From First Fuel: Assembling the A-Team with Dian Grueneich 04 May 2021

Last week Energy Efficiency Council CEO Luke Menzel sat down to record episode 41 of the Energy Efficiency Council’s podcast, First Fuel. Luke was joined by Dian Grueneich, Precourt Energy Scholar with Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy. Luke and Dian discuss the detail of the Biden Administration's climate policies, the likelihood of proposed measures passing through Congress, and what the US expects from allies like Australia in the lead up to the next big global climate summit in Glasgow.

This transcript excerpt has been edited for clarity. To hear the entire discussion, listen here, or search for First fuel wherever you listen to your podcasts.

[Luke] Let's start at the high level. We've seen an incredible shift in the US Government's approach to climate from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. President Biden during his campaign took a very clear program of climate action to the election, and he hasn't resiled from doing everything he can to walk the walk as he's worked his way through his first 100 days of government. It's a big agenda. We can't possibly do it all justice, but what stands out for you when it comes to the Biden administration's climate policy agenda?

[Dian] We have a very famous play here called Hamilton. And there's a well-known song that sort of reverberates throughout. I'm not throwing away my shot. To me that crystallises how President Biden is approaching climate. None of us really knew where he would come out. President Obama was good, but it wasn't his top priority. Similarly it hasn’t been Biden’s driving force over the course of his career.

But the thing I think he realises - as bad as our split is now with the US Congress - it could get worse. We're going to have our next round of elections at the federal level in 2022, and the Democrats might lose their advantage in Congress. So, he knows things may get harder if he waits.

He also really believes in taking big bold steps. That's what he's convinced will work with the public, like on the vaccinations. When he came in, he pledged to have 100 million done within the first 100 days; in fact, he got 200 million done. And he's hugely popular for that. So he really sees these big bold steps matter. He believes the climate science, and he's trying to couch his policies, on climate in particular, on the business side, economic side, and the labor side. And that's really a sweet spot, he thinks, for getting the political support.

What I would say about him is, first of all, is he has assembled the A-team - the A+ team - on climate and clean energy. He has our new presidential envoy, John Kerry, and then the domestic czar is Gina McCarthy. Then he has at every level, running our departments in the cabinet, these hugely knowledgeable people. And they know the science, they know their area, but also, many of them have worked in Washington. So that means they know how federal government works and they have worked together before. So he didn't waste sort of the first month or two, getting everyone up to speed - he was ready to go. He issued a very important executive order on January 27, which laid out his basically where he's going. So there was no time loss, he's got a great team.

The other thing that he's done that's quite different is he describes climate as being something that's central to foreign policy, and domestic security. And that, again, is looking at it in a different way. And he talks about that it’s all of government. And so when you see his orders, it's not just for our traditional energy agency or environmental agency, but every single agency that has to come up with what they're going to be doing on climate. So a lot of the things that he will rely upon, let's do retrofits in our buildings, let's get electric vehicles out there, we know that that's what we have to do. But I'd say the zest with what he's doing, the expertise with what he's doing, and the comprehensiveness - that's really new here in the United States.

[Luke] Obviously, there's a big domestic agenda, but there's also a global role for the US. And on that count, the US has stepped up in emphatic fashion at last week's Climate Leaders Summit. I know you watched it with interest, what were your key takeouts from the summit?

[Dian] Well, as everyone says, the US is back. I think there was a sigh of relief. You know, he made it so prominent and he had the summit, so quickly. He could have waited, and just shown up in Glasgow, which is the next Conference of the Parties in in November.

Inevitably, our credibility is mixed until they see action on the domestic side. That's why Biden appointed Gina McCarthy to focus on domestic action and John Kerry to handle international climate diplomacy, so they could work hand in hand.

And he also, President Biden released our new NDCs, national determination of our emissions. What we did in the United States last week is we essentially doubled our commitment to how much we will reduce our emissions by 2030. And so that was a big step forward to say we're not just back in, but really in very seriously.

The other thing I would say is the way that this summit was organized, it was obviously leaders around the world, but it was also bringing in business and labor and the younger generation to build this support for saying we have to move ahead, and we have to move ahead really quickly. So I think that overall, the folks in the Biden administration are quite pleased with how it went.

There were a few technical glitches, but the fact they pulled it off really well, I think people feel really good that this was a major step forward.

[Luke] Dian, it wouldn't be a multi-person zoom call, if there wasn't the odd technical glitch.

[Dian] We're all still mastering zoom, I guess the federal government is too!

[Luke] Ah, I found it endearing.


Dian Grueneich is the Precourt Energy Scholar with Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy.

Connect with Dian on LinkedIn.

This article was originally published in the May edition of Efficiency Insight.