Climate 21 Project Creates Blueprint for ‘Whole-of-Government Approach’ to Climate Change
By Jeremy Ashton
Over the last year, the phrase “whole-of-government approach” has become a more common part of the lexicon in Washington policy circles.
Perhaps no problem requires a whole-of-government approach more than climate change. Every part of society and the economy will be touched by it in some way. Consequently, it will affect—and be affected by—every government action.
“Not only does a whole-of-government approach offer a comprehensive way to ensure that all levers are moving toward a climate solution, it’s necessary that it does,” said Tim Profeta, founding director of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “For example, you don’t want the financial regulatory strategy at the SEC to be running contrary to where the government is trying to push the energy transition in other sectors.”
On the campaign trail in 2020, then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden pledged to move quickly to step up the United States’ efforts in the fight against climate change. Four days after national media called the presidential race for Biden in November, a project facilitated by the Nicholas Institute released a blueprint for the incoming administration to take urgent and meaningful action across the federal government starting on Day One.
Bending the learning curve for a new administration
The Climate 21 Project began with a conversation between Profeta and Jeremy Symons, principal at Symons Public Affairs, more than two years ahead of Election Day and well before the presidential field fully formed.
At the time, progress to address climate change had stalled at the federal level or was being reversed by the Trump Administration. However, the impacts of the climate crisis—drought, wildfires, flooding, extreme weather events—are manifesting themselves more and more each day, while the greenhouse gas emissions fueling them continue unabated.
The 2020 election potentially presented an opportunity for a new president to reassert U.S. leadership on climate, both at home and abroad. As Profeta explained, though, every incoming administration faces a learning curve on how to use the tools of government effectively to implement its preferred policies. He and Symons saw that as a hurdle that could be overcome.
“We wanted to bring together the pre-existing knowledge of the federal executive and how it could act expeditiously on climate and put it down on paper so that a new administration could act quickly and decisively with a whole-of-government approach,” Profeta said.
“The thing that really distinguished this was the focused work and planning and resources that began two years out from the election,” Symons added. “People always want to be prepared, but seldom do they take the time that far in advance.”
The process of gathering that knowledge began with recruiting Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, to be the project’s co-chair. Goldfuss brought considerable experience working with various parts of the federal government. Under President Barack Obama, she served first as deputy director of the National Park Service and later as managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), helping to develop and implement the administration’s environmental and energy policies.
With Goldfuss on board, the trio began approaching former government officials to join a steering committee. They were met with an enthusiastic response from a group of individuals often short on spare time.
“People wanted to carve out space to imagine a better path forward,” Symons said. “It was not only important work, but it was also a liberating experience to think about what could be instead of dealing with the day-to-day of what was in front of us at the time.”
In the end, the Climate 21 Project drew on the expertise of more than 150 people with high-level experience inside the government, including nine former cabinet appointees.
A true whole-of-government approach
In an introductory letter to the Biden transition team, Profeta and Goldfuss wrote that the Climate 21 Project did not offer a specific policy agenda. Instead, the project’s recommendations focused on how a newly elected president could use existing federal authorities—with or without congressional action—to build an incoming administration’s capacity for quickly tackling the climate crisis.
The project ultimately delivered a series of memos to the transition team with recommendations for 11 White House offices, federal departments, and federal agencies, as well as government-wide recommendations on personnel and hiring. (A final memo on potential actions by the Department of Defense was published shortly after the inauguration.)
The memos covered departments and agencies most associated with federal action on climate change, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The project, however, also dove into parts of the federal government not typically thought of as being at the vanguard of climate policy (while noting that critical work will be required of others that were not studied). It included memos for agencies as far flung as the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Defense.
“So many of our government’s basic functions have deep implications for carbon emissions and climate change,” said Kate Konschnik, author of a Climate 21 memo on the Department of Justice and director of the Nicholas Institute’s Climate and Energy Program, shortly after the memos were released. “By engaging career staff across the government in the climate project, an administration can activate a whole host of policies, investments, and information resources to achieve each agency’s primary missions while also driving deeper carbon reductions, promoting carbon sequestration, and supporting communities to become more resilient.”
People, not paper
Profeta was quick to note that the Climate 21 memos were one of many positive contributions made to the transition—“They weren’t the Gospel,” he said—and they supplemented the incoming administration’s own thought processes and strategies. The feedback from the transition team was that the memos were useful and pragmatic.
“Because they were steeped in knowledge from experienced hands, they tended to give advice that was more executable and realistic for the administration to be able to do,” he said.
As Biden rolled out his climate agenda during the transition and his first 100 days in office, some of Climate 21’s recommendations came to the surface.
In the words of the Executive Office of the President memo, the “single most important thing” for the new administration to do was create a centralized White House office to coordinate domestic and international efforts on climate change. The memo called for that office to be helmed by “a credible leader on climate policy” with direct access to the president. Biden filled that role in December by appointing former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as the nation’s first national climate advisor to lead the new White House Climate Policy Office.
During his first week in office, Biden issued an executive order laying the groundwork for his climate plans that included Climate 21 recommendations. The National Climate Task Force, chaired by McCarthy, brings together the leaders of 21 federal agencies and departments to work together toward common goals. Biden also placed a focus on environmental justice through creation of the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council.
Examples abound at the individual agency and department level, too. NOAA and the Department of the Defense are among the agencies that have created high-level, internal teams focused on climate responsibilities. The EPA has initiated rulemaking under the Clean Air Act for vehicles and methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. And the Securities and Exchange Commission is moving forward with its own rulemaking to improve disclosure of climate risks by corporations.
While these and other Climate 21 recommendations have been implemented, the legacy of the project may be more about the people involved. More than half the project’s steering committee and several of the memo authors took positions on the transition team or in the new administration. That list includes Brenda Mallory, chair of CEQ; Joseph Goffman, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation; and now-former Nicholas Institute executive in residence Robert Bonnie, who is awaiting Senate confirmation as USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation.
“Our theory of change focused on people not paper,” said Symons. “So many people who contributed to the project ended up being engaged with the transition or the new administration in some form. That certainly helped compared to a report that sits in a pile on a desk.”
Work on this project was funded by the Hewlett Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Linden Trust for Conservation.