After four years of climate denial, a simple acknowledgment of reality might have been sufficient, but incredibly we now have a middle-of-the-road, old-time political creature stepping forward and proposing bold measures to save America. Climate change is the central issue, but Biden has tied it to economic revival, the modernization of America’s infrastructure and an attack on extreme income inequality. Three years of economic boom times never trickled down to the Midwest’s workers as Trump promised. The boom culminated in the economic catastrophe and massive failure of government during the COVID-19 crisis that ended Trump’s presidency.
The idea that we need a New-Deal-style set of government interventions to revive the economy is supported by a solid majority of Americans. Targeting those interventions to modernizing the nation’s energy, water and transportation infrastructure is wildly popular. Subsidizing parents to eliminate child poverty is also popular with everyone but the hard-core right-wing minority.
Biden has resisted environmental orthodoxy calling for pricing carbon and instead is focusing on the practical tasks of decarbonizing the economy:
- Using the purchasing power of the federal government to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency and electric vehicles.
- Subsidizing the modernization of energy systems to encourage the distributed and more efficient generation of electricity.
- Putting unemployed miners back to work capping leaking gas and oil wells and reducing methane pollution.
- Subsidizing transportation infrastructure, including electric vehicle charging stations and mass transit along with roads, tunnels and bridges. Resisting new road construction by favoring rehabilitation of existing roads.
- Research and development funds for new renewable energy technology.
- Constantly reinforcing the connection between solving the nation’s twin crises of climate and employment.
The list goes on, but the focus is on practical, easy to understand steps that serve both environmental and economic goals simultaneously.
While President Biden understands how we can integrate climate and economic goals within the United States, the climate problem is a complex, global problem that requires international cooperation. That cooperation is made difficult by the centrality of energy to economic life and the fact that nations are at different stages in the process of economic development, and developing nations will use any source of energy they can get their hands on.
And so, within the first 100 days of his presidency, Biden convened an Earth Day climate summit last week. Despite conflicts with China and Russia, both nation’s leaders participated, a victory for the quiet, professional style of diplomacy that has been quickly restored to America’s government. The Biden team understands that the only way to decarbonize the developing world’s economy is to help developing nations leapfrog the fossil fuel phase of development by subsidizing renewables. China may be building coal-fired power plants for them, so we will need to subsidize their windmills, solar cells and batteries. The hope is that then China will compete with us on renewables and leave the coal in the ground.
Climate change has always been the most difficult environmental problem to communicate and act on. The problem is caused everywhere, and its impact is in the future and may not be local. Air and water pollution can be seen and smelled. The sources and impacts are visible, and many are local. This is why directly addressing climate change has proven to be difficult. While Biden is providing leadership in addressing the problem, he is not focusing attention on the regulation of greenhouse gasses but on eliminating them by subsidizing the modernization of our energy and transportation infrastructure.
The energy part of the climate problem is well suited to a technological fix, and that fix will also solve other problems with the energy system. As Texans learned in February, the energy system is vulnerable to extreme weather events caused by climate change. Our energy system is highly centralized and vulnerable to disruption by weather, hacking and deterioration due to old age. A modern smart grid, composed of thousands of connected but independent microgrids, can allow mass sharing of renewable energy and match energy generation to utilization. This system will be expensive to build but far less expensive to operate. It would also be more reliable than the current system, eliminating many energy blackouts. We are increasingly dependent on energy in our daily lives, and the promise of less expensive and more reliable electricity is a political winner.
A similar argument can be made for transportation. Biden’s plans call for improvements to train and mass transit infrastructure, but given America’s suburban patterns of land development, the central issue is personal transportation. The electric vehicle is central to that transformation, and with some small additional subsidies initially, market forces will result in the retirement of the internal combustion engine. Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims discusses the new and growing market for electric trucks:
“Hundreds of thousands of consumers have preordered either the Hummer EV, the electric pickup truck from U.S. startup Rivian or Tesla’s Cybertruck. More have expressed interest in electric SUVs such as the Toyota bZ4X and Mercedes-Benz EQB, and electric versions of pickups such as the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado, a close relative of the Hummer. These vehicles are advertised with promises of long battery range, high towing capacity, all the extras typical of midrange luxury vehicles—and hardly a mention of their eco-friendly bona fides. If previous electric autos were marketed to people concerned about climate change, these are pitched to people more concerned about surviving its aftermath. Ads for these vehicles, showing the great outdoors and gritty downtowns in equal measure, suggest that even if oceans rise and forests burn, you’ll be cruising to your bugout cabin on nothing but sunlight and self-satisfaction.”
The internal combustion engine replaced the horse and buggy because it was faster, more reliable and over the long run, less expensive to operate. The same type of technological displacement is about to happen with electric vehicles. They require less maintenance than internal combustion engines, and charging a battery is less expensive than filling a gas tank—particularly if your home is equipped with solar power.
Joe Biden understands the American dream: If you work hard, you are rewarded with material security for yourself and your loved ones. The sacrifice we make is embedded in our work ethic. We give up leisure to work, but the work is purposeful. In America’s culture, we are not interested in solving problems by producing or consuming less. We will solve the climate crisis through hard work, creative innovation and building a new economy, not sitting alone in the dark with a candle to read by. Climate policy advocates need to abandon their sense of moral superiority and try to get in sync with the people who are needed to actually solve the problem. Joe Biden represents that stream of American society. The one that takes its time to see and understand a problem, but once it sees the issue clearly, it searches for pragmatic solutions.
The economic catastrophe of COVID-19 has created an opportunity to revive the economy and simultaneously address poverty and climate change. The even-tempered, sometimes inarticulate life-long public servant we elected president is seizing the moment and providing the quiet, steady and determined leadership he promised to give us. It is thrilling to see the quality of his team, their determination to move forward and the carefully thought through and clearly flexible strategy they are pursuing.
Biden knows he is leading a divided nation, plagued by disinformation. He is under constant attack by extreme ideologues dominating many state governments, and by the Republicans in Congress. The narrowness of his congressional majority seems to have tempered his natural tendency to compromise and instead emboldened his approach to governance. In my view, it is leadership perfectly suited to the cascading crises of this moment. Joe Biden is providing America with inspiring and strategic climate and economic leadership.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.