With the 2020 election finally over, the Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to make sweeping changes to American environmental policies and regulations. The question that remains — will the administration champion pro-environmental policies and legislation, or will they reflexively snap back to their neo-liberal ways, cozying up to Wall Street and big business? The litmus test for the Biden administration and its environmental policies comes down to the appointment of Cabinet positions.
As I’ve written in previous columns, the Trump administration proceeded to systematically dismantle much of the regulating power of the Environmental Protection Agency. Biden must now appoint an EPA director who will uphold the responsibilities of the agency, namely enforcing environmental standards, regulations, permitting and monitoring. Additionally, under new leadership, the EPA must reestablish a fair and working relationship with Native communities throughout the United States.
Perhaps the most environmentally significant Cabinet position is the secretary of interior. Under the Trump administration, the Interior Department, along with the EPA, functioned as a rubber stamp for drilling and mining companies seeking permits to operate on federal land. Biden has an opportunity to appoint a secretary of interior who believes in science and the importance of ecologically stable open land and is committed to the department’s charge of working closely with Native Americans, Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians.
Another vital Cabinet position for the environmental cause is the secretary of agriculture. While the Department of Interior manages about 75% of federal and public land, the Department of Agriculture oversees the remaining areas, including the U.S. Forest Service. Additionally, the department supervises laws and regulations relating to farming, ranching, food production and trade. Appointing an individual with vision and a creative approach could usher in a new era of cultivation, preserve what’s left of the American family farm and promote more sustainable food production.
The last of the four key Cabinet positions is the secretary of energy. The Department of Energy regulates domestic energy production, energy conservation efforts, nuclear reactor production and nuclear waste disposal. It also controls the U.S. nuclear weapons program. According to Noam Chomsky, the United States’ most distinguished public intellectual, nuclear war and climate catastrophe are the largest existential threats facing humanity today.
In combination, these four departments control innumerable aspects of the American people’s lives, health, safety and general well-being. Ranging from the quality of the food we eat to the purity of the water we drink and the cleanliness of the air we breathe. The regulations these agencies enforce should be viewed, at least in the abstract, as attempts to protect and promote the quality of life for the American people — not as profit and freedom stifling agendas.
The incoming Biden administration has a great opportunity — to proceed with great initiatives that scientists and environmentalists tell us is needed, or to revert to incrementalism and the all-too-familiar beltway status quo.