competitiveness and human rights. Such an approach would include, for example, dropping the essentially toothless emissions-reductions deadlines that climate advocates allege should guide all policymaking.

A realistic climate policy along these lines will not always achieve the largest hypothetical emissions reductions for every possible public decision. But it will focus climate advocates on a pragmatic agenda, instead of one that takes climate change as the central organizing principle of the federal government.

Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images


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