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Dealing With the U.S. Federal Government’s Failure of Climate Leadership

Four years of Donald Trump and a year and a half of Joe Manchin have paralyzed much, but not all, of our national climate agenda. Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill includes over $300 billion in environmental capital, and federal procurement policy requires another $600 billion of annual spending to go green. But federal incentives for solar energy and electric vehicles were vetoed by the senator from West Fossil Fuel-land. That will harm our home solar and auto industries as they compete with companies located where governments subsidize these critical industries. If Manchin wasn’t so obviously in the pocket of the fossil fuel business, he’d push for subsidies along with plant siting in his home state. But West Virginia’s horrible leadership dooms the state to economic distress as they double down on a dying industry and refuse to pivot toward the future. West Virginia’s poverty rate of 17.7% is the fourth worst in the United States. Only Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico are worse. Manchin could be using his temporary clout to advance poverty reduction in his home state; instead, he is using it in a futile effort to save the fossil fuel business.

While federal inertia is frustrating, it is far from fatal. Pundits and experts continue to place more importance on the United States national government than it deserves. We are only one country, and within our country, the national government is not all-powerful. Yesterday, in the New York Times, Jonathan Weisman and Jazmine Ulloa reflected the typical view that somehow climate change was slipping as a political concern when they observed that:

“…an electorate already struggling with inflation, exhausted by Covid and adjusting to tectonic changes like the end to constitutionally protected abortions may give the latest Democratic defeat a resigned shrug. And that may be why climate change remains an issue with little political power, either for those pressing for dramatic action or for those standing in the way.”

They note that climate is not seen by most people as the top political issue. Those types of polls are quite volatile and measure front-of-mind concerns like the price of groceries or a spike in crime, not people’s fundamental values and beliefs. The problem is this call for dramatic action when for the climate crisis, like the tortoise and hare, slow and steady wins the race. Decarbonization is complicated and no single action, however dramatic, will make it happen. The media prefers drama; I prefer reality.

Despite the national-level setbacks, states, localities, corporations, and large nonprofit institutions in education, medicine, and culture all have greenhouse gas reduction goals and are serious about achieving them. A Brookings report in 2020 indicated that many cities had set targets, and while reductions had been achieved, progress was slow. A 2017 World Resources Institute study, updated in August of 2021, indicates that many American states have been reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. According to WRI:

“Overall, U.S. emissions declined by 9% from 2005 to 2018. The story varies, however, on a state basis. Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C. reduced their emissions from 2005 to 2018, with Maine, New Hampshire and Alabama leading the way. Maine benefits from vast forestland that acts as a carbon sink to absorb more carbon dioxide than it releases. The state also saw emission reductions in the industry sector, which was caused by the declining share of traditional energy-intensive industries and growing service industries like finance, insurance, real estate, health care and tourism. In contrast, New Hampshire and Alabama’s reductions came largely from the clean electricity and heat sector. Twelve states have increased their emissions, with Mississippi, North Dakota and Idaho in the lead. North Dakota’s increase was primarily driven by surging shale gas production and a lack of standards that require operators to adopt all cost-effective measures for controlling methane emissions. In nearly the same timeframe, 41 states reduced their CO2 emissions while growing their economies, proving that climate action and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand.”

Both California and New York have significant greenhouse gas reduction goals and show signs of being serious about achieving them. In addition to infrastructure and procurement, the federal government retains the authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles and power plants. They must set power plant and vehicle emission standards and use old-fashioned command and control regulations. This can promote electric vehicle use and indirectly eliminate coal as a power source since the expense of emission controls will make natural gas a more cost-effective bridge fuel to renewable energy.

The modernization of America’s energy system would be achieved faster with federal leadership, but modernization will happen anyway. The question is will energy modernization be so slow that it will impair America’s economic competitiveness? If Europe and China modernize their energy system with smart-grid technology, high-capacity transmission lines, and low-cost solar and wind energy, their economies will end up with lower energy costs than America’s. America’s inability to subsidize renewable energy and electric vehicles is exacerbated by its inability to site high-capacity energy transmission lines. Catherine Clifford wrote an excellent piece on the transmission issue on CNBC’s website in late June. In an article entitled “Fierce Local Battles Over Power Lines Are a Bottleneck for Clean Energy,” she reports that:

“The existing system of transmission lines is insufficient for the large-scale deployment of clean energy that the country needs to meet its decarbonization goals to combat global warming… however, building transmission lines is a complicated task which can get stuck in fierce local siting battles. A study published in June in the journal Energy Policy found 53 utility-scale wind, solar, and geothermal energy projects that ended up being delayed or blocked between 2008 and 2021 due to local opposition. Those projects represent approximately 9,586 megawatts of potential energy generation capacity… Building transmission lines is more important for distributing renewable energy than it is for using fossil fuels because with coal, natural gas or nuclear baseload energy, the source of energy can be moved to where it is needed.”

While the Biden infrastructure law includes $20 billion to modernize the electric grid, a full-scale expansion and repair will cost much more and be difficult to achieve without federal leadership. What is more likely is state-level grid modernization efforts in states working to reduce greenhouse gasses. This may be suboptimal from a national or global perspective but will enable those (mainly blue) states to reduce their energy costs.

The wild card in efforts to decarbonize is the development of new technology. We are assuming subsidies are needed to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles based on existing technologies. But breakthroughs in battery technology and solar cell technology could lower the cost of distributed generation of energy and electric vehicles. Just as people have disconnected from cable television and wired internet, it might be possible to disconnect from the electric grid itself. The inventor who creates the low-cost home energy kit and the company that manufactures and distributes it will make a lot of money. While there is a real financial incentive to develop this technology, there is no assurance it will happen.

Although technology and the free market might save us, it makes very little sense to depend on science fiction and fantasy to deal with the flooding, drought, sea level rise, famine, and extreme weather happening now. We need to mobilize the technology we have now while investing in research and development to build the technologies of the future. This is made more difficult by the dysfunction of American politics in Washington D.C. and many states.

Despite the myriad of political problems and the abdication of national leadership, the transition to renewable energy is underway, and eventually, fossil fuels will be driven from the marketplace. The U.S. Supreme Court, the Republican party, Joe Manchin, and the fossil fuel industry share a lack of urgency about the climate crisis. Globally, the picture is less overtly ideological, but the political self-interest of autocrats like Vladimir Putin leads to decision-making that prioritizes fossil fuel utilization. Nevertheless, many of those with economic and political power around the world understand the nature of our environmental crisis and are willing to act on it. The actions of institutional leaders in governments and corporations globally have set this transition in motion, and I believe it is unstoppable. What is less clear is the damage that will be done due to delay. Joe Manchin, like Donald Trump before him, presents a challenge to all of us to figure out how to achieve greenhouse gas reductions in the absence of U.S. national leadership. One way or the other, it must be done. 

This article was originally published in State of the Planet.