As the Earth’s global surface temperature continues to increase, the challenges imposed by climate change are only growing larger. The longer we wait to acknowledge climate change as a threat to humanity and act accordingly, the sooner we will face catastrophic consequences.
Amid a global pandemic, Joe Biden was elected last year as the United States’s 46th president. Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, made climate change one of his top priorities. As the Biden administration concludes its first year in office, many ask whether it has been able to uphold this promise.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, former principal consultant to the California State Assembly’s Committee on Natural Resources and lecturer on energy law and policy at campus’s Goldman School of Public Policy Steven Weissman responded to these questions and reflected on the administration’s approach to climate change thus far.
Weissman began his analysis by describing the standards, boundaries and values associated with the first year of a new administration.
“There is often the general expectation that a new administration will achieve a high percentage of its campaign goals. Biden was no different than his predecessors in not achieving all,” Weismann said.
However, with a monumental effort from the administration, Congress passed the infrastructure bill and is currently debating the reconciliation bill. Both bills include the largest budgets devoted to tackling climate change in U.S. history.
Because the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions are the use of fossil fuels and transportation methods, Weissman acknowledged that the infrastructure bill supports funding to develop infrastructure such as creating more charging stations for electric vehicles.
In terms of the reconciliation bill, Weissman noted that not a lot of the original bill was left after debate: More than $500 billion is dedicated to handle climate issues, while $300 billion relates to tax benefits.
In a way, the bill has become one about how to provide monetary incentives, either directly or indirectly, to individuals, corporations and governments to get them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Although this might appear to be bad news, Weissman added that creating the markets for renewable energy sources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will create the ability for businesses to better reach those goals.
Weissman believes that these bills will be effective only if certain conditions align in their favor.
“If the incentives are rich enough, if businesses are motivated enough, then this strategy is going to produce progress. But it’s going to leave us with huge gaps in terms of what we need to accomplish over the next 10 or 15 years,” Weissman said.
The tax structure has historically rewarded corporations for wasting resources because, if a business is inefficient in its use of energy, it can deduct more money from its taxable income, Weissman noted. Therefore, he suggested an alternative structure that rewards corporations for being more efficient.
This approach, however, would still support the business strategy as businesses can decide to not cut carbon emissions to deduct from larger costs. Thus, I asked Weissman if he thinks the administration has done anything to move the economy to becoming more sustainable.
“One thing the government has done is require that the reports issued through the Security Exchange Commission accurately reflect the economic risks that are being faced by business,” Weisman said. “And so, to the extent to which climate is creating risk, companies need to report that. And so, if there are things they can do to try to reduce that risk, then to some extent, they’re going to want to do that.”
Certainly, this isn’t enough. Many companies will still try to find ways to maximize their profits without worrying about reducing their carbon footprint, and the administration will continue to support the domestic use of fossil fuels and their export. Simply issuing reports does not set an incentive for these companies to do the right thing on their own.
I finally asked Weissman what the administration can do differently instead of depending on fossil fuels.
“It’s really a three-legged stool: You try to make your energy use as efficient as you possibly can. And then you try to get all of the fossil fuel out of the energy mix and the transportation side. And then you try to electrify everything that currently uses fossil fuels,” Weissman said.
Apart from relying on alternative energy sources such as compressed air and storing electricity in batteries to make use later, he noted that the administration needs to adopt carbon capture and sequestration.
“There’s certainly a movement in the right direction. But there’s a combination of problems here. We don’t have time for gradual adoption of better policies and better actions. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the world experts on climate have made it very clear that getting levels of emissions down to avoid going above 1.5 degrees Celsius of change by the end of this decade is critically important,” Weissman added.
As the climate crisis continues to impose more challenges on a daily basis, it remains unclear whether or not the Biden administration will be able to keep up its pace. Perhaps in the following months and years, Biden will have to act faster and in confidence to ensure the protection of our environment.