Yes, the federal government is setting an example on climate action

President Joe Biden
Associated Press-Evan Vucci

NPR’s radio show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” features a weekly quiz on recent news headlines. I idly listen and shout out answers when I can, and if you listen to public radio, you probably do, too. 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 Biden 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 neutral had a pop culture moment, and not a moment too soon. The Biden administration has been on the ropes of late for not aggressively tackling the climate crisis. A week prior, the Interior Department had neglected to support a continued moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, or even require climate accounting for such projects. A week prior, the U.S. was panned for arriving at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow empty-handed.

A closer examination of such failures reveals the true causes, however, and for the most part, they live in the offices of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and his Republican Senate colleagues, who have a stranglehold on climate action likely due to investments in, or largesse from, 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 blithe disregard for the crystal clear science calling for an immediate transition to clean energy. I’m frustrated with ongoing efforts to mislead Americans about the threats we face. I condemn Congress (and therefore us voters) for failing to treat climate change as the national emergency that it is. We all need to work to change those things.

In the meantime, however, I do have hope that the private sector can help drive important change in the coming years, and a recent executive order from the Biden administration signals that they do too.

The problem with economic transitions is that no matter how clear the writing on the wall and how beneficial the transition, the private sector, with a few exceptions, is not inclined to increase risk by getting out in front of change. This is the case, even given the well-documented benefits that a clean energy economy would bring for health, jobs and 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. Barring legislation, a move toward an energy and economic transition would require some sort of demand signal, a significant shift in purchaser patterns.

Enter the federal government, the largest single purchaser in the country. A purchaser with a fleet of nearly 650,000 vehicles, hundreds of thousands of buildings across the country, as well as procurement contracts representing $650 billion in goods and services.

The new executive order announced last week made it the policy of this administration to lead by example, cut carbon emissions and stimulate a clean energy transition. It presented an impressive laundry list of economic and climate action goals, and it was accompanied by an Office of Management and Budget memo describing what agencies must do to make the shift.

While the headline, as Peter Sagal noted, is that the federal government shall be carbon neutral by 2050, there are multiple interim goals for carbon-free electricity, emission-free vehicles, net-zero carbon buildings, environmental justice, as well as net-zero procurement policies that will affect every dollar 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 this the likelihood that states and municipalities will pile on with favorable low-carbon procurement policies, and you have the demand signal that a transition to a clean energy economy will require. This is important because once the shift builds momentum and the new economy starts generating more and better manufacturing jobs, improvements in public health and real climate action, it will be difficult for lawmakers (and voters) to ignore. This will eventually lead to laws that 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 has more than transition risk to worry about, and investors know it. Climate change has already presented physical risks to existing production, supply chains and infrastructure. These risks are growing quickly and demanding change. And while investors often speak of addressing transition and physical risk, they rarely mention the social risk of waiting, of following, of dragging down climate action. As the impacts of climate change amplify and accelerate, companies that do not lean into this crisis will pay a social cost from which they may not recover as the American economy gets left behind.

Conversely, following in the footsteps of the federal government and accelerating the transition will position the American economy to lead a global clean-energy economy. 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). Prior to joining UCS and the Belfer Center, Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since resigning from public service in 2017, he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @jclementmaine

This piece has been updated.

Tags carbon neutral climate action Climate change COP26 Fossil fuels Global warming Joe Biden Joe Manchin Joel Clement

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