Why the federal government needs to act on climate policy

The first post I wrote on Medium was about the need for better federal policy action on climate change. Incredibly — thankfully — climate change policy discussions are much more mainstream than they were in February of this year. Increased awareness is due to a variety of factors, from those images during COVID-19 lockdowns demonstrating how quickly emissions could drop without daily humans activity, to a record hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean and deadly wildfire seasons everywhere from Australia, to Indonesia, Brazil, and the western United States.

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Olafur Eliasson: Earth perspectives, 2020. The Earth viewed over the Greenland ice sheet: A continent-wide ice sheet produced by falling snow over millions of years, now melting at staggering rates due to human-induced climate change.

I had written that initial article to underscore the belief that we couldn’t tell the world’s largest GHG emitter (China) what to do without fixing our own climate policy issues at home. I would never have predicted that, in September of this year, China would come out with a commitment to move towards net zero emissions by 2060. It is telling that China no longer requires the incentive of US leadership and action on climate change to make such a bold commitment. And it is illustrative of how isolated the US has become from the rest of the world on this issue. While the rest of the world sees climate change as an opportunity, the US is still debating whether it is real or not.

In fact, in every G20 meeting since President Trump was elected, the forum has been forced to released statements on climate change as 19 nations +1, because the US administration has refused to allow statements to include the words “climate change.” All major nations except the US are passing COVID-19 economic recovery packages to stimulate green and sustainable growth. While the US can often be an exceptional leader, this time being an outsider is taking us in the wrong direction. By not even sitting at the international negotiating table, the US is giving up the opportunity to dictate global climate policies. The reporting mechanisms of the 2015 Paris Agreement were intentionally flexible to accommodate President Obama, who knew he would have a hard time getting his Republican Senate on board otherwise. Now, as the rest of the world is discussing the implementation of carbon taxes at the border, without a serious effort to reduce its emissions US exports are under threat.

In the absence of federal leadership on climate change, 25 states have committed to the Paris Agreement. States such as California, New York, and Washington have build impressive climate policies and have committed to zero emissions goals comparable to the leading nations in the world. And while I am all for state-level policymaking (strong local government is critical to ensuring good policy the United States, which ranks 79th in the world in population density), climate change is far too big of a problem to allow states to handle it on their own.

We need to think about climate change the same way we think about the federal highway system. Imagine you are a truck driver making a delivery from Utah to Kansas. Today, you would take an interstate highway that was built by the federal government — and up-kept thanks to federal funding — so crossing the entire state of Colorado via the interstate is not a big deal. But imagine if the federal government had never built these interstates, and Colorado had decided a highway that crossed the entire state was not a state priority. You get to the state border, you have to drive miles out of the way on dirt roads, and your truck gets stuck in a huge ditch in the desert. You miss your delivery, your client loses its business, and you don’t get paid. The federal taxes paid by both you and your client on that income are also lost.

A federal highway system ensures that interstate commerce goes smoothly. No state is able to produce all of its food or power without interstate commerce. Now think about the climate. Storms and pollution cross state borders. The smoke from the fires in California this summer made it to New York. While Hurricane Zeta made landfall in Louisiana, residents in Georgia also lost power for days.

If you take away the massive subsidies the US government provides the fossil fuel industry — and factor in the oil price shock earlier this year — most US oil companies are not profitable (fracking being especially not profitable, as most shale companies need a price per barrel of $50 to break even — it’s currently below $40), which has led to over 100k layoffs in the industry since March. Renewable energy is cheaper and safer (you don’t have to worry about gas explosions or the effect of pollution on human health). Now that fossil fuels don’t even make sense from a profit perspective, it’s time to think about a more sustainable future for energy. And yes, that includes reimagining the American workforce and ensuring that workers are not penalized by an energy transition. Who should be penalized, however, are the industry executives, who, knowing fossil fuels would have an outsized effect on planet and human health and exacerbate climate change, instead buried the science, and became millionaires and billionaires as a consequence.

I am aware the broad comparison of federal climate change action to infrastructure investment is somewhat contentious. Increasing federal infrastructure investment has been discussed since the Obama administration, never happened, was promised by Trump, and hasn’t happened. And in fact there is definitely a need to think about infrastructure policy on the local level, especially due to decades of federal inaction. But the current infrastructure demand is not for initial infrastructure, it is for upgrades. We already have the roads, the airports, the bridges; they are all just in varying states of disrepair. We have no initial climate infrastructure in this country. Climate change is a problem that disrupts “business as usual:” the old ways of doing things actually created the problems we face today. We need leadership and incentives on the federal level to ensure that every state starts focusing on climate change. Once those are in place, policy can be implemented locally. For indeed, climate change is going to have a massively different effect on Louisiana and Florida as compared to Minnesota or Alaska and will require different interventions.

This is not intended to be a political post; solving climate change shouldn’t be a political discussion. It became political because fossil fuel companies — after proving the climate science themselves — influenced our media with a propaganda campaign to drive public opinion away from reality. They targeted conservative media outlets and pundits with misinformation until climate denial became a partisan badge of honor. But it was in fact a Republican president (Nixon) who signed one of the most important pieces of national climate legislation ever, the Clean Air Act.

I am not sure what the outcome of the US election will be. Biden’s climate plan is incredibly progressive and bold, but even if he’s elected it’s not guaranteed to pass through Congress. If Trump is reelected, despite the fact he currently has no climate plan, we shouldn’t just accept our fate (especially given that it is eventual planetary extinction). The health and wellbeing of our planet — and the human life on it — should not be a partisan issue and we need to hold our elected officials accountable to this principle no matter who takes the White House.

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Ellen Brooks Shehata

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From Tahrir Square to Wall Street and back again: ex-banker focusing on sustainable development and investment.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Ellen Brooks Shehata

Written by

From Tahrir Square to Wall Street and back again: ex-banker focusing on sustainable development and investment.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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