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The Biden administration is up and running. And if anyone in the country or the Democratic party thought the President would be a climate incrementalist they should think again. Like the Sesame Street bit or the Tom Hanks film, the word of the week in the White House was BIG.
Secretary of the Treasury nominee Janet Yellen said in her confirmation hearing, America needs to “act big” and added that “without further action, we risk a longer, more painful recession now – and long-term scarring of the economy later.” She concluded that “right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big. In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time.” I was struck by her candor and her ambition. President Obama used to famously say he believed in government and its ability to do the “big things.” And if there was ever a time those big things are needed, it is now.
What Yellen said about boldness in the face of grave risk of much worse economic disaster could apply equally to the climate crisis. In Our Daily Planet’s recent conversation with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, we asked him how Democrats can work through attacks on climate action and his advice was hauntingly similar. He said, “Just do it! Do it big, do it fast, and then let the results speak for themselves.” He too believes that we risk a planetary environmental catastrophe from which we will not be able to recover if we fail to go big right now as we seek to rebuild from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. This is not a new idea — it has been discussed for months. What is striking is to see it begin to take shape and go from possibility to reality.
Indeed, the Republican-controlled Congress itself got the big ball rolling by passing late last year a huge energy spending law — the $38B American Energy Innovation Act — that was a compilation of more than 50 small energy bills that had been pending, many for years. In the end, the support for the bill was big too – it had 60 co-sponsors — and that was before the Senate added two more Democrats. It will supercharge the development of new energy efficiency technologies, plus expand research into solar, wind, geothermal, and other clean power sources. It also boosts security for the energy grid.
Which brings us to this week. When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, the administration has already gone big in its cabinet — selecting a team with many well-known climate advocates like Governor Jennifer Granholm at Energy, Pete Buttigieg at Transportation, Gina McCarthy as the National Climate Advisor, Brian Deese at the helm of the National Economic Council, and of course former Secretary of State John Kerry as Special Envoy. This is a team of big stars who can get big things done — even if they are hard. And with his executive power, the President wasted no time making good on the many big promises of the campaign — taking a multitude of actions that were totally within authority already given to him by Congress — to halt drilling on federal lands, rejoin the Paris agreement, protect large areas in the Arctic Ocean, re-elevate fuel economy standards, reimposed appliance efficiency standards, and cut back methane emissions. And that was just the opening act — there is more executive action on climate change to undo Trump’s policies expected early next week.
Instead of stopping there, the administration should heed Yellen and Whitehouse’s advice and keep going big to broaden its ambitions in other economic sectors that with investment will not only help us reign in carbon pollution, but will also grow our economy at this critical moment. Transportation is the area with the biggest upside — investments in bigger and better batteries for energy storage and electric vehicles, big trucks and airplane technologies so they can run more efficiently and on clean fuels, and maybe even the elimination of obsolete roads to restore walkability and connectivity within cities that have been literally divided by highways. The public is hungry for infrastructure improvements — both the jobs and the chance to minimize big climate risks by truly rebuilding our infrastructure with climate change in mind.
There are also big gains to be achieved in the financial sector through greater accountability and transparency of investments in fossil fuels. Secretary Yellen pledged last week to do something no Treasury Secretary had ever done before — take the climate crisis seriously. She plans to start a new Treasury “hub” that would examine financial system risks arising from climate change and on related tax policy incentives and to appoint a “very senior-level” official to lead the Department’s climate efforts. At the Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack already knows how to go big, and in the coffers of USDA he has plenty of money for it too. He said this week he will increase USDA programs to combat climate change, believing that farmers will embrace the chance to make money by sequestering carbon within the soil.
Big does not mean radical. Big can be bipartisan. The secret to “getting to yes” could be in the bigness itself. The more that average Americans across the country in red and blue states stand to gain from climate spending and programs, the more popular they will be. In a recent survey about climate action undertaken by Yale and George Mason Universities, Americans made clear they overwhelmingly — Democrats and Republicans — want to see the government take action to address the climate crisis. As Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary said this week when asked about how to get unity behind the President’s agenda, she said we will unite the country when we show results. So to quote Senator Whitehouse, on climate action, the White House must go big, go bold, go fast, and let the results speak for themselves.
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