WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Biden deputy climate advisor’s approach of caring as much about people as the planet could end up saving both.
- Ali Zaidi is the Biden administration’s deputy climate advisor, tackling everything from environmental justice to eco-friendly infrastructure.
- The Pakistani American brings an atypical background to his work, having grown up with a Republican ethos in the Rust Belt.
It’s not just that Ali Zaidi is four years older, even if the mid-30s Barack Obama administration veteran jokes more about his mortality since returning to the White House as a Joe Biden staffer this year. No, the atmosphere in the building itself is evolving, noticeably different even from the Obama days. Call it a climate change — a good one.
And driving the nitty gritty of that change is Zaidi, Biden’s deputy national climate advisor. “The breadth at which we go about tackling this issue today is very, very different,” he says.
The key shift? The Biden administration’s “willingness to embrace the intersectionality between climate and issues of economic well-being, of racial justice, of public health and infrastructure,” says Zaidi, who works under national climate advisor Gina McCarthy, in an office created by Biden specifically to lead a whole-of-government approach to climate action.
It’s an approach that has seen Biden’s climate team reach out to unlikely allies, like racial justice leaders, by promising to pump 40 percent of environmental infrastructure investments into historically disadvantaged communities. “We can build the politics for climate action if we use that climate action to tackle multiple crises at a time. If we use it to eat into injustice, to spur economic activity, to build worker power, the popularity of that climate action goes up,” Zaidi says.
Put another way: If all their efforts save the forests but miss the trees, then they will have failed in Zaidi’s estimation. “I know this isn’t a good environmentalist thing to say,” he adds, more mischievously, but what’s exciting him the most about his work under Biden is that “we’re finally tackling climate in the way it should be tackled — which is to put people at the center, and to realize: The blue marble will do just fine without us.”
It’s not just that worldview that makes Zaidi an unconventional leader of Biden’s efforts against climate change. Born in Pakistan, Zaidi and his family moved when he was 5 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, a tiny town in the shadow of the smog-generating factories of former manufacturing titan Erie. His mother a physician, his father working in higher education, Zaidi grew up identifying with Republican politics and espousing a Rust Belt ethos. In fact, the Harvard and Georgetown grad shared the mentality of President George W. Bush — that people needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps rather than rely on government help — until the Obama years.
“I think that what President Obama articulated felt really attractive to me, and it was that we sort of are shared in our fortunes and we fall together, stand together, and we have got to bring everybody up,” Zaidi said on a podcast with Columbia University last year. “Republican folks who live in the center of their states rather than on the coast side, they don’t feel far away to me; these are the people I grew up with.”
That hasn’t stopped Zaidi from adopting an aggressively progressive platform on “environmental justice,” as most in the White House put it. Environmental activists in New York, where he previously worked for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, commend his preparedness. “He came in ready to rock and roll; he understood the issues; he didn’t have to waste any time,” Peggy Shephard, executive director of We Act for Environmental Justice, told E&E News in December.
In early February, Zaidi met with most of the Biden cabinet to talk about ways to tackle climate change across departments. Zaidi has also met with CEOs in the auto industry and labor leaders to discuss the future of a “zero emission” vehicle future. “We’ve got a line of sight to that,” he says, hinting at plans to roll out new standards this summer.
That’s been enabled in part by the fact that the toolbox for adopting renewable energy is simply stronger than it was before. Electric vehicle battery costs have dropped “80 to 90 percent” in the past decade, Zaidi says, while solar and wind costs are similarly plummeting. New advancements are emerging as well, such as electrolyzers — used to convert water into hydrogen — which are already being planned for use in Europe. “The momentum has just shifted because the techno-economics have shifted,” as Zaidi puts it.
That positive take is shared by Moe Vela, a former senior advisor to Biden. “The biggest differences between the Obama and Biden administrations is the inflection point at which our country finds herself,” Vela says. But there’s also the inside baseball one: that Zaidi’s point about the Biden administration’s willingness to take on the environment as an all-encompassing problem is a tacit critique of Obama’s inability to do so.
WE WALK INTO THIS ADMINISTRATION WITH A LOT OF PEOPLE FEELING THE UPSIDE OF ACTION.ALI ZAIDI, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CLIMATE ADVISOR
The nation’s first Black president spent his early political capital on the 2009 stimulus that, at $831 billion, was then the largest in American history. That was followed by a drawn-out battle to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010. In both cases, Obama made concessions for the sake of bipartisan consensus, especially in the vital months before Democrats lost control of Congress after the 2010 midterms. The early signs suggest Biden might have learned from that experience. “It boils down to fully turning on the faucet of policies and ideas by Biden, versus a drip by drip approach from Obama,” Vela says.
Zaidi rejects the idea that the new White House’s willingness to aggressively combat climate change is a departure from the Obama administration, where he served in a number of policy posts — from the Energy Department, to Office of Management and Budget to the Domestic Policy Council. To him, Obama just had a different task: To show America, up close, the threat of climate change. “You remember Obama going and visiting the California wildfires, or traveling to the Arctic (the first president to do so) and showing that the ice was melting,” Zaidi says.
If Obama was the prophet president, returning to Plato’s cave to warn Americans of the coming climate disaster, then the Biden administration is the one that actually staves off that disaster in Zaidi’s telling: “We walk into this administration with a lot of people feeling the upside of action.”
Still, getting conservative Americans to rally around Biden’s plan won’t be easy. Republicans who do support renewable energy are more likely to do so from a cost-savings perspective, and even a low estimate of Biden’s climate infrastructure blueprint puts its cost at trillions of dollars.
What helps is that Americans have now experienced the economic opportunities of renewable energy, Zaidi argues: whether it’s construction workers who went from pouring concrete to working in clean energy fields, or electricians laying wires for electric vehicle charging stations. “People can feel, touch, the promise of this opportunity,” Zaidi says.
It was a similar promise of opportunity that drew the Zaidi family to America all those years ago. “I moved to a community that embraced my family, a family that was very different,” he says. “It was a community that helped us get on our feet and chase after our dreams. That’s the America that I think my parents saw as a beacon across the ocean.”
Now Zaidi’s trying to help America craft a fresh dream and emerge as a new beacon — one that flashes green.