Climate 21 Project: Transition Memo for USTR



Christy Goldfuss | Tim Profeta | Kristina Costa | Jeremy Symons | CLIMATE 21 PROJECT

Executive Summary

Climate change is unique among the issues facing the President, because both the effects and the policy solutions to the challenge defy neat categorization. Climate change is already or will soon affect every sector of the economy, every community in the nation, and every nation in the world. Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and helping communities adapt to the unavoidable impacts already baked into the system requires domestic investment, rulemakings, and policy changes, as well as robust international diplomacy to incentivize other countries to also raise their ambitions. That means that every agency in the federal government has some degree of responsibility in addressing climate change—and so does every policy council in the White House.

This diffusion of responsibility can all too easily lead to confusion, turf battles, and inaction. When everyone is partially responsible, no one is ultimately in charge. And despite the increasing political salience of climate change to voters—particularly young people—the long time horizon for seeing results from many climate policies, not to mention the political and technical complexity of many climate solutions, means that the issue can all too easily be put on the back burner when a White House is faced with multiple urgent crises, like a global pandemic and a historic recession.

That is why the single most important thing a new White House must do is commission as Assistant to the President (AP) an experienced, respected Counselor or Senior Advisor who is 1) a credible leader on climate policy, 2) who sits in the West Wing and 3) who has direct access to and is trusted by the President of the United States, to lead the Administration’s domestic and international efforts on climate change. When there has been a single, forceful actor with the mandate to lead the President’s climate agenda, the White House has historically been able to organize the federal government to effectively address climate change. When that position has not been filled or has not been appropriately empowered, it has been appreciably harder to make progress. 

While it is necessary to appoint and empower an AP to lead on the climate agenda, it is not sufficient. There are other important White House organizational changes needed to create an integrated domestic and international vision and provide sufficient staff resources. In addition to being led by an AP for Climate, as described above, a new administration must ensure that the White House structure meets the following criteria:

  1. Staff resourcing. The White House must have the staff capacity and credibility to manage a whole-of-government climate effort. In addition to the AP position, the White House should have at least one Deputy Assistant to the President for Climate and Energy (DAP); three Special Assistants to the President for various climate functions, including one SAP dual-hatted to the National Economic Council, one dual-hatted to the National Security Council, and one dual-hatted to the Council on Environmental Quality; and further non-commissioned FTE climate staff to support the President’s climate agenda.
  2. Policy council buy-in. The White House climate structure must create buy-in and serious engagement on climate across all White House policy councils, and facilitate effective collaboration, including through the dual-hatted SAPs.
  3. Robust non-policy support. The White House must integrate the ongoing work of the climate team across non-policy offices, including Legislative Affairs, the White House Counsel’s Office, Communications and Digital, Cabinet Affairs, and the Presidential Personnel Office.
  4. Regular interagency engagement. The White House climate structure must formalize an all-of-government approach to climate change, with senior White House staff engaging regularly with senior agency leadership to develop an ambitious climate agenda, monitor implementation, and continually identify opportunities to increase ambition.

To meet these essential criteria, the President should:

  • Issue an Executive Order to create a National Climate Council that is co-equal to the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council to organize and drive White House and Administration actions. (Day 1)

For too long, climate policy has been sidelined as solely an environmental issue in the minds of many political operatives and elected officials. In the past, the core White House staff dedicated to domestic emissions reduction and energy transition policies have been grouped in the Domestic Policy Council, with additional support from CEQ and small numbers of domestic climate and energy staff at NEC and OSTP. In the absence of strong AP level leadership outside the DPC, it can be challenging for the DPC staff to coordinate activities with other policy councils or to get the leadership-level attention necessary for Presidential approval of policy initiatives or decisions. A DPC-led climate team can also struggle to plug in effectively to international climate policy led by the NSC, hamstringing both domestic and international progress.

Given the urgency of climate change, a new administration cannot allow these structural challenges to continue inside the White House. Creating a National Climate Council by Executive Order, just as the NEC and DPC were created by Presidents Clinton and Carter, respectively, would elevate climate change as an issue worthy of sustained, national policymaking and communications. It would also create a consistent organizational mechanism for climate change policy in the White House from year to year. In line with the above criteria, the NCC should be led by the Assistant to the President for Climate and staffed by the DAP for Climate Change and Energy, with at least three SAPs, dual-hatted to the NEC, NSC, and CEQ, and at least eight to ten further FTE staff as a starting point. Additional FTE positions on the NCC can be filled using flexible hiring authorities available to the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

It is important to emphasize that creating an NCC is not sufficient to deliver an effective, empowered White House climate team. In particular, an NCC that did not meet the four criteria above—for example, an NCC whose Director sits in the EEOB rather than the West Wing, an NCC without clear authority to drive both domestic and international climate policy, or an NCC that is not directly integrated into the other policy councils via double-hatted senior staff—would be less effective than a more informal structure that meets those criteria. If the President declines to create an NCC, these minimal staffing requirements—including the AP, DAP, and dual-hatted SAPs—are still essential to building a robust climate policy apparatus in the White House. The AP must be empowered to lead the integrated domestic and international climate agenda, and to draw on staff capacity from all the policy councils, along with functional offices like Communications and WHCO.

  • Launch a 90-day, Cabinet-level effort to craft a Climate Ambition Plan designed to hold the Administration accountable in meeting the President’s stated goals—and go further. (Day 1)

The next administration will need to set ambitious goals; design and implement policies that will put the United States on a path to achieving net-zero emissions no later than mid-century; and restore the U.S. to a position of global climate leadership that incentivizes increasingly strong climate commitments from other major emitters.

In order to translate those goals and other important policy priorities into a governing plan that will hold the Cabinet accountable for achieving results in a timely manner, the next administration should revive the successful Climate Action Plan approach from the second term of the Obama-Biden Administration. Specifically, at the same time the NCC is created, the President should launch a 90-day Cabinet-level task force to write and publish a new, four-year Climate Ambition Plan, containing within it specific, agency-by-agency actions on greenhouse gas mitigation and the clean energy transition, climate change adaptation and resilience, and international climate diplomacy and development. The AP for Climate should be tasked with driving the 90-day process and, after its completion, with ensuring every responsible Cabinet agency delivers against the policies included in the Climate Ambition Plan. The 90-day process to develop a Climate Ambition Plan should be launched whether or not an NCC is created.

  • Embed key aspects of the climate change agenda in other White House policy councils and functions, including CEQ, NSC, OSTP, OMB, CEA, and cross-functional offices like Communications, Cabinet Affairs, Legislative Affairs, OPE, WHCO, and PPO. (Day 1 and ongoing)

Even if a National Climate Council is created, other policymaking councils and cross-functional offices still will play critical roles in furthering an ambitious climate agenda. Appropriate staff from those councils and offices should be consistently included in NCC meetings and policy planning. As detailed later in this memo:

• The Council on Environmental Quality is best suited to elevate environmental justice to the White House and to lead the agenda on climate change resilience, in addition to its statutory responsibilities for NEPA and historic responsibilities for managing conservation and species issues.

• The International Economics deputate should be re-established within the NSC, with a climate-focused directorate led by a senior director (a SAP dual-hatted to the NCC) and team of two to three director-level positions, to work with the State Department and other key agencies on international negotiations and coordinate climate inputs into the President’s bilateral and multilateral engagements.

• The Office of Science and Technology Policy urgently needs to be re-empowered to support federal climate science and clean energy innovation in the U.S. and internationally.

• The Office of Management and Budget can and should be a stronger partner to federal agencies on climate policy. Senior political staff at OMB and its sub-agencies and offices, notably OIRA, should clearly understand that supporting the President’s climate agenda is a central part of their mandate. In terms of budget, OMB must prioritize securing the increased funding for climate and clean energy investments that should be integral to any COVID-19 economic stimulus package, and for implementing the Climate Ambition Plan. The OMB budget process is addressed in more detail in a separate memo.

• Cross-functional offices, including the White House Counsel’s Office, the communications shop, and the Presidential Personnel Office, should have staff who are dedicated to working on the climate portfolio and empowered to support ambitious activities.

Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is unusual among EOP offices, in that it has the strongly outward-facing role of overseeing trade negotiations directly with other countries and working with the World Trade Organization (WTO) system. U.S. leadership of the global trading system has long allowed it to shape the international trade agenda so that it advances U.S. commercial and economic interests. Given the substantial impacts of climate change on the economy, USTR should more fully integrate climate change considerations into its work and encourage other countries and the global trading system to do the same.

USTR has traditionally had a robust structure on trade and environment, with an Assistant USTR for Environment who oversees negotiations on environment chapters in free trade agreements, WTO agenda items and WTO plurilateral agreement negotiations, trade and environment discussions at the UNFCCC and in other forums, and evaluation of trade barriers that arise out of environmental and climate policies. While the office retains a senior professional team on environmental issues, the previous administration had a limited focus on environmental issues, particularly on climate issues. USTR should dedicate greater staff resources with climate and trade expertise, and the U.S. Trade Representative should recognize climate and environment as key aspects of a 21st century trade regime.

USTR regularly coordinates with agency counterparts at the staff level through its Trade Policy Staff Committee (TPSC) and at policy levels through the Trade Policy Review Group (TPRG), works closely with its oversight committees in Congress, and seeks input from stakeholders, affected industries, workers, and NGOs, particularly through its cleared advisors process. USTR can enhance these relationships by adding in climate-specific agendas to better understand opportunities and challenges on the intersection of trade and climate issues.

USTR has a number of programmatic opportunities to advance climate and environmental policy within the context of trade. USTR and U.S. trade agencies—including the Departments of Energy, State, Transportation, Commerce, Treasury, and the EPA—should consider incorporating trade negotiating objectives for emissions mitigation, climate resilience, or other climate objectives in the context of bilateral and regional FTAs under negotiation. Against the backdrop of broader U.S. trade policy, and similar to efforts by the previous administration to negotiate “digital trade” agreements, USTR could also seek to negotiate targeted climate-specific trade agreements or arrangements, rather than comprehensive FTAs, that focus on specific climate concerns, such as trade in climate-related goods, enforcement of relevant multilateral environmental agreement provisions, and border adjustments to level the playing field.

Within the context of the WTO, the new administration could consider plurilateral agreements related to climate goals, e.g., with respect to fossil fuel subsidies, environmental goods, and other achievable trade-related climate objectives, as well as including climate-related consultation provisions in ongoing negotiations on e-commerce or fisheries subsidies. USTR can also work with Congress and within the administration on domestic WTO-consistent measures to ensure a level playing field and prevent cross-border carbon leakage such as border tax adjustments.

USTR can also work internationally with like-minded countries, to develop a consistent and plurilateral approach to prevent carbon leakage.

To view all the recommendations of the Climate 21 Project, please click here


Christy Goldfuss is the former Managing Director at CEQ, and former Deputy Director of the National Park Service.

Tim Profeta is a researcher at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. 

Kristina Costa is the former Advisor to the Counselor to the President Jeremy Symons and former Climate Policy Advisor at EPA.

Jeremy Symons is the former Climate Policy Advisor at EPA.

To download the full report, please click here.