Meet Biden's 'climate cabinet': A who's who of 9 senior officials tackling climate change

·8 min read

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the historic nature of EPA administrator Michael Regan's position. Lisa Jackson was the EPA’s first African American administrator from 2009 to 2013, Regan is the second.

WASHINGTON – As congressional Democrats prepare to send the party's sweeping social care and climate plan to President Joe Biden's desk, the administration is marshaling itself to execute key environmental goals.

Biden consistently stresses that climate change is one of his top priorities and part of his presidential mandate. Officials focusing on climate permeate the administration, including Cabinet secretaries and senior advisers who transcend traditional hierarchies.

The administration's climate ambitions have been praised by environmental groups, though climate activists remain skeptical that proposed regulations and laws will be enough to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

"It is a 180-degree change to be working with an administration that has made climate, environmental justice and people's health top priorities," said Abigail Dillen, the president of Earthjustice, a nonprofit group that litigates environmental cases.

Dillen praised Biden's appointments for their experiences on climate issues from the Cabinet level to throughout the administration. Environmental groups, however, also had concerns.

In several cases, the Biden administration has continued litigating policy rollbacks initiated during the presidency of Donald Trump, when environmental policies were cut back significantly.

"It is hard to recover from the damage that was done to the agencies that are charged with protecting us," Dillen said, adding that "political will and resources too often run short in government" when it comes to environmental issues.

In most areas, however, the administration's swift policy reversals have earned praise. As Democrats hope to enact $550 billion in funding for climate transition in their upcoming reconciliation package, environmental groups are optimistic the administration will not only reverse Trump-era policy but advance the climate movement's goals.

"It's not just a matter of undoing the actions of the Trump administration," Dillen said. "It's investing in affirmative reform," across all federal agencies. "Yeah, that's a big job, but it's the premise the president ran and won on."

Biden has sought to link his climate agenda to broader themes of his presidency, including jobs and infrastructure, social justice and economic mobility and democracy promotion.

"We’ll demonstrate to the world the United States is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example," Biden told world leaders during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month.

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"I know it hasn’t been the case, and that’s why my administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words," he continued.

Accompanying Biden to the Nov. 1 conference were 13 senior administration officials, each of whom will be tasked with implementing parts of the president's climate goals.

Yet even in an administration taking a whole-of-government approach to tackling climate change, there are standout leaders and liaisons influencing Biden's agenda. Here are some of the top officials building Biden's climate program:

John Kerry

Kerry serves as Biden's special envoy for climate issues. A former U.S. senator, secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee, Kerry has said his role as special envoy is a capstone to his career.

His office works closely with the State Department and the national security community to negotiate with other countries on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Kerry has visited at least 15 countries, including China, India, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry during the stocktake plenary on day 14 of COP26 at SECC on Nov. 13, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland.
U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry during the stocktake plenary on day 14 of COP26 at SECC on Nov. 13, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Kerry plays at times a difficult balancing act in negotiations with his counterparts in China and other key nations as he strives to represent the Biden administration while not undermining other diplomatic channels, like formal connections through the State Department.

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Gina McCarthy

McCarthy, a former director of the Environmental Protection Agency, serves in a new White House post as national climate adviser, a nod to the centrality of climate in Biden's policymaking. The role is the domestic counterpart to Kerry's foreign policy role.

McCarthy's broad mandate touches issues of economics, environmental protection and national security among other issues, making her White House office a key nerve center in the administration for climate policy.

Gina McCarthy is the Biden administration's national climate adviser.
Gina McCarthy is the Biden administration's national climate adviser.

So far, McCarthy has been a force in crafting Biden's preferred climate policies and negotiating them through Congress.

Her team also includes veterans of the climate movement like Sonia Aggarwal, who co-founded the think tank Energy Innovation, and Maggie Thomas, who served as political director for Evergreen Action, a climate advocacy group.

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Michael Regan

Regan is the second Black head of the EPA who comes to the agency after a lauded term as the top administrator for North Carolina's environmental agency. He earned a reputation as an advocate for environmental justice and public health in that role after helping minority communities affected by toxic spills and improving water quality across the state.

He has said a goal of his tenure is to craft environmental rules that will withstand court challenges or attempted rollbacks by future administrations.

U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan walks through Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Boulder Creek, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.
U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan walks through Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Boulder Creek, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

“We have some lessons learned from past attempts,” Regan told the Washington Post. “We have looked very closely at what has worked and what the courts would not accept.”

Much of Regan's term at the EPA has been spent reforming the agency after it was cut down under the Trump administration. He has, however, expressed greater ambitions for environmental regulations, especially on greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

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Deb Haaland

A former advocate for the Green New Deal, Haaland is arguably the most progressive member of Biden's Cabinet. She is the first Native American to oversee the Interior Department, an agency with a violent history of suppressing Native communities.

Haaland has played an integral role in outlining the administration's plans on clean energy, public lands usage and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Under her leadership, Interior has fast-tracked the construction of wind turbines around the country and pushed to raise the costs of drilling oil wells on federal lands, citing the future cost of climate change.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, speaks at a news conference on July 22, 2021, in Denver.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, speaks at a news conference on July 22, 2021, in Denver.

Jennifer Granholm

As Energy Department secretary, Granholm has turned the agency into a nerve center for climate policy. The department has released goals to rapidly increase the nation's solar energy output and outlined clean energy targets on her watch.

At the U.N. Climate Summit, Granholm outlined a plan to invest in technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere as a solution to climate change. The move is part of the administration's Energy Earthshots Initiative, which will fund new technologies to solve major climate issues.

The department, however, has also been faced with stabilizing energy prices. In November, Biden ordered the department to release 50 million barrels of oil from the country's emergency reserve.

Sen. Joe Manchin and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm arrive at a news conference on June 3, 2021, in Morgantown, W.Va.
Sen. Joe Manchin and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm arrive at a news conference on June 3, 2021, in Morgantown, W.Va.

"Our administration is deeply committed to tackling this existential threat by transitioning to clean energy while, at the same time, making sure that every American has access to affordable energy," Granholm said during a November White House press briefing.

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg has been a major surrogate for the administration, where he often highlights the White House's work on climate within its goals on infrastructure and transportation.

His team at the Department of Transportation includes Christopher Coes, the deputy assistant secretary, who worked for Smart Growth America, which lobbies for sustainable neighborhoods. He's also authored research examining the effect of climate change on American housing.

Buttigieg will soon oversee the largest amount of infrastructure spending the department has ever managed. The secretary has repeatedly contended that the funding will be distributed with an array of climate and environmental issues in mind.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at a session during the COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 10, 2021.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at a session during the COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 10, 2021.

Brenda Mallory

Mallory serves as the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, which coordinates environmental policy between federal agencies. Since Biden took office, the council has worked to undo the Trump administration's role in the National Environmental Policy Act.

The law, which remained largely unchanged for the first 50 years of its existence, was winnowed down under the Trump administration's environmental policies. Biden has sought to restore those powers, with Mallory being a key official in executing on that wish.

A top environmental lawyer, Mallory is the former CEO of the Southern Environmental Law Center and the first African American to hold the White House position. Her mandate also requires her to increase public awareness around environmental regulation and issues affecting their communities, like the risks posed by pollution.

Brenda Mallory is chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.
Brenda Mallory is chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Brian Deese

Deese is the director of the National Economic Council, the White House's center for economic policymaking. Deese, who served in the Obama administration, spent much of his time out of the White House researching the intersection of climate change and economic issues. He now brings that focus and concern to his role as Biden's chief economic adviser.

"The United States must integrate climate risks throughout all relevant aspects of the economy and financial system. And, in doing so, it must meet the moral and economic imperative to rectify decades of disproportionate environmental damage imposed on historically disadvantaged neighborhoods," Deese co-wrote in an October climate report with McCarthy, the domestic climate adviser.

Brian Deese is head of the National Economic Council.
Brian Deese is head of the National Economic Council.

Deese touches all aspects of White House economic policy and has said that climate is central to the crafting of the administration's domestic agenda, including on infrastructure and economic regulation.

Sally Benson

Appointed in November, Benson will oversee climate policy from inside the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

A Stanford University professor, Benson is well known for her work on technologies to recapture carbon from the environment, research she will work to implement from her post in the West Wing.

Benson will work closely with McCarthy, the domestic climate adviser, in her post.

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate change is being tackled by these Biden administration leaders