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Biden Climate Promises Bump Against Bureaucracy’s Grinding Gears

June 30, 2021, 10:01 AM

The agency that manages car shopping for the federal government hasn’t published a promised plan to stock up on electric vehicles.

The Agriculture and Interior departments don’t have a public strategy to employ thousands of young people to address the threat of climate change.

And the Defense Department hasn’t determined how it will use the risk of climate change in military simulations and war gaming.

As President Joe Biden tries to wrangle Capitol Hill and world leaders to take action on climate change, his own administration is missing many of his deadlines to complete items on a lengthy domestic and international climate change to-do list.

Those were deadlines to draft plans—not necessarily to execute them. And there are exceptions.

The president released his climate finance plan and agencies outlined steps to remove fossil fuel subsidies from their budgets, both requests included in Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order on climate change. He made climate change discussions a priority at meetings with global leaders in Europe in June, another item in that order.

But otherwise, Biden’s ambitious climate agenda, like many of his proposals, is running into a harsh reality: The behemoth federal government is slow to change course, even after an election.

Agencies may also need additional funding to achieve the president’s climate change goals after four years of pursuing very different priorities under President Donald Trump. The delays illustrate that Congress isn’t the only obstacle to Biden achieving his climate change goals.

“This is something completely different,” said Michelle Belco, a professor at the University of Houston who studies executive orders. “This changes the whole direction that the federal government is going with regard to climate change.”

Biden directed Cabinet officials “from the beginning” of his presidency to prioritize climate change, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. But her office declined to comment on what the White House is doing to help agencies meet deadlines on specific tasks in the president’s executive orders.

At Home

On a warm day in Michigan earlier this year, Biden zoomed around in an electric version of the Ford Motor Co. F-150, part of the best-selling vehicle line in America.

The self-proclaimed “car guy” gave photographers a visual representation of one of his central promises on climate change—to put more electric vehicles on the road.

But it’s been more than two months since Biden’s deadline passed for the administration to publish a plan for the federal government to stock up on electric cars, which the White House has repeatedly framed as a way to set an example for the country. The White House has not published the plan as of late June, but a spokesperson for the Council on Environmental Quality said it is reviewing a draft.

From the time Biden took office until late May, U.S. agencies ordered more than 400 zero-emission vehicles, according to the General Services Administration, the agency that handles car shopping for the entire federal government. That’s just a fraction of the more than 645,000 vehicles the U.S. government owns or leases, according to a count last updated by GSA in 2019.

GSA is now offering agencies the option to purchase four different Tesla Inc. vehicles, though a spokeswoman didn’t answer whether agencies have bought any. A $300 million fund would be created for the federal government to work on converting its vehicle fleet to electric and zero emission under a House Democratic spending bill released last week.

The Interior and Agriculture departments haven’t published a plan for a civilian climate corps, a campaign promise that the president highlighted when signing a climate change executive order in January. Biden envisions putting Americans to work managing forests and restoring wetlands. He also included the idea in his economic proposal to Congress.

The Agriculture and Interior departments didn’t respond to requests for a copy of the climate corps strategy, which was due at the end of April. Both departments’ budgets include some detail about the idea—and a request for funding to implement it.


The Defense Department missed the president’s May deadline to analyze the security implications of climate change—in part because officials there are waiting on the director of national intelligence’s office to complete an intelligence report on the topic, according to a Pentagon spokesman. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in March that the agency is considering climate change in installation planning, war-gaming, and defense strategies.

The intelligence report was also due at the end of May. A spokeswoman for Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines wouldn’t say whether it is complete. Such an intelligence report can often take officials up to 18 months to write, said Peter Clement, who worked under the director of national intelligence during the Bush and Obama presidencies.

The Defense Department extended the deadline for its security analysis to the end of July, the Pentagon spokesman said, to allow officials to incorporate intelligence from Haines’s team and a United Nations climate report into their strategy. (Agence France-Presse published a leaked draft of the U.N. document June 23.)

Former President Barack Obama tasked the Defense Department with writing a similar analysis. However, the effects of climate change have since grown. Worsening droughts or natural disasters are pushing people to migrate, creating pressures at the nation’s borders, said Alice Hill, who worked on climate change issues at the National Security Council and Department of Homeland Security under Obama.

The Senate also has yet to confirm a slew of the president’s top political appointees at the Defense Department, including officials who manage acquisition, personnel and readiness, and research and engineering. The tight deadline means that career officials are likely being asked to develop a plan that political appointees will need to implement once they’re confirmed, said John Conger, who oversaw environmental policy at the Defense Department during the Obama administration.

“There’s a degree of urgency coming from the White House: ‘Get this stuff done,’” Conger said. “There’s a practical reality coming from the agency, saying: ‘It takes longer than you think it does.’ In the end, it will come out somewhere in the middle.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Courtney Rozen in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at; Gregory Henderson at