President Joe Biden’s new national climate adviser may not have the high profile of his predecessor, but observers say Ali Zaidi’s mix of policy and economic chops are just what the administration needs to execute its agenda.
The former White House adviser, Gina McCarthy, had a charismatic style and name-brand recognition—as a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator—needed to build political support for the infrastructure bill and climate-and-tax law known as the Inflation Reduction Act, observers said. With both bills shifting into the implementation stage, Zaidi’s technocratic skills are now critical.
“It was really important to have a very high-profile figure like Gina McCarthy for the first two years” of the Biden administration, said Christy Goldfuss, the former head of the Council on Environmental Quality who worked with Zaidi when both served under President Barack Obama. “But Ali has the right skill set to deliver. He’s a really unique mix—he gets the big picture, but he can also go super deep into the weeds on how things work.”
Alex Flint, executive director of Alliance for Market Solutions, a conservative group pushing for a carbon tax, agreed that Zaidi is the right person for the moment. The infrastructure and climate bills “are now past the founder phase, and it’s time for implementation,” Flint said.
Zaidi has acknowledged that timing is critical, as a failure to get projects built quickly could weaken Democrats politically.
“If we don’t build, if people don’t see us put the steel in the ground and harness the resources that we have, I think that they will have very good reason to be cynical about the goals and commitments we’ve made,” he said during an Atlantic Festival event last month.
Three Core Pieces
Zaidi—who took over for McCarthy in September after serving as her deputy—is a veteran of the Energy Department, White House Domestic Policy Council, and Office of Management and Budget. He also served as New York’s deputy secretary for energy and environment and as an adjunct professor at Stanford University.
Zaidi didn’t respond to interview requests. But at the Atlantic Festival, he described his agenda as encompassing three core pieces.
One is making sure the “programmatic infrastructure” is in place to start spending the $369 million in the climate bill. Another is harmonizing climate action across the administration, in part through new standards. The final piece is ensuring state and local governments are advancing complementary measures.
In a 2020 podcast by Columbia University’s climate school, Zaidi also spoke of his desire to help create clean-energy jobs in communities that have been hurt by fossil-fuel pollution.
“You’re talking about all these really cool jobs and wind and solar [and] where the hell you’re going to hire those people from,” he said. “You’re going to hire them from the same old, same old, or you’re going to create new roads of opportunity into the communities that have been taxed in six different ways from this pollution over the years.”
Some business groups have signaled a willingness to work with Zaidi on those issues. Marty Durbin, president of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said his group has “a great deal of respect for Ali Zaidi and believe he will serve the White House well,” especially on energy security and domestic oil and natural gas production.
Most of Zaidi’s critics take aim at the idea of a national climate adviser, not his fitness for the job.
“This administration has consistently used the climate office to avoid transparency, accountability, and congressional oversight in the decision-making process,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told Bloomberg Law. “There’s no reason to expect that a new czar will change that going forward.”
Zaidi’s Atlantic appearance—along with recent speaking slots at the Aspen Institute, Axios, NPR, and public appearances with Cabinet members like Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg—have helped raise his national profile.
Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, sees Zaidi as an increasingly effective messenger for the Democratic climate agenda.
“Communicating to people what the climate crisis means, and also what the opportunities are, is extremely important,” Sittenfeld said. “And I think Ali communicates those priorities very well.”
Zaidi’s identity as a young Pakistani-American could also help the White House connect with a good slice of the Democratic base, said John Bowman, managing director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. But Bowman also said he expects cabinet officials like Granholm and EPA Administrator Michael Regan to be the primary carriers of Biden’s climate message.
Zaidi also isn’t coming into the job cold, having served on the Biden administration’s climate team since it was founded, according to Bowman.
“I don’t see a dropoff in effectiveness,” he said.
Coordinating With Podesta
An outstanding question is how Zaidi’s responsibilities will overlap with those of John Podesta, who was named senior adviser to the president for clean energy innovation and implementation on the same day that Zaidi became climate adviser.
In a statement, the White House said Podesta will oversee implementation of the climate bill’s clean energy and climate provisions. Nick Conger, a senior advisor in the White House’s climate policy office, said only that Zaidi and Podesta “work in close partnership” to implement the White House’s climate agenda.
Goldfuss, now senior vice president of energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, said she expects the two to blend well together, given Zaidi’s long experience in government.
“That will be a strong partnership as they look at the combination of climate priorities and implementation of the IRA,” she said.