Perhaps the most significant thing to celebrate this Earth Month is the fact that we have a president who not only acknowledges the existential nature of the climate crisis, but has also put climate solutions at the top of his priority list, along with eliminating COVID-19. Now that a captain’s in the wheelhouse who knows how to beneficially steer the ship of state, our future looks a lot brighter.
As soon as he took office, President Joe Biden rejoined the U.S. in the Paris Climate Agreement, appointed powerhouse environmental advocates to high positions in his administration, and immediately began issuing a flurry of executive orders to reinstate protections for our air, water and national lands that were rescinded by the Donald Trump administration. Significantly, he’s taking an all-of-government approach to climate issues; he even signed one order directing agencies across the government to complete at least 60 separate climate-related actions…by May!
Several changes he’s made will have particularly far-reaching consequences. One is setting the social cost of carbon at $51/ton rather than the Trump administration’s low-ball $1/ton. A higher dollar figure prevents regulations that underestimate the true cost of emissions relative to the benefits of cutting them. A directive for agencies to base decisions on scientific evidence and data will positively affect all policymaking as well. And simply classifying climate change as a national security priority for the first time will have ripple effects throughout government.
Biden’s concern for vulnerable populations living near industrial pollution is demonstrated by his creation of a White House interagency council on environmental justice, in addition to offices in the departments of Justice and of Health and Human Services. The newly created Civilian Climate Corps (shades of FDR!) will be helping restore forests and wetlands and rehabilitate public lands, among other things, but they may also tackle some of the sources of pollution in these disadvantaged communities.
Further wins for the climate in Biden’s unfolding plan are directives to federal agencies to end fossil fuel subsidies (a scandalous $649 billion worth annually as of 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund), to protect 30% of federal land and coastal waters by 2030, and to replace the federal government’s fleet of about 650,000 vehicles with electric models.
In addition, two items that have long been sources of conflict, green-lighted by the Trump administration, were once again halted: a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and new oil and gas developments in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And these are by no means all the changes in motion. Achieving his goals of a national net-zero economy by 2050 and an end to carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 will require unprecedented efforts in all sectors, and his plan to get there does not disappoint.
Beyond all the powerful executive actions the president can authorize, however, there is one crucial approach that depends on Congress — national legislation to put a price on carbon. That is, to charge fossil fuel companies a fee for the health- and climate-damaging emissions from burning their products — coal, oil and gas. Leading climate scientists, economists and high-level politicians from both sides of the aisle say pricing carbon is the most effective, efficient and easily implemented first step to cut greenhouse gas pollution.
A majority of the public supports this policy, too, according to polls by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing the American business community, has recently called for a market-based approach to accelerate GHG emissions reductions across the U.S. economy (essentially, carbon pricing).
Even the American Petroleum Institute — the largest U.S. trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, representing nearly 600 corporations, no doubt seeing the emissions regulation handwriting on the wall — has endorsed market-based carbon pricing, after years of resisting any kind of government interference.
Biden should press Congress for carbon pricing legislation that will avoid see-sawing executive orders from one administration to the next. Cutting carbon emissions enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate chaos not only requires an effective, long-term, consistent policy (i.e., law), but also public support. Legislation like the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 2307) would have the necessary public support, because all revenue collected would be returned to American households. Would any household dislike monthly dividend checks from a program to create a healthier climate and more secure future?
Biden should be commended for putting the welfare of people and planet above that of fossil fuel companies and billionaires. Now let’s urge our congressional representatives to hand him a carbon pricing bill for the centerpiece of his ambitious, multi-faceted climate plan and complete the picture.
Cher Gilmore lives in Newhall and is a member of the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.