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Q&A: Nicholas Institute director on helping the Biden administration kickstart the climate fight

Tim Profeta

courtesy les todd/duke photography
Tim Profeta courtesy les todd/duke photography

Tim Profeta is the director of Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and a co-chair of the Climate 21 project. The Chronicle spoke to him about his recent work writing transition memos for the Biden Administration on tackling the climate crisis.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: What inspired you to start Climate 21, and what is the committee's main mission? 

Tim Profeta: It was the brainchild of sitting around with a friend of mine and musing over the need to act quickly and sensibly on climate in 2021 if the administration is willing to do so. We observed that usually when new administrations come in, they say they have trouble with learning curves and take a while to get up and running. So, could we assemble a project that would harvest knowledge from people who are already in previous administrations and knew how the government works? And we could give a user’s guide to the government that would allow people to fill out the plan with the new administration on climate action. 

TC: What was the process of creating the steering committee and who did you want to have involved? 

TP: My co-chair Christy Goldfuss was one of the first people I approached. She's been chief of staff of the Council of Environmental Quality in the Obama White House, as well as the deputy head of national parks. 

I recruited Christy, and then we wanted to make sure we had experienced hands who have a breadth of experience in different agencies. We wanted to recruit Robert Bonnie from the United States Department of Agriculture. We refer to Joe Goffman who was the leading attorney on climate change in the Environmental Protection Agency. We then recruited Brenda Mallory, who has been the chief counsel at the Council of Environment Quality in the White House. We wanted a diverse array of experience and life experiences on the steering committee. 

We also wanted to recruit people who might have the opportunity to go back into government, so that the work we did would actually be carried into the government by them. I think at this point, ten of our steering committee members are now appointed in the Biden administration, so that was successful. 

TC: You wrote three memos as part of Climate 21: one on the Department of Treasury, one for the Executive Office and one for hiring climate change talent. What did you conclude were the top recommendations for the Executive Branch and President Biden? 

TP: There should be a central office of climate change with a dedicated leader who is there to directly report to the president and they've done that with Gina McCarthy. Then, the White House must create a planning process right out of the gate during the first 100 days of administration. So, getting this strategy in place to then start orchestrating specifically for the four years administration is important. 

TC: How much do you think the United States’ climate fight will depend on executive actions and whether it's really a reliable course when executive actions can be undone within the next term? 

TP: The Climate 21 project was almost entirely focused on executive action, as in what can he do with the powers he already had because we were very much forecasting a very tightly constrained Congress. However, to deal with the climate issue we will need legislative action. 

And then in terms of its durability, there's various types of executive actions to start. A lot of what President Trump did was by executive order which could be easily reversible by the next president. 

But if you do go through a full rulemaking process, that creates the level of durability of rule right from the executive branch. It would take years to overturn by the next president and that somebody would have to have a nonarbitrary reason for doing it.

I think the key to durability is that stakeholders need to come forward and be interested in making a transition away from fossil fuels. Then, there won't be as much pressure to overturn them when another person comes in and wants to reverse course. And I think you're already seeing some of that in business leadership. 

TC: I wanted to move on to the Treasury memo. A lot of students are now interested in sustainable business as well as climate change, which is a hot topic among economics at the moment. What do you think should be Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen's main priorities for climate strategy? 

TP: She is the Cabinet member with the strongest voice on economic policy. One big piece of what the Biden administration does on climate will be an investment strategy as it looks to stimulate the economy. The Biden administration will also be looking into ways of investing in infrastructure. 

Yellen is going to have the strongest voice and some of the greatest capability in the Treasury Department to help design that economic policy agenda. She's also got a great pulpit given who she is to express to the country and political leadership the importance of climate policy. She’s also the head economic diplomat of the United States and as we rejoin [the Paris Climate Agreement] and rejoin the world community.

TC: She previously had voiced her support for a carbon tax or dividend. But what do you think is the actual feasibility of something like that getting passed during the Biden administration? 

TP: I think at the outset here, it’s going to be very difficult for anybody to pass the carbon pricing bill through Congress. It's just the politics aren't there. Interestingly, the politics has arisen on both the right and left, as there are environmental justice concerns about a price line on carbon because it will concentrate pollution in their communities. 

There's one context in which we could even see it in the short term which would be if it's utilized as a way of raising public funds to pay for all the stimulus that we're going to invest in. If we're going to spend trillions of dollars, there’s not many things that can raise a trillion dollars in the toolkit, besides the carbon tax. 

That said, with an internally divided Senate like we have now, I don't see the way. The Biden system will initially try and move on climate change through Congress through stimulus, infrastructure spending, and a regulatory agenda. 

TC: I noticed the emphasis on interagency communication or engagement in both memos, so why are these interactions between agencies so necessary for aggressive climate policy? 

TP: There are places where a regulator could be working with somebody who's creating innovation funding to help develop the technologies that will solve the regulation. 

There are places where the economic policy of the Treasury Department would benefit from coordination with the regulators of the financial markets or the program to reduce emissions in the power sector can only really bring the zero-carbon power to the people using it if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is making sure that they facilitate the power lines that are necessary to get the power there. 

… There are just so many departments that need to move to officially make the transition. And to do that? Those things are divided amongst the authorities across government. So is there needs to be a strong coordinating strategy to make sure that they work in concert sufficiently. 

TC: Your last memo was on hiring talent within the federal government. Why are hiring decisions so important to climate change? 

TP: The hiring memo was one of the last ones we did. As we interviewed all these other agencies in the department, veterans of all of them, one of the most prominent threads was even when memos can have the best policy recommendation, these agencies are so hollowed out right now that they don't have the human capital necessary to execute a good strategy.  

That's why we launched the hiring talent memo. There are a number of authorities available to the Biden administration to hire people in quickly. Usually, we think of federal hiring as a slow bureaucratic process, but there are strategies to get talent to the challenge quickly that we identified.  There's a lot of vacancies left behind. And while that's frustrating in the short term, it's an incredible opportunity in the long term. Because the Biden administration can hire a whole new generation of people to public service to try and take on climate change, and you'll end up with filling the ranks of government with new motivated young smart talent people dedicated to mission and it could become the best thing that's happened to public service in the country. 

TC: Beyond what Biden has already done, what should he prioritize as his next steps against climate change?

TP: In terms of the priorities, it feels good to say that the central recommendations have been strongly considered and executed across the memos. 

There are a couple things I would point to for next priorities.  Evaluating the EPA authorities to get action on three of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the country—the transportation vector, the power sector and the methane emissions—and for each of those, the rulemakings can be revisited. I think the car and methane rules are pretty easy to just reestablish. But he is just beginning the process of how to tackle the power sector, and I think the power sector may be the most important sector. 

It’s the second-largest source of emissions, but most of the climate strategy seems to be electrification of a lot of other sectors so cars will become electric, and building heating and cooling will become electric, et cetera. If you can get the power sector to decarbonize, he can roll those benefits into the other sectors. 

So now the Biden administration has a blank slate, and it has a couple of challenges. One challenge is the reading that they put in the Clean Power Plan seems to be just fine with the Court of Appeals that struck down the Trump rule. But the Supreme Court may be more skeptical, so they want to write a rule that would pass muster with the new control of the Supreme Court. 

Finally, the economic policy proposals that come out of the White House and the Treasury Department are some of the more important things. Through an investment agenda and the infrastructure agenda, it hopefully lowers the barriers to the clean technology getting into the market. The Democrats are in the process of passing the first bill with the rescue package. With his build back better package, Biden needs to design a sustainable investment, and I think this is one of the most important things you can do. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Joe Goffman's name as Joe Kaufman. The Chronicle regrets the error.


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