For four years, birds and other wildlife have been under attack. The Trump administration has weakened or spiked more than 125 environmental policies, the Washington Post reported recently, including protections for wetlands, Arctic breeding habitat, endangered species, and migratory birds themselves. It has not only dismissed the climate crisis but doggedly pursued an “energy dominance” agenda that has favored extracting planet-warming fossil fuels over other uses of our public lands. Before last week’s election, environmentalists feared that this regulation-slashing spree would only accelerate in a second Trump term.
Instead, American voters chose a new leader with a starkly different vision for the environment and climate. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end new fossil-fuel permitting on public lands, proposed a $2 trillion climate plan with a carbon-free electric grid by 2035, and called for conserving 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by 2030. It remains to be seen if Biden’s actions after his January 20 inauguration will match his campaign rhetoric. And with the Senate still up for grabs—to take control of the chamber, Democrats must win both of the January runoff elections in Georgia—it’s unclear how many of his policy goals he’ll be able to deliver. Conservation advocates are hopeful, however, that Biden will use his executive authority and political experience not only to undo ecological damage inflicted in the Trump era, but to take significant new steps to rein in rising temperatures, protect wildlife habitat, and address environmental injustices.
“Now it’s time to turn promises into progress, with policy solutions and sound investments that cut climate pollution, create millions of good-paying jobs, protect the health of our people, and advance justice and equity for us all,” said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “Now the White House can finally get back to leading the charge against the central environmental crisis of our time.”
Starting on day one, there’s plenty the president-elect can do to confront climate change, the single greatest threat to birds. Biden has pledged to immediately rejoin the Paris climate accord after the United States last Wednesday became the only country to withdraw from the global agreement. He’s also expected to scrap several Trump executive orders—including one that directed agencies to drop climate policies and instead promote fossil fuels—and issue others aimed at reducing emissions and boosting clean energy.
Additionally, Biden has said he’ll end new fossil-fuel permits on all federal lands and waters. Doing so would not only slash emissions from public lands but also reduce threats to birds that live there, such as Greater Sage-Grouse in western oil and gas fields and the millions of waterfowl and other avian inhabitants of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Trump administration is barreling toward the first-ever oil and gas lease sale. (Experts caution, however, that while the president could order a moratorium on federal leasing, only Congress could issue an outright ban.)
Advocates also anticipate action on public-lands conservation. One likely step toward Biden’s stated 30-by-30 conservation goal would be restoring the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which Trump significantly shrank in 2017. Conservation groups also hope Biden will step in to reverse Trump’s recent decision to open 9.3 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, whose old-growth woods are a powerful carbon sponge and home to species found nowhere else, including the Queen Charlotte Goshawk and the Prince of Wales Spruce Grouse.
“After a tense season, the outcome of this election provides a ray of hope and a welcome respite from the relentless attacks on the wildlife and wild places of the last four years,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement. “We look forward with a sober awareness of the work ahead but with optimism and a focused determination to change the direction for wildlife.”
Should Democrats fail to take the Senate, sweeping climate legislation may be out of reach for now, but many advocates are optimistic that—given Biden’s history of across-the-aisle dealmaking and support among voters of all stripes for conservation and clean energy—the president-elect can work with a divided Congress to make meaningful environmental progress. “I like to think that, with reality of climate change setting in for more members of Congress, there will be more of an incentive to do something for communities that are impacted, because they’re impacted in every state, red or blue,” says Nada Culver, vice president for public lands and senior policy counsel for the National Audubon Society. As an example, Culver points to the broad support for using economic stimulus funding to put people to work plugging “orphaned” oil and gas wells that have been abandoned by bankrupt companies and are leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Green groups also hope the new administration will reverse several of its predecessor’s attacks on some of the nation’s core environmental laws. Trump’s agencies are now in court defending several major rollbacks, including weakening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The Biden administration could ask the courts to put those and other cases on hold while it rewrites regulations, says Bethany Davis Noll, litigation director at New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity. “The big picture is that a lot of work on the environment is going to continue to happen at the agency level,” she says. “Their biggest priority would be rewriting these rules.”
A gridlocked Congress in recent decades has driven presidents increasingly to assert their own authority, Davis Noll says, leading to flurries of executive orders and partisan, tit-for-tat policy swings when the White House changes hands. But no president has been as aggressive as Trump in rolling back a predecessor’s policies. In several instances, such as its interpretation of the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration compiled a substantial scientific case for its environmental policies. The Trump administration, on the other hand, often provided little rationale for weakening those rules, Davis Noll says. So, agencies under Biden should be able to quickly rewrite rules based on the Obama-era scientific record. “I see them saying, let’s get back to business,” she says.
For the new administration and for green groups, one focus of those rule rewrites and other policy efforts will be environmental justice. The Biden transition website says he will strive to make sure environmental justice “is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build — creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban, and tribal.” One likely step toward that goal would be reversing Trump rules that significantly weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, historically one of the strongest legal tools for predominantly Black and Indigenous communities, low-income neighborhoods, and other marginalized groups to stop polluting projects or make them less harmful.
But there are still around two and a half months before Trump leaves office, and conservationists are bracing for his administration to push aggressively to undo more regulations in the lame-duck period. Culver says she expects to see the administration push ahead to sell oil and gas leases in the Arctic refuge and in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat, and to continue finalizing a rule to gut the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, despite a recent court ruling that the rule’s underlying legal interpretation is flat-out wrong.
Environmental protection is, of course, not the only pressing issue Biden will face when he takes office. Coronavirus outbreaks are reaching frightening new levels—the country reached 10 million reported cases over the weekend—and confronting the pandemic and its economic fallout will be job one. The new administration is also expected to make early moves on immigration, foreign policy, and racial equity. But after four years under a president who called climate change a hoax, marginalized science, and jackhammered the foundations of American environmental law, conservationists will soon have an ally in the White House. The challenges ahead are great, but so are the possibilities.