Editor’s note, November 11: This article was originally published in July and has been updated following election results.
In their acceptance speeches on November 7, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris included combating climate change on their to-do list for healing the nation. After a campaign filled with climate change-related policies, committees, speeches, and commercials, the Biden administration has what many experts are calling a mandate to act on the climate crisis.
Before the administration can start making large, meaningful strides in this mandate, however, it will first need to play catch-up, repairing the damage done by the Trump administration. Much of this work will include repealing harmful executive orders, reversing regulations that hinder science, and reinstating research policies, budgets, and advisory boards. It will also include the enormous task of rebuilding public trust in science, restoring a culture of scientific integrity, reviving the morale of discouraged federal workers, reconvincing scientists that public service can be a rewarding and honorable career path, and re-staffing agencies with a new generation of diverse talents and expertise. It will take a lot of hard work, and it won’t all be done by January 21.
But the incoming administration can make progress on all this needed restoration and move forward on the goals outlined in Biden’s clean energy and environmental justice proposal right now: by laying out plans for a new, Cabinet-level Department of Climate. In fact, rumblings about the creation of a “White House office for Climate Mobilization,” similar in structure to the National Security Council, started circulating in early October.
The idea of a high-level executive body focused on climate is not radical. Countries around the world — from Austria to Australia, Pakistan to Portugal — have created dedicated departments or ministries specifically to address climate change threats.
Establishing new Cabinet departments in the US isn’t that unusual either. In fact, more than half of the government’s 15 active departments have been formed in just the past 75 years. But among these executive-level departments and in all the hundreds of federal agencies, not one has a mission solely dedicated to the climate crisis. There isn’t even one with the word “climate” in its name.
To meet the threat of climate change, one of the first actions of the Biden administration and the 117th Congress should be to create a Department of Climate. Its mission would be to mitigate global climate change, reduce America’s vulnerability to climate impacts, build resiliency to the impacts that do occur, and strengthen the nation’s infrastructure by forging a sustainable, thriving, and just economy.
Here are three reasons why the US needs this new agency, how to do it, and why now is the time to start building one:
1) Climate change is a threat to our security — and we need a unified structure to fight it
Climate change is a critical national security challenge that will not be resolved over the course of one administration. In a report published earlier this year, the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Climate and Security identified several major ways in which climate change puts national security at risk. These include: social and political instability due to drought and water stress, damages to military bases and infrastructure from rising seas and increased flooding, and detrimental effects on force readiness and health caused by more frequent heat waves and wildfires.
But perhaps the greatest risk to national security is the fact that climate change threatens our health, social equity, and economy, weakening the nation’s resilience. Current and future climate impacts put our very life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness at risk. It is well past time we defend against such threats.
When the US faced grave security threats in the past, it rose to those challenges by reorganizing the executive branch. For instance, after World War II, Congress enacted the National Security Act of 1947 and it was signed by President Truman. The Act reorganized military and intelligence branches, established the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency, and merged the War and Navy department into what became the Department of Defense.
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security was established, integrating 22 different federal agencies and offices into one unified Cabinet department. In a message to Congress on June 18, 2002, President George W. Bush wrote: “History teaches us that new challenges require new organizational structures. History also teaches us that critical security challenges require clear lines of responsibility and the unified effort of the US Government.”
Although there is currently no one department or agency focused solely on climate change, there are many people spread across the federal government working on climate-related issues. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find an agency that does not already work on some element of climate change: from monitoring current environmental conditions to projecting climate impacts, from creating innovative energy solutions to building climate-resilient communities.
But this legion of civil servants, who have devoted their careers to combating climate change, are fragmented and lack that clear line of responsibility President Bush described as necessary to address critical security challenges. These leading experts could be convened under one broad mission, with the potential for producing unified actions and outcomes far greater than the sum of their disaggregated parts.
Just as the Department of Homeland Security promises “relentless resilience” to attacks against the United States, a Department of Climate could deploy this same mindset, ensuring the US has the foundation it needs to take on the threats climate change poses to this nation and to future generations.
2) Climate change is a threat to our health — and we need dedicated resources to respond to it
In the US, Americans are already experiencing more frequent extreme heat days, increases in wildfires that lead to poor air quality (which likely makes people more susceptible to Covid-19), more severe storms with long-term, devastating health impacts, and longer seasons for disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks. Rising carbon dioxide levels means longer and more severe allergy seasons and less nutritious crops. Not to mention the impact on our mental health.
As the House Select Committee points out in its Climate Crisis Action Plan, “the United States currently lacks a comprehensive national strategy to respond to the health risks and harms of the climate crisis.” Their plan calls for Congress to strengthen such planning, placing much of the burden of action on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, federal health agencies’ ability to focus on climate-related health impacts is currently inadequate. This is in part due to leadership that is dismissive of climate change — and in part because their attention is, understandably, on the Covid-19 pandemic. And the 2018 hurricane season before that, and Zika before that, and Ebola before that. While the CDC and other health agencies are full of experts working to mitigate climate-related health threats, their priorities will always be driven by the next new global health crisis — and by each new administration’s political whims.
A new department would not be completely immune to the same geopolitical winds that tug on other federal agencies’ attention; but a dedicated budget and clear language in its mission mandating action on climate change would better position it against such winds. Instead of each new administration interpreting whether work on climate falls within the scope of an agency’s mission, there would be no question that addressing climate change is within the purview of a Department of Climate.
While there are many offices or divisions across numerous agencies engaged in work related to energy or transportation, these cross-cutting topics nevertheless have Cabinet-level leadership and congressionally determined budgets to ensure their missions are met regardless of who sits in the White House. As with education, labor, or agriculture, we should have a Department of Climate so that our nation always has the clear dedication of resources it needs to concentrate on crucial issues.
The department could take the lead on addressing climate threats to human health — collaborating with the CDC and other health agencies to strengthen, not further tax our health sector — and obviate the seasonal question of whether the US is making climate change a priority or not.
3) Climate change is a threat to equity — and we need to build the capacity to do better
Climate change threatens our health, but it does not threaten it equally. Certain communities are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change, including children, older adults, people with pre-existing health conditions, low-income communities, certain occupational groups, Indigenous peoples, and many communities of color.
As we see with Covid-19, discrimination leads to disproportionate rates of illnesses and deaths from environmental health hazards among Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous peoples.
Climate change does not just exacerbate the impacts of racism, it is also caused by white supremacy, a snake eating its own tail. As Hop Hopkins wrote for the advocacy group the Sierra Club: “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”
And people of color — who, as the writer and podcast host Mary Annaïse Heglar points out, have faced their own existential threats for hundreds of years and have unrivaled experience building activist movements — often do not have enough seats at the table when it comes to developing or implementing environmental policy.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) work to enforce health and safety rules and pursue criminal anti-pollution cases, efforts Biden’s environmental justice plan proposes to strengthen. But even providing more resources to these existing government structures won’t be enough to guarantee meaningful involvement of all people to address climate change. We need to build out additional capacity and create more jobs in the environmental justice field.
One way to do this is by building divisions in the Department of Climate that, in addition to helping the EPA and DOJ prosecute violators of environmental protections, work to prioritize those communities made most vulnerable to climate change and ensure diverse voices are part of the climate solution.
By bringing in more people with social movement-building experience and new voices from communities often unheard, we could accomplish so much more — and more quickly. This is important because the world has a lot of lost time to make up for in terms of fighting climate change and systemic inequity. The threads of these two existential threats are intricately and tragically interwoven; the most effective way to unravel them is to solve them together.
A Department of Climate, not just working for the people disproportionately affected, but made of the people with the most expertise in social justice and the most knowledge of their communities’ unique needs and strengths, would give the US its best chance of implementing creative, long-lasting, and just solutions to climate change.
What the future could hold in the Biden administration
The United States has faced crises in the past, as we do today, and will again. We don’t need to look very far back in history for examples of how effective federal restructuring can provide the means to meet such challenges. Try reading these lines from the 2002 Proposal to Create the Department of Homeland Security with the words “climate change” swapped in to see just how easily a Department of Climate could be proposed:
“Today, no single government agency has
homeland securityclimate change as its primary mission. In fact, responsibilities for homeland securityclimate change are dispersed among more than 100 different government organizations. America needs a single, unified homeland securityclimate change structure that will improve protection against today’s threats and be flexible enough to help meet the unknown threats of the future.”
And the power of a Climate Department would go beyond even its ability to take meaningful, sustained action. It would also signify a new, permanent prioritization of the climate crisis among the country’s top concerns, a move that has been sorely missing. It would be an immediate acknowledgement to millions of voters that the Biden administration is taking their mandate to act on climate seriously. It would be a clear signal to our country’s youth and to the communities most at-risk that they don’t have to take on the entire burden of addressing climate change themselves. And it would be a loud message to the rest of the world that the United States is finally ready to be a leader among the global community fighting climate change.
We have the urgency of the crisis to drive us, the mandate to move us forward, the precedence to guide us, the blueprint to build it, the experts to unify it, and the leaders to enact it— everything we need to create a response commensurate to the size of this huge task.
Allison Crimmins is a climate scientist in Washington, DC, whose research focuses on the impacts of climate change on human health. The views expressed here are her own and do not represent those of her employer.