Climate change is here, and our government can act now to slow it down. The Democratic presidential hopefuls are all on board with strong climate change plans, but if a Republican Senate continues to block such measures, the president needs to act on his or her own. As a former EPA lawyer with 27 years of experience, I have seen practical, effective policies that government agencies could implement on Day One of a Democratic administration without congressional approval.
First, reward proposals for government contracts based on innovation, effectiveness and power to address climate change. During the competitive bidding process, additional points would be assigned to such proposals. This would tap a large federal spending source — $430 billion for contracts and services during 2015 alone, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The idea would reward bidders that choose to pursue innovative approaches to climate change, without additional red tape.
One obvious opportunity to apply this approach is in rebuilding military installations affected by the changing climate. A January 2019 Department of Defense (DOD) report indicated that more than two-thirds of its operationally critical installations are threatened by flooding, drought and wildfires resulting from climate change. In June 2019, the GAO found that DOD lacked guidance to address climate projections for rebuilding its installations. DOD should amend its contracting processes to award points to proposals for military installation construction that promotes land-use planning and other methods to effectively address the impact of potential climate disasters.
Another opportunity: the Department of Transportation’s spending to build and maintain highway infrastructure. Additional points could be awarded to contract proposals that provide, for example, on-highway electric charging stations.
Second, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) can shift investment — while protecting investors and stockholders — by requiring corporations to disclose their vulnerability to climate impacts. Today, the SEC requires publicly traded companies to disclose material financial risks due to climate change to investors, but the regulations are not enforced. The result is that businesses shortchange investors by submitting boilerplate generalities.
EPA could provide the SEC with expertise to ensure rigorous evaluations of the financial risks associated with climate change, at no additional cost to taxpayers. These analyses could consider risks such as supply chain disruption, threats to facilities located in flood plains and financial costs for changes in manufacturing processes to minimize greenhouse gases (GHGs). This approach assures proper disclosure and provides businesses an opportunity to identify and reduce climate-related risks.
Third, the EPA could require agribusiness to report GHGs (methane) emitted by cattle as part of the digestive process. While methane does not linger as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), it is approximately 25 times more effective than CO2 at making the planet warmer. Worldwide, livestock accounts for between 14.5 and 18 percent of human-induced GHGs. EPA data indicates that 9 percent of GHGs emitted in the U.S in 2016 were from the agriculture sector. The powerful farm lobby has been successful in blocking the EPA from enforcing the sector's requirement to report GHGs. This loophole should be closed.
Increased transparency about agricultural emissions could speed the adoption of new technology such as anaerobic digesters, which produce biogas — a renewable energy source — from cow manure.
Fourth, projects subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires analysis and mitigation of environmental impacts, should include measures to reduce GHGs. For example, under NEPA, contractors expanding the Los Angeles Airport were required to install diesel particulate filters to control environmental impacts of black carbon emitted by construction equipment. This inexpensive measure reduced emissions of black carbon, commonly called soot, which warms the earth by absorbing light and turning that energy into heat. The mitigation measures also protected the health of local residents by reducing harmful levels of soot in the air.
These are four practical ways for any U.S. president to fight the changing climate. We need to consider them in our national dialogue on climate change if we hope to proactively address the increasing intensity of wildfires in the West and the destructiveness of flooding and hurricanes across the country.
Dan Reich was an assistant regional counsel at EPA Region 9 in San Francisco for 27 years. He also served as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice before retiring in April 2017 with 33 years of federal service.