State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Environmental Symbolism and Environmental Reality

As the Trump administration enters the lame duck phase of the end of its term, politicos at the EPA are racing to finalize their anti-regulatory agenda as environmentalists worry that somehow these last-ditch efforts will have a lasting impact on our environmental well-being. As Rebecca Beitsch observed in The Hill last week:

“The Trump administration is scrambling to wrap up a slew of environmental rollbacks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office in less than 70 days. The administration has yet to get some of its most prized proposals across the finish line: finalizing the prep work to enable drilling in the Arctic and off the coasts; limiting protections for endangered species and migratory birds; and restricting what types of studies inform the government’s policy choices. Those efforts are raising concerns among environmentalists who have spent the past four years battling.”

While there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the damage that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and his crew might accomplish over the next several months, it is time to move beyond these back-and-forth battles and focus on a constructive consensus-building agenda for the next four years. Certainly, the Biden EPA must undo the damage of the past four years, but that should be a quiet effort of reconstruction that should avoid efforts to “spike the ball in the end zone” every time a terrible environmental rollback is undone.

Too often, environmental politics descends into symbolic battles that seem designed to define issues to generate opposition. We remain in a poisonous political environment that continues to be reinforced as President Trump and his Republican enablers refuse to concede the election. Right wing social media disinformation continues to question the fairness of the election and the legitimacy of the result. Conservatives correctly note that many progressives questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election. However, Hillary Clinton immediately conceded, and Obama quickly congratulated the president-elect. What we are seeing today is a more intense version of the politics of obstruction that President Obama faced during his time in office. The Republican right and Mitch McConnell were clear from the start that their only goal was to ensure that President Obama did not succeed. The Waxman-Markey cap and trade climate bill and Affordable Care Act were efforts by the Obama administration to frame climate and health policies that would satisfy conservative preferences for market-based program designs. Some argue that these accommodations were a mistake, but I take the opposite view. Cap and trade was as close as we ever came to national climate policy and ‘Obamacare’ has brought about the imperfect start of national health care.

The Biden team must focus environmental policy on practical efforts that generate outcomes rather than symbolic political conflict. Let’s remember that lots of people on both sides of the political divide make their living off of heightened political divisions. That is certainly Trump’s post-election business plan. He fully intends to monetize the political division he continues to stoke. Advocates of environmental protection and climate policy need to avoid playing his game since he will always have the home court advantage.

To reduce greenhouse gasses, the first step is to restore key elements of the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s belated response to the 2007 decision of the Supreme Court in Massachusetts vs. the U.S. EPA during which the court, in essence, decided that greenhouse gasses were pollutants that needed to be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The Clean Power Plan faced court challenges and in the end, Trump’s EPA pulled the plan and gutted it. A new plan should be developed requiring states to identify practical paths to decarbonization. This regulation must be promulgated as quickly as possible since it is likely the only national climate policy that we are likely to see in 2021.

With a national climate policy in place, the federal government should begin a multi-pronged strategy to reduce greenhouse gasses. Infrastructure authorized under a recession-fighting stimulus could allocate billions of dollars to modernize our electric grid. A 21st-century grid would utilize growing amounts of renewable energy and would use microgrid and smart grid technology to reduce vulnerability and increase efficiency and reliability. Extreme weather events now cause periodic power outages throughout America and a more resilient electrical system is a goal that many would support.

In addition, the vast size of federal procurement should be leveraged to move America to renewable energy. According to the Government Accountability Office:

“From health care to helicopters, the government spends about 40% of its discretionary spending on contracts for goods and services. In FY 2019, the federal government spent more than $586 billion on these contracts, an increase of over $20 billion from FY 2018. This increase is largely driven by spending on services for national defense.”

About $230 billion of those procurement dollars were for products, the remainder for services. Many of those billions of dollars bought motor vehicles and new buildings. To the extent feasible, those funds should be spent in ways that can build the private market for renewable energy and electric vehicles. Other than vehicles needed for combat or air transport, all other vehicles purchased by the federal government should be electric. A tax credit for electric cars should be proposed as well. Tax incentives should be provided for homeowners implementing household energy efficiency measures and installing renewable energy equipment. Rather than raising the costs of fossil fuels we should lower the costs of renewable energy. Government service contractors should also be required to demonstrate the steps they are taking to make their operations more environmentally sustainable.

While some of these steps may increase short-term expenses, most will provide cost reductions in the long run. It is true that businesses generally focus on short-term results, but government is able to take a longer-term perspective and where needed, subsidize short-term costs to generate long-term savings. The federal government should examine all of its spending and financial decisions for methods that embed environmental sustainability in America’s businesses and institutions.

Another critical task for the Biden team is to steer our national labs and government research funding back to understanding environmental conditions and developing the technology needed to remedy environmental problems. More efficient and less toxic solar cells and energy storage technologies are also high priorities for basic research funding. So too is improved weather forecasting and climate modeling. The National Science Foundation, NOAA, EPA, the Department of Energy and other federal agencies should be encouraged to fund environmental research — particularly research on understanding, mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Conservative interest groups will raise funds to fight “government over-reach” and will try to paint federal environmental policy as “job-killing regulation.” Meanwhile, some environmental interest groups will raise funds to fight the dangers posed by right-wing threats to environmental quality. These are battles to be avoided if at all possible. Let’s communicate the harm that environmental pollution poses to human health. Our health and the health of our families require a clean environment. Just as the pandemic’s impact on rural America is finally and sadly driving home the facts of medical science, floods, forest fires, lead in water and toxics in the air are visible impacts of environmental degradation. Americans understand the importance of environmental quality, even if there is a partisan divide on the issue. According to Pew’s Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy:

“Compared with a decade ago, more Americans say protecting the environment and dealing with global climate change should be top priorities for the president and Congress. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (64%) say protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress, while about half (52%) say the same about dealing with global climate change, according to a January 2020 survey. These shares have grown considerably since 2011.Partisanship remains a major factor in these priorities. More Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (85%) think protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress than do Republicans and GOP leaners (39%). Most of the increase in the share of people who prioritize climate change has come among Democrats, not Republicans.”

Funk and Kennedy also report that younger Republicans and younger Democrats are more concerned about the environment than their elders. This finding is consistent in many surveys of American public opinion. Young people see projections about sea level rise in 2050 and realize they may well be the victims of a warmer world. While Americans understand the threat to environmental quality, the Biden team needs to take seriously the partisan split. Despite Trump and McConnell’s efforts to promote polarization, efforts to find common ground remain essential. A pragmatic, operational focus on outcomes is a better approach than an effort to achieve symbolic victories that appeal to ideologically oriented partisans. As I often say when discussing air pollution: everyone likes to breathe—we kind of get used to it… A simple environmental reality worth remembering.

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David Kaplan
David Kaplan
3 years ago

The prescriptions you recommend, while helpful, will actually illustrate the title of your piece. They will largely be symbolic. The “reality” is that if you want to make a dent in CO2 emissions, you need to focus on China, China, China, and to a secondary degree on India, India, India. That’s where emissions are actually growing.