WASHINGTON – This past week, President Joe Biden announced that Ms Lael Brainard, the vice chair of the United States Federal Reserve who is known for citing the financial risks posed by climate change, would become his top economic adviser.
Her appointment follows that of Mr Richard Revesz, an environmental lawyer and an academic who is known for defending climate regulations, who last month became head of the White House’s top regulatory office – a place that has historically been viewed as the place where environmental controls go to die.
The appointments to two of the most powerful posts in the White House underscore how Mr Biden has pursued an “all-of-government” approach to climate change, appointing people with backgrounds in climate policy to senior positions across federal agencies.
It also illustrates his intent to use executive action to address global warming in the last two years of this term.
“This is a new thing that we’ve seen from the Biden White House as they have made climate central to their economic recovery and regulatory agenda,” said Mr Jamal Raad, executive director of climate advocacy group Evergreen Action.
“Putting people in positions of power that are not traditionally climate positions who deeply understand the climate crisis and the need to act on it.”
The White House did not respond to requests to interview Ms Brainard or Mr Revesz.
The timing of their appointments is not a coincidence.
While Democrats in Congress passed the nation’s first major climate law last year, the midterm Republican takeover of the House of Representatives means it is unlikely that new environmental legislation will be enacted in the remainder of Biden’s first term.
That leaves the President with executive authority as a way to push through the rest of his climate agenda.
That will entail the oversight of about US$370 billion (S$494 billion) in new spending on climate and clean energy programmes provided by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.
It will also mean writing new climate regulations, intended to ratchet down emissions from cars, lorries, power plants and oil and gas wells.
In some ways, Ms Brainard’s appointment as head of the White House’s National Economic Council, where she is expected to play a key role in the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, is a continuation of the way in which Mr Biden views climate change as central to economic policy.
Her predecessor on the council, Mr Brian Deese, was previously a senior climate change adviser to former President Barack Obama.
The appointment of Mr Revesz to his new post, however, is pathbreaking.
The Office of Internal and Regulatory Affairs, an obscure but powerful agency within the White House, is designed to vet all proposed federal regulations and balance the demands of protecting health, safety and the environment against the cost to industries.
In his new role, Mr Revesz becomes the effective gatekeeper for all new federal regulations – including any new climate rules, many of which he has spent his career supporting.
That is exactly what opponents of Mr Biden’s climate agenda fear.
“For folks who want to litigate against the Biden administration, this is bad news,” said Mr Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University.
Mr Frank Macchiarola, senior vice-president for policy and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for oil and gas companies, said he feared that Mr Revesz “will approach this through the lens of an advocate, as he did in his prior work, and not as an objective regulator”.
Mr Revesz, who grew up in Argentina and who is known as Ricky to everyone from his law students to his legal opponents, came to the White House from his role as an environmental law professor and dean emeritus at New York University (NYU) Law School.
He is also the co-founder of an NYU-affiliated think-tank, the Institute for Policy Integrity, which is known for its innovative approach to analysing the costs and benefits of environmental regulations.
He played a key behind-the-scenes role in legal challenges to former president Donald Trump’s dismantling of clean air and water rules.
Historically, such cost-benefit analyses of regulations have been based on the current economic cost to polluting industries.
But Mr Revesz has argued that regulations – particularly those related to climate change – should also take into account the cost of pollution on future generations.
That approach can be used to justify strong climate regulations.
Mr Revesz, 64, may be the first head of the White House regulatory office who is steeped in both the nation’s premier scientific assessment on climate change and its potent legal power for defending environmental regulations.
When the Trump administration, despite its zeal for rolling back environmental regulations, was forced to release the 2018 National Climate Assessment, a sweeping report by 13 federal agencies that describes the devastating impact of climate change on the nation’s economy, Mr Revesz spotted the legal implications of the document.
“This report will be used in court in significant ways,” he said in an interview at the time.
“I can imagine a lawyer for the Trump administration being asked by a federal judge, ‘How can the federal government acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, and then set aside the rules that protect the American people from the problem?’”
That expertise later put Mr Revesz on Biden’s shortlist to head the Environmental Protection Agency and on his transition team for the agency.
In her tenure on the Federal Reserve, Ms Brainard, 61, gained notice as she called on regulators to make sure the financial institutions that they oversaw were considering the financial hazards posed by extreme weather, wildfires, drought, destruction and migration caused by climate change.
In 2019, Ms Brainard spoke about “Why Climate Change Matters For Monetary Policy And Financial Stability” at the Fed system’s first climate conference.
Held by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the event was a watershed moment for a non-partisan central bank that had been hesitant to speak about the often-politicised issue of climate.
Ms Brainard’s speech at it was seen as a particularly big deal, given her prominent position.
“That 2019 event, where she was the key speaker, was really the first time the leadership talked about it,” said Ms Sarah Dougherty, a former staff member at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and is now at the Natural Resources Defence Counsel, an advocacy group.
“It wasn’t hidden, it wasn’t subtle, it wasn’t about ‘the weather’.”
In the time since, the Fed has begun to develop climate stress scenarios for the banks it supervises.
In 2020, it added detailed climate change risks in its twice-yearly financial stability report.
“She was instrumental in building on that 2019 speech,” said Dr Glenn Rudebusch, a former San Francisco Fed economist who helped to organise the event.
People who have watched her in her current role said that Ms Brainard, an economist by training, would bring a depth of knowledge and an appreciation for the real-world effects of climate policy to the White House. NYTIMES