By William S. Becker
For at least 20 years in the United States, the relationship between climate-action advocates and the federal government has been like the relationship between Charlie Brown and Lucy’s football. Every time it looked as though congresses and presidents might do something, the climate movement ended up on its clunibus.
We have to go back to 1992 to find Congress’s last positive act on climate change. That was the year the Senate blessed and President George H.W. Bush ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since then, the two presidents who used their own authority to cut the nation’s carbon pollution were succeeded by presidents who forced the country to backslide.
When Donald Trump announced that he plans to pull America out of the Paris climate agreement, a monumental achievement of the Obama Administration, it was no surprise that many in the climate-action movement gave up on the Feds. The silver lining in Trump’s stupid decision, however, was that many cities, states and businesses stepped into the leadership void.
More than 3,500 corporate executives, college presidents, mayors and governors signed a declaration of support for climate action. Among them were 125 cities, nine states, more than 900 businesses and investors, and 183 colleges and universities estimated to represent 120 million Americans and more than $6 trillion in the economy.
Many climate activists believe that these non-federal entities can meet America’s obligation under the Paris accord, and perhaps more, without the federal government. They are wrong. If it is still possible to win the war against climate change, it will not be done without the U.S. government. That is why the sudden interest in climate action in the House of Representatives and among Democrats running for president is so hopeful (once again). What happens between now and when the last votes are counted on Nov. 3, 2020, could not be more important.
Let’s think about what the federal government brings to the party, especially the things that no one else can bring. Right-of-center politicians who are finally acknowledging that climate change is real like to say that innovation and new technologies will solve it. The largest and most successful incubator of new technologies is the federal government, including the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories and its flagship National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and DOE’s offshoot, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) are extraordinary seedbeds of world-changing technologies. So are the activities of the National Science Foundation and agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Federal laboratories and research programs did the basic research that resulted in entire new industries. Their innovations include touch screens, batteries and most of the other components in smartphones; the voice recognition talents of Siri; GPS systems; Doppler radar; the algorithm that Google purchased to create its search engine; countless medicines including the flu vaccine; baby formula; the fire-retardant clothing worn by firefighters; solar cells; the turbines used to generate electricity from the wind; nuclear medicine; duct tape; and much more.
Technology advances in DOE’s laboratories have helped bring down the price of solar and wind energy. The cost of new wind farms dropped by a third between 2009 and 2016. NREL says more breakthroughs could cut the cost of wind energy in half by 2030.
Nevertheless, in his 2019 budget Trump called for cutting government’s overall research on clean energy by 72%. Congress did not approve those cuts, so Trump is back with a 2020 budget that would reduce the federal investment in clean energy R&D by 70%. Trump wants to eliminate ARPA-E and the DOE loan program that provides risk capital for emerging energy enterprises – capital the private sector is reluctant to offer. These programs apparently don’t mean much to Trump. His goal is to make the United States the world’s principal fossil fuel producer. Toward that dubious end, Trump’s latest budget includes money to create modular coal plants.
In addition to R&D, the federal government can shape markets for clean energy. It spends about $450 billion on goods and services every year, making it the largest consumer in the world. The government is the nation’s largest energy-user, operating 350,000 buildings and 650,000 fleet vehicles. It is such a big customer that its purchasing decisions can help clean energy technologies achieve economies of scale.
Toward that end in 2009, President Obama ordered agencies to reduce the federal fleet’s consumption of petroleum 2% annually through 2020; cut water consumption by a similar amount; and begin buying, leasing and designing new federal buildings to achieve zero-net-energy consumption. By 2011, agencies had invested $5.8 billion in energy efficiency improvements for federal buildings.
In 2015, President Obama directed federal agencies to cut greenhouse gas pollution 40%, saving taxpayers $18 billion in energy costs. His executive order required agencies to obtain 25% of their energy from renewable resources by 2025.
Trump repealed Obama’s directive in May 2018, and replaced it with an order that simply requires agencies to meet statutory requirements for energy use. Trump removed all requirements that the federal government reduce its greenhouse gas pollution.
Meantime, Congress keeps providing tens of billions of dollars every year to oil, coal and natural gas companies, using taxpayer funds to subsidize the production of the carbon pollution we should be eliminating. And it is the federal government that enters into multinational agreements like the Paris accord that encourage all nations to do their parts in solving global problems like climate change.
We should also be realistic about needing national legislation that mobilizes all cities and industries toward the zero-net-carbon goal. A carbon fee comes to mind. Without it, it is unlikely our greenhouse gas pollution can be reduced in sufficient amounts at the speed science says is necessary.
As important as the pledges are from cities, those who have made commitments so far are only a fraction of the nearly 20,000 municipalities in the United States, not to mention our nearly 90,000 local governments. It remains to be seen whether the cities that have promised to reduce their carbon emissions will actually be able to do so. Cities face the same challenges the federal government does: limited funds and changes in leadership. Trump has shown how easy it is for government to backslide when new leaders do not want to keep their predecessors’ policies.
For those who take global warming seriously, the federal government’s refusal to act amounts to criminal negligence, but that doesn’t mean its involvement is unnecessary. It means that 2020 had better finally be the election that puts climate-action activists into national office.