Climate Change > Speaking Sustainability > The Biden-Harris Administration’s “Whole of Government” Approach to Combating Climate Change: Who You Heard From at the Climate Leaders Summit
26 Apr '21

President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate has wrapped up. The event saw world leaders highlighting their countries’ respective climate commitments, calling for collective action, and attending breakout sessions designed to foster dialogue around climate finance and technological innovation, among other topics. After Vice President Harris and President Biden opened the summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered further introductory remarks before the trio joined Climate Envoy John Kerry at a horseshoe-shaped table to watch speeches from the world leaders in attendance. Then fifteen additional cabinet heads, political appointees, and special advisors spoke or moderated sessions during over the next two days. These U.S. officials comprise the core leadership team tasked with implementing the administration’s “whole of government” climate strategy. Below, we introduce these key members in the order in which they first appeared during the Summit, and project the role each will play in the “whole of government” approach.

Antony Blinken, Secretary of State

After beginning his career in private law practice, Blinken embarked on a two-decade career in foreign policy service and leadership. He was a National Security Council staffer throughout President Clinton’s two terms then served for six years as Democratic Staff Director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the Obama presidency, Blinken was Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President, then Deputy National Security Advisor, and finally Deputy Secretary of State to John Kerry. Before returning to head the State Department in January, Blinken co-founded a political consulting firm and joined a small investment firm. As the United States’ chief diplomat, Blinken has a broad portfolio that goes far beyond climate change, but will remain deeply engaged on the topic due to the Biden-Harris administration’s perspective that climate is an essential aspect of foreign policy.

John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

Kerry is the head of the United States’ international-facing climate efforts, and appeared throughout the Summit in a sort of host’s or moderator’s role. Sworn in on the first day of the Biden-Harris administration, he serves as the first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and is the first-ever Principal entirely dedicated to climate change to sit on the National Security Council (NSC). Kerry comes to the position with substantial international credentials, having served as President Obama’s second Secretary of State, and negotiated the Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States officially rejoined in February.

For a quick look at key players on Kerry’s international diplomacy team, see our blog post here.

Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury

Yellen spent her early career in academia as a faculty member of the economics departments of Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1994, President Clinton appointed Yellen to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, then named her Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. In 2004, Yellen was chosen to serve as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the first woman to hold the positions. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed her Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve, before nominating her as the central bank’s chair in 2014. After leaving the Fed in 2018, Yellen was a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council. The first woman to lead the Treasury Department, Yellen will oversee the agency’s recently announced Coordinated Climate Policy Strategy and new Treasury Climate Hub to support and expand on its work connected to climate transition finance, climate-related economic and tax policy, and climate-related financial risks. In Yellen’s remarks during the Summit, she emphasized the need to “foster the growing market demand for climate-aligned investments.”

Brian Deese, Director of National Economic Council

Deese began his career in the think tank space, focusing on economic policy issues. At the outset of the Obama administration, Deese served as a special assistant to the president for economic policy, with a seat on the National Economic Council (NEC). After playing an instrumental role in the auto industry crisis, during Obama’s second term, Deese was Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget and then Senior Advisor to the President, playing a significant role in negotiating the Paris Climate Agreement. Over the past four years, Deese led BlackRock’s sustainable investing team before President Biden asked him to return to the NEC as its director. Deese and the NEC will focus on workforce disruption and shifts related to efforts to combat climate change. At the Summit, Deese did not moderate a panel or offer remarks, but sat to Secretary Yellen’s right during the climate investment session.

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture

Vilsack previously served in numerous political positions in Iowa, including mayor, State Senator and as a two term Governor. In 2009, President Obama nominated him to be Secretary of Agriculture, a position he would hold for Obama’s entire presidency. Vilsack was President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council when Biden recalled him to his former post. As Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack oversees the agency’s contribution to climate assessments, analysis of adaptation and mitigation options, cost-benefit analyses, and financial support and other tools to support sustainability initiatives in agriculture, forests, grazing lands and rural communities. Vilsack hosted a breakout session on adaptation and resilience, and spoke of the critical role of farmers, ranchers, and forest managers in those efforts.

Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security

Mayorkas began his government service in the Department of Justice, where he served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Central District of California (Greater Los Angeles). After nearly nine years as a federal prosecutor, President Clinton appointed him to run the Office, where he oversaw highly significant prosecutions, including of environmental crimes. During the Obama administration, Mayorkas served as the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2013, then as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from 2013 to 2016. Mayorkas was in private law practice when Biden asked him to return to lead DHS. As head of DHS, Mayorkas oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the federal response to severe climate events. Mayorkas used his remarks at the start of the adaptation and resilience breakout session to announce the creation of a DHS Climate Change Action Group, highlight FEMA’s just-issued request for information on how it can ensure that its programs advance equity and increase resilience, and discuss the ongoing electrification of DHS’s vehicle fleet.

Michael S. Regan, EPA Administrator

Regan began his career as a staffer in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation in 1998, where he worked for 10 years. Regan then joined the Environmental Defense Fund, ultimately becoming the associate vice president for clean energy and a regional director. From 2017 to 2021, Regan served as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, where he launched the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Board, developed the state’s Clean Energy Plan, and oversaw one of the largest cleanups of coal ash in the country. In early March, Regan returned to EPA as administrator, and Regan hosted a breakout session concerning the role of subnational and non-state actors (cities, states/regions, and indigenous groups) in advancing climate ambition and resilience on the ground.

For a more extensive dive into Regan and other key EPA officials, see our alert here.

Lloyd J. Austin III, Secretary of Defense

Austin had a 41-year career in the U.S. Army, retiring with the rank of General in 2016. During the Obama administration, Austin served as Commander of U.S. Central Command, Vice Chief of Staff for the Army, and Director of the Joint Staff. The Pentagon has called climate change a national security issue and Austin will manage the climate footprint of the largest branch of the federal government. In his remarks at the Summit, Austin described the climate crisis as an “existential” threat and a “profoundly destabilizing force” for the world and offered examples of the financial and readiness cost of natural disasters on the U.S. military.

Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence

Early in her career, Haines worked in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser and as Deputy Chief Counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s democratic members. During the Obama administration, she served in the White House Counsel’s office and later as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After leaving the White House, Haines held several posts at Columbia University, including deputy director for the Columbia World Projects initiative. Haines remarks at the Summit detailed why the U.S. intelligence community views climate change as an urgent national security threat and how climate-related intelligence gathering can shape national policies.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Representative to the United Nations

Thomas-Greenfield spent a long career in the U.S. Foreign Service, before serving in a series of appointed positions. during the Obama administration, including as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. After stepping down from that role in March 2017, she became a non-resident fellow in African Studies at Georgetown University. Thomas-Greenfield now serves as Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) and announced recently that the U.S. had joined the U.N. Group of Friends on Climate and Security. Thomas-Greenfield hosted a breakout session on climate security, urging coordination among the defense ministers and other officials participating in the session to prevent conflict caused by climate change and turn the security threat “into a shared economic opportunity.”

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior

Haaland served as a tribal administrator at San Felipe Pueblo and was the first woman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, overseeing business operations of the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico. She served as Chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party from 2015 to 2017 and as the U.S. representative for New Mexico’s 1st congressional district from 2019 to 2021. In Congress, she focused on environmental justice and climate change, among other initiatives. Haaland leads the agency that administers on- and offshore federal lands and waters and will play a key role in overseeing leasing these areas for energy development and the activities that take place thereon. At the Summit, Haaland hosted a breakout session where she and environment ministers and other officials discussed the role of nature-based solutions in reducing emissions and strengthening climate resilience; Haaland highlighted increased funding for coastal resilience and President Biden’s plan to devote 30 percent of federal lands and waters to conservation uses by 2030, among other initiatives.

Brenda Mallory, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality

Mallory was confirmed by the Senate as Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Prior to taking the reins at CEQ, Mallory previously served as its General Counsel during the Obama administration, where she worked on guidance for federal agencies to consider climate change impacts in decision-making. She has also held senior career roles within EPA’s Office of General Counsel, including as Principal Deputy General Counsel. Following her first stint at CEQ, Mallory spent four years working in the environmental advocacy community, most recently as the Director of Regulatory Policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and prior to that as the Executive Director and Senior Counsel for the Conservation Litigation Project. As head of CEQ, Mallory oversees the agency charged with advising the White House on climate issues and implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In remarks at the start of the Summit’s innovation session, Mallory highlighted CEQ’s role in implementing Biden’s environmental justice agenda.

Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy

Granholm served two terms as Governor of Michigan, and was the state’s Attorney General from 1998 to 2002, the first woman to hold either role. Precluded by state law for running for a third term as governor, Granholm joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, as a Distinguished Professor of Practice in the Goldman School of Public Policy, focusing on the intersection of law, clean energy, manufacturing, policy, and industry. She also served as an advisor to the Clean Energy Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Department of Energy provides grants and other financial assistance that aid in the development of energy innovation, and supports the development and adoption of building energy codes and efficiency improvements for homes, appliances and vehicles. Granholm highlighted the need for “fearless innovation to bring down the costs of batteries, to commercialize carbon capture, [and] to make blue and green hydrogen market ready” during the Summit’s innovation session, in which she moderated world leader segment.

Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce

Raimondo was a venture capitalist before entering politics in 2010. She served four years as Rhode Island’s Treasurer, then six as its Governor before joining the Biden-Harris administration last month. As governor of Rhode Island, she signed an executive order to advance 100 percent renewable electricity for the state by 2030 and pushed through the United States’ first offshore wind farm. Raimondo now leads the agency charged with climate science and research, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Raimondo participated in the innovation session as well, moderating a panel of leading clean technology organizations and highlighting the “once-in-a-generation opportunity for the United States to develop and produce advanced technologies [and] export them around the world.”

Katherine Tai, U.S. Trade Representative

Tai originally served in Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in its Office of General Counsel, serving as the chief counsel for China Trade Enforcement for three years. She became trade counsel, and later the top Democratic trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee before returning to lead the USTR office under President Biden. Tai and the USTR will focus on environmental rules in trade agreements and help resolve trade disputes related to combating climate change, such as the recent dispute between SK Innovation and LG Energy Solutions, two South Korean companies who make electric batteries in the United States. At the Summit, Tai moderated the world leaders’ portion of the session entitled “The Economic Opportunities of Climate Action,” and concluded the session by noting that “trade policy can be a powerful tool to create incentives for positive competition and a race to the top.”

Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation

Buttigieg burst onto the federal political scene during the Democratic party presidential primaries, as a strong contender for the position. Buttigieg was a two-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana and officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. As mayor, Buttigieg launched a “Smart Streets” initiative to improve street design and facilitated public-private partnerships. As the first openly LGBT Cabinet member in U.S. History, Buttigieg now leads the agency that develops and administers fuel economy standards for motor vehicles and provides technical assistance and funding to states for transportation projects. Should Congress pass President Biden’s expansive infrastructure package, Buttigieg will play a major role in the package’s implementation. Buttigieg used his remarks in the economic opportunities session to highlight the employment and resilience benefits of President Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Gina McCarthy, National Climate Advisor

McCarthy leads the newly created White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy; the domestic counterpart to John Kerry’s international portfolio. She led the team that developed the United States’ new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) announced at the top of the Summit. McCarthy began her career in Massachusetts state government, holding several top positions including Deputy Secretary of the state’s Office of Commonwealth Development and Undersecretary for policy for the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. McCarthy also was Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection during formation of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multistate effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). After serving as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation in his first term, President Obama tapped McCarthy to lead the agency in 2013. Most recently, McCarthy was a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health; chaired the board of advisors at the Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE); and served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. McCarthy co-hosted the Summit’s economic opportunities session, focusing on discussions with featured labor leaders and representatives from the clean energy industry.