The inaugural convening of the National Climate Task Force on Feb. 11 marked the formal exposition of President Joe Biden’s robust, whole-government approach to the climate crisis. Led by the new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, 21 acting agency heads and other cabinet-level personnel underscored their shared commitment to combatting climate change with the full capacity of the federal government.
During his first month in office, President Biden has taken a forceful approach on climate: recommitting the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement, signing multiple executive orders and appointing two senior-level government officials to help coordinate America’s approach to climate policy. His administration’s renewed reverence for scientific expertise and resurgent interest in climate adaption not only harkens back to Obama-era attitudes about the environment and climate change, but these sweeping measures far surpass even those implemented by the Obama administration.
In addition to federal agencies like the U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation and State, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s role within President Biden’s holistic climate change strategy is also quite prominent. In collaboration with other agency heads, the USDA secretary is a member of multiple, newly established climate change working groups and is also charged with developing a coordinated strategy to conserve at least 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030. USDA must submit a report to the National Climate Task Force within 90 days, making recommendations for an agricultural and forestry climate approach, amongst other initiatives. No longer an ancillary participant, USDA will be a leading player in the Biden administration’s climate change plans.
First steps at USDA
At the federal level, USDA has ample opportunity to expand pre-existing conservation and climate remediation programs, policies and initiatives and to initiate entirely new ones. Based on my experience supporting USDA’s critical missions, the following represent a series of first steps USDA can take within the agency as it more fully shifts its posture toward science, research, mitigation and resilience:
- The Budget and Program Analysis Office — In preparation for the new strategic planning cycle, OBPA can expand upon its 2018-2022 strategic plan by developing clear strategic goals, targets and metrics that demonstrate meaningful conservation and climate-smart outcomes, versus tallying outputs that don’t translate to clear impact on climate change.
- Risk Management Agency — RMA can incentivize cover crops, no-till and other conservation best practices that improve soil health and sequester carbon through the Crop Insurance Program.
- Grant-and-Loan Awarding Agencies — Grant-and-loan awarding agencies can incorporate sustainable, climate-adaptive practices into components of grant and loan programs and expand the emphasis on climate and conservation.
- U.S. Forest Service — USFS can take the lead on envisioning, coordinating and implementing reforestation and conservation programs and initiatives while promoting conservation education through its existing Job Corps program.
- Rural Development — RD can support the bioeconomy through programs such as Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program. It can also consider expanding the Conservation Stewardship Program to support famers’ climate-smart practices.
- Natural Resources Conservation Service — NRCS can continue to develop USDA Climate Hubs, the Rapid Carbon Assessment, Comet Planner, and EQIP to help American farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners better envision and apply adaption, mitigation, research and monitoring techniques.
- Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights — OASCR can provide historical context and expertise to the secretary of Agriculture in meeting the responsibilities associated with their role on the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and ensuring that USDA’s climate-smart policies are equitable and just.
Engaging America’s farmers and rural communities
In concert with federal-level programs and initiatives, President Biden’s recent executive order on tackling the climate crisis mandates that USDA engage a myriad of agricultural stakeholders on how to best to pursue conservation and climate-related goals. This is a key step for USDA to take in order to be successful because of the important role farmers, ranchers and forest landowners play in overcoming the climate crisis. Climate mitigation and adaption strategies centered around farmer perspectives are bound to yield more impactful results in the field.
USDA is likely to find responsive, able and experienced partners in America’s farmers, ranchers and producers. American agricultural workers are uniquely, if not ironically, situated as both root cause contributors to climate change and some of the most vulnerable to its acute and increasingly volatile consequences. Simultaneously, they represent an essential conduit for climate progress, many having sown climate adaption and remediation into their business practices for decades. USDA and America’s large agricultural sector share an opportunity to mobilize in response to a looming climate reckoning that puts American food systems and those who support them in jeopardy.
It is promising to see the Biden administration’s strong commitment to climate change, and to see the prominent role that USDA will play in that effort. By engaging and partnering with agricultural stakeholders and expanding its internal climate and conservation programs and policies, USDA has the ability to achieve meaningful progress on this issue so critical to the nation and the globe.
Peter Makey is an associate with Grant Thornton Public Sector, where he focuses on climate and agricultural issues.