NPR’s radio show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” features a weekly quiz on recent news headlines. I listen in and shout out answers whenever I can. If you listen to public radio you might do the same. But I’ve never fist-pumped to a quiz answer, at least not until last weekend, when this happened:
During the “Lightning Fill in the Blank” segment, host Peter Sagal stated, “To combat the effects of climate change, President BidenJoe BidenSenate confirms Rahm Emami to be Japan’s Ambassador NY Governor plans to add booster shot to the definition of “fully vaccinated” Photos of Week: Tornado aftermath and Medal of Honor. Continue reading signed an executive order calling for the government to be *blank* by 2050.”
I shouted with a fist pump, “Carbon neutral!”
That’s right, carbon neutralPop culture had a moment, and it was not too soon. The Biden administration has been criticized for not taking aggressive action to address the climate crisis. The week before, the Interior Department had neglectedto support a continuing moratorium on new oil & gas leasing on federal land, or require climate accounting for such project. The U.S. was a week earlier. PannedYou arrived empty-handed at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow.
However, a closer look at such failures reveals that the true causes are found in the offices of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin(D-W.Va. RepublicanSen. colleagues have a stranglehold in climate action likely due the InvestingIn, or Großes!The fossil fuel industry. And with a 50-50 party split in the Senate, Democrats can’t even pass budget bills that require only a simple majority vote without Manchin’s support.
Nonetheless, it’s become a policy blood-sport to attack the Biden administration for slow-walking climate action.
I’m frustrated with the lack of federal action. I’m frustrated with the way the oil and gas industry slithers away from the spotlight with You can’t ignore itfor the clear science urging an immediate transition to clean energies. I’m frustrated with ongoing efforts to Don’t be misledAmericans are aware of the threats facing them. I strongly condemn Congress and therefore us voters for failing to recognize climate change as a national emergency. All of us must work together to change these things.
In the meantime, however I believe that the private sector can drive important changes in the next years. Executive orderBiden’s administration indicates that they do.
The problem with economic transitions is the fact that, despite the benefits of the transition and the clear writing on the wall, the private sector is not inclined to take on more risk by embracing change. Even with the well-documented facts, this is true. benefitsThe benefits of a clean energy economy include improved health, employment and protection of the environment.
The aversion to this “transition risk” can be addressed with new laws and regulations that advance the public good, but Congress is currently unable to agree on legal measures that would compel companies to change the way they do business. A move towards an energy and economic transformation would require some kind of demand signal, which would be a significant shift in buyer patterns, except for legislation.
Enter the federal government, the biggest single purchaser in the country. A purchaser with almost 650,000 vehicles, hundreds and thousands of buildings throughout the country, and $650 billion worth of procurement contracts.
The new executive orders AnnouncementThis administration made it its policy to lead by example, reduce carbon emissions, and encourage a clean energy transition last week. It contained a comprehensive list of economic and climate actions, and was accompanied with an Office of Management and Budget memo that outlined the roles of each agency in making this shift.
Although the headline may be misleading, Peter Sagal observedThe federal government should be carbon neutral by 2050. There is a number of interim goals for carbon free electricity, emission-free cars, and net-zero carbon buildings. This will also impact every dollar that the federal government spends.
Pundits may grow tired of hearing about a “whole-of-government approach,” but it really means something when you consider the buying power of, for example, the massive Department of Defense.
Add to that the likelihood that municipalities and states will continue to support low-carbon procurement policies and you have the demand signal for a transition towards a clean energy economy. This is important as it is difficult for lawmakers and voters to ignore the shift once it gains momentum and the new economic starts creating more and better manufacturing jobs, improvements of public health, and real climate change action. This will eventually lead legislation that will accelerate and guide the transition.
Of course, it won’t happen overnight, but there are other factors encouraging companies to lean in sooner than later. The private sector is not only concerned about the transition risk, but investors are also aware of it. Already, climate change has created a problem. There are physical risksThese risks are increasing rapidly and requiring change. While investors talk about addressing transition and physical risks, they don’t mention the social risk that comes with waiting, following, or slowing down climate action. Companies that do not embrace the climate crisis will pay a high social cost as they are unable to recover from the American economy’s decline.
In contrast, the Federal government’s footsteps and speeding up the transition will position America to be a leader in clean-energy global markets. While there is much that remains to be done — and following through on these goals is no small task — federal leadership was on full display in this recent executive order. It didn’t have a flashy name, and it didn’t make a lot of headlines, but the effects of Biden’s carbon neutral announcement will go well beyond a radio quiz show.
Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Clement spent seven years as an executive at the U.S. Department of the Interior before joining UCS. Since his 2017 resignation from the public service, he has been honored with multiple awards for his ethics, courage and dedication to the role science plays in public policy. Follow him on Twitter @jclementmaine