Joe Biden launches climate and jobs programs — but no new pollution-cutting goals

/ Justine CalmaJoe Biden speaks at a podium with one hand raised

US President Joe Biden addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 19th, 2023.
Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration launched new climate funding and jobs programs today as world leaders — minus Joe Biden — gather for the Climate Ambition Summit in New York. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $4.6 billion in new funding for state, local, and tribal clean energy programs. Plus, details have finally emerged for a long-awaited American Climate Corps.

But Biden is expected to skip the United Nations climate summit today, a conspicuous absence since UN Secretary-General António Guterres stipulated that leaders present “credible, serious and new climate action” in order to participate. Biden, who came to New York this week for the UN General Assembly, is reportedly sending climate envoy John Kerry to attend the summit in his place.

Today, the EPA announced two new grant competitions for “programs and policies that cut climate pollution, advance environmental justice, and deploy clean energy solutions across the country.” One will be for Indigenous tribes and territories. The other is to fund states and local governments. Taken together, the $4.6 in competitive grants are less than the $7.5 billion the Biden administration is spending on deploying EV chargers.

The Supreme Court hampered the EPA’s efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants last year, which had been a major pillar of the Biden administration’s efforts to hit climate goals. Under the Paris climate accord, Biden has pledged to slash US greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. But the Supreme Court decided the EPA, as a regulatory body, doesn’t have the authority to determine whether the US gets its electricity from clean or dirty sources of energy — that would require new legislation.

With a divided Congress and a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, the Biden administration is leaning more on state and local actors to help the US hit its climate goals. “Tackling the global climate crisis requires partnerships and action across the country,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a press release. “By investing in America, we’re investing in communities so they can chart their own paths toward the clean energy future.” 

To build up the workforce needed to get more clean energy online, the Biden administration is taking executive action to launch a new American Climate Corps today. It’s a training program for careers in clean energy and conservation that activists have been pushing Biden to create for years. The corps will recruit 20,000 people during its first year, White House officials said in a press call yesterday. They launched a website today where people interested in joining can “learn more.” But they’ll have to wait to sign up until an official recruitment website is up and running in “the coming months.”

Other key details are still lacking. The Biden administration didn’t answer reporters’ questions about how much money will go into the program or where it will get the funds. “All American Climate Corps programs will be paid experiences,” a White House fact sheet says.

A new Forest Corps will be “the first major interagency partnership” under Biden’s American Climate Corps, according to the fact sheet. It’s a $15 million five-year partnership between the US Forest Service and AmeriCorps, a federal agency and network of service programs. The plan is to pay 80 young adults roughly $15 an hour next summer and train them in fire prevention, forest management, and “climate resilience” projects.

Separately, Arizona, Utah, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Maryland launched state-based climate corps programs today with public-private partnership funding. They join five other states that already have their own local climate corps programs.

Thousands of climate activists targeted Biden with protests in New York City this week urging the US, the world’s biggest oil and gas producer, to end fossil fuel development. Yesterday, 17 heads of state signed onto a joint statement calling for “a global phase out of fossil fuels.” That includes French President Emmanuel Macron, President William Ruto of Kenya, President David Kabua of the Marshall Islands, and other leaders who have joined the High Ambition Coalition.

While those are big demands, they’re backed by science. The Paris climate accord commits countries to stopping global temperatures from rising much higher than they already have since the Industrial Revolution. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels need to peak by 2025 and reach net zero by 2050 to stop global warming in its tracks at 1.5 degrees Celsius, researchers have found.

It’s a threshold beyond which climate change-fueled disasters would grow markedly more severe, potentially wiping out virtually all the world’s coral reefs and inundating tens of thousands more people’s homes with sea level rise. Avoiding that outcome requires phasing out fossil fuels, climate research shows.

The author of this story was previously a member of Public Allies and Jumpstart, corps programs that are part of the AmeriCorps network.