Think of it as trying to extinguish a Dumpster fire, while also chucking more flammable trash into the Dumpster.
That's sort of the problem facing President Joe Biden, who came into office with two opposing goals looming:
- First, he had to slow the frightening pace of climate change.
- And, also first, he had to reboot a flagging US economy by creating jobs.
Never the less, Biden has got to work on putting out the Dumpster fire that is US climate change policy: This week, the 46th president announced a slew of sweeping, executive actions targeting the climate crisis. The orders range from establishing a federal council to tackle environmental justice, to purchasing a fleet of electric, zero-emission vehicles to replace federal vehicles and create union jobs.
These first moves in office are a significant departure from his predecessor’s attitude on science and the realities of global warming. As president, Donald Trump routinely dismissed the escalating climate crisis; lying about it more than 100 times by the six-month mark of his first and only term. He made empty promises to bring back jobs to the United States in the form of coal mines and car factories — two of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions globally.
He infamously withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, which positioned the US as a leader in reducing greenhouse emissions. Trump didn’t see the US as leading the world in stopping climate change, but, rather, losing because it would force the US to innovate in order to meet the ambitious goals of decreasing pollution. Effectively, it was hard work, so Trump quit.
Biden’s answer to just about everything — yes, even that other thing — thus far has been a welcome, ambitious, one: “Why not both?” The 78-year-old president is applying the beloved meme to US policy. After four years of jaw-dropping division in the US stoked by a chaotic, power-hungry president, the idea of getting things done at a professional pace should be a welcome one to people on both sides of the aisle — laws that protect our fragile natural lands (Democrats), and job creation that will change the game for entire regions of rural America (Republicans).
In a press release put out on Wednesday, the administration put it this way:
Today, President Biden will take executive action to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad while creating good-paying union jobs and equitable clean energy future…
In Biden’s mind, it seems, kickstarting the economy and paving the way to a greener future are not in opposition to each other at all. Rather, the success of one goal is dependent on the other.
You can practically hear the Scranton-born, Corvette-driving septuagenarian: By golly, the clean energy revolution, can, and will, generate good jobs for hard-working Americans.
As Biden put it during the October 2020 debate, the impact of climate change on local communities is far more economically devastating than job losses that are going to happen anyway, especially if you look at market rates for clean energy versus coal-based energy.
“We spend billions of dollars now, billions of dollars, on floods, hurricanes, rising seas,” Biden said during that debate.
He’s got a point, and it is one that is rarely made in the ongoing climate vs. economy argument. It will be undoubtedly far more expensive in the long run not to fix this problem now of worsening climate now. Weather will get more extreme and cause even more damage. Climate change models should be terrifying to anyone paying attention, and if one is skeptical of those forecasts, the charts that show global temperatures rising like GameStop stock are just as anxiety-inducing.
Historically, establishing a link between the two seemingly divergent missions has been lacking. For example, a 2020 report in the journal Nature examined the trajectory of emissions following major economic downtowns, including the oil crisis in the 1970s, and the 2008 recession.
Following each dip in the economy, we see a brief, but significant, dip in global emissions — followed by a steep rise in emissions as economic recovery begins.
So far, that same pattern syncs up with what has happened during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Global Carbon Project reported global carbon dioxide emissions dropped a record seven percent during 2020. The reasons? Fewer people on the road from lockdowns and the concurrent shutdown in the global economy — but importantly, this effect may be temporary.
Even without definite action, it is possible emissions won’t rebound as quickly as they have done in the past during economic recovery, according to some scientists.
“During the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, emissions bounced back and exceed[ed] pre-crisis levels the following year,” Pep Canadell, director of the Global Carbon Project, told Inverse earlier this year.
“This time, however, the economic impact is more profound and it is likely that an economic slowdown will be accompanied by little or no growth in emissions over a few years,” Canadell said.
But whether or not they rebound quickly to pre-recession level isn’t really the issue at hand. The real issue is the long-term trajectory of emissions.
According to the authors of the Nature report, political leaders can pursue one of two paths during economic recoveries. Whichever they choose can dramatically affect the long-term trajectory of emissions.
From the report:
Economies rarely bounce right back to their pre-shock state. Instead, they follow greener or dirtier paths.
Leaders took the dirtier path in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s, when coal-fueled economic growth spiked emissions levels.
They took the greener path in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, however, when renewable energy became increasingly popular. Today, renewable energy surpasses fossil fuels as the European Union’s main source of electricity.
According to the report, the difference between choosing to walk the dirty path or the green path post-Covid-19 could have a monumental effect on whether we can ultimately save Earth from the climate crisis — taking the greener road, they argue, could result in 230 fewer gigatons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2050.
Judging by this new slate of executive actions, the Biden administration seems to be taking the greener path.
Biden wants to double renewable energy from offshore wind by 2030, and build smaller, cheaper, nuclear reactors to provide America’s increasing energy needs. If he succeeds, then he could set the U.S. on the same path as the European Union.
Ultimately, this could be the 46th president’s FDR moment. It's his chance to spin a once-in-a-lifetime crisis and enact groundbreaking progressive reforms, just like FDR did in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
At first glance, the comparison between Biden and Roosevelt (who was in office between 1933 and 1945) may seem a little stretched. After all, Biden came to power largely due to his appeal as a moderate, steady hand who could unify a politically polarized nation.
FDR, meanwhile, came to power as a radical, yet incredibly popular leader who rallied the country during famine and war and dramatically expanded the federal government’s role in the economy in his ambitious New Deal legislation.
But during his campaign, Biden put forward a progressive climate platform, including support for the Green New Deal and a pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
And this latest set of initiatives places Biden far closer to Roosevelt’s radicalism than political moderates would perhaps like to admit.
These executive actions aim to put Americans back to work through a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative that will reforest the country and restore public lands. The plan clearly echoes FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which gave Americans jobs via public-works programs which also benefited the environment.
Yet, Biden has to contend with challenges that FDR did not: a deeply polarized American electorate and Congress. Biden’s government is filled with legislators — some within his own party — who are dead set against his forward-looking climate initiatives.
The scope of the crisis also means Biden will need to look beyond Congress to pursue his climate-change agenda if he wants to hew to the goal of stopping emissions from raising global temperature more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial age temps.
Some politicians are calling for Biden to bypass the legislature altogether, and declare a climate emergency to enact broader executive actions. This may be a popular move, given that 64 percent of Americans recognize the climate crisis as an emergency.
In fact, there are two innovative, expert-backed policies with broad appeal which could potentially accomplish Biden’s dual goals of job growth and emissions reductions during this historic climate moment:
- Carbon capture
- Debt-for-climate swaps
To understand why, it is worth going into both in detail.
What is carbon capture?
Carbon capture isn’t a new idea, but it is gaining traction among climate scientists and big business alike for its potential to quickly remove vast amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, all while drumming up new jobs.
One Economist article even proposes an interesting question: “What if carbon capture becomes the new Big Oil?”
It is possible to remove carbon through bioenergy carbon capture, which uses carbon sinks like trees and crops to suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Popular campaigns like the Trillion Trees initiative seek to curb global warming through reforestation, though some scientists doubt whether planting one trillion trees will draw down carbon fast enough — it takes years for trees to mature into carbon sinks.
Then there’s the more industrial-focused carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) method, which involves removing carbon dioxide directly from fossil-fuel burning plants, transporting it, and storing it in underground rock formations.
Last year, Jørgen Randers, professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, authored a study calling for investment in carbon-capture technology to halt emissions. According to Randers, this was the best possible way to save the melting Arctic permafrost.
At the time, Randers told Inverse carbon capture works “by moving carbon from the atmosphere to the deep underground at higher speeds than the natural processes that drive the same flows on geological time scales.”
It’s an appealing idea, innovating our way out of the climate crisis. So much so that there was increased support for carbon-capture machines to suck carbon dioxide directly out of the air and convert it into synthetical fuel.
These machines are prohibitively expensive right now, but one report from 2018 indicates the costs could drop to as low as $100 per ton.
Biden seems onboard the carbon-capture train, too. In his campaign plans, he says intends to “accelerate the development and deployment of carbon capture sequestration technology,” by working with groups like the Carbon Capture Coalition, which emphasizes a “high-wage jobs base through the adoption of carbon capture technologies.”
Carbon-capture technology also received bipartisan support in Congress in the 2018 FUTURE Act.
Yet, Randers cautions the financial benefits of carbon capture may be short-term, largely due to the cost of the manpower and equipment required to capture and store emissions.
“CCS is not profitable from an investor point of view. And will never be so — in the sense that clean electricity from gas utilities with CCS always will be more expensive than electricity from gas utilities without CCS,” Randers says.
But “there is no way around the huge-scale use of CCS” which will be necessary to “draw down the concentration of [carbon dioxide] from the atmosphere,” he says.
Eventually, the cost of carbon capture will be unavoidable, he says, much like the inevitable costs of maintaining the military, for the sake of our own well-being. This short-term cost will lead to long-term job growth — and likely save our planet.
“In order for there to be CCS, society must decide to do so and pay the extra cost. This payment will lead to good jobs for workers and reasonable return on capital for owners,” Randers says.
What are debt-for-climate swaps?
Although the U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, tackling the climate crisis requires a global effort. That’s where debt-for-climate comes in.
Biden could take a global climate stand with one of the U.S.’s biggest rivals — China — by backing one key policy: “debt-for-climate,” or “debt-for-nature,” swaps.
A new study published in the journal Science discusses the idea of debt-for-climate swaps, which China is reportedly considering as a way to conserve the environment and reduce global debt.
Rebecca Ray, a co-author on the study and a senior academic researcher at Boston University, tells Inverse such a scheme could solve two of China’s problems.
“Debt-for-nature swaps and debt-for-climate swaps are mechanisms through which debtor nations that cannot repay their loans can convert those obligations into commitments to pursue conservation or sustainable development project,” she says.
Basically, nations indebted to another country — like the U.S. or China — would be able to negotiate to cancel or reduce their debts in exchange for committing to certain environmental targets.
Many of these debtor nations are also lower-income countries — the most vulnerable to climate change — so they have an added incentive to participate.
According to Ray, these deals are a win-win financially for both parties.
“The debtor nation can pursue its longer-term sustainable development goals without being deterred by the short-term financing obstacles, and the creditor — as well as the world — benefits from climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation,” Ray says.
“Debt-for-nature” swaps aren’t new, but the idea has evolved tremendously over the past 30 years, according to Ray, opening the door to more climate-change focused swaps.
The current moment also provides a fresh opportunity to take a look at these policy mechanisms.
“As the developing world faces a debt crisis stemming from the pandemic, debt-for-nature or debt-for-climate swaps can offer a way for them to address debt sustainability without having to sacrifice their long term goals for sustainable economic development,” Ray says.
The U.S has the added advantage of having handled debt-for-nature swaps in the past. The Tropical Forest Conservation Act of 1998 opened the door to “debtor nations who are unable to repay their obligations to the U.S.” by giving them “the option of pursuing conservation commitments in lieu of repayments,” Ray says.
B. Alexander Simmons, a study co-author and post-doctoral research fellow at Boston University, agrees. He tells Inverse that previous studies show “when implemented effectively, the increased debt relief and increased conservation funding from the debt-for-nature swaps led to lower rates of forest loss.”
The economy and climate don’t necessarily conflict with each other in debt-for-climate swaps, either, he says.
“It is important to recognize that these two types of debt swaps are not mutually-exclusive. Climate and nature are intrinsically linked,” Simmons says.
Simmons cites the myriad climate benefits from these swaps, “such as preserving natural carbon sinks or reducing emissions from abated forest loss.”
These swaps could also focus on solutions to benefit nature conservation and curb climate change, “such as restoring mangrove forests to increase the resilience of coastal communities to storm surges,” he says.
Ultimately, there’s clear scientific and economic evidence to back the potential success of these swaps, Simmons says. According to him, Biden shouldn’t hesitate to incorporate them into his climate agenda.
“To maximize return on investment, I would urge the Biden administration to consider integrated debt swaps for multiple benefits to biodiversity, climate, and people,” Simmons says.
What’s next — According to the executive actions announced, Biden’s next big climate action to keep an eye on: the Earth Day Leaders’ Climate Summit on April 22. The summit signifies the nation’s return as a key global leader in the fight against the climate crisis.
It’s not yet clear who’s attending, but we expect to see more big climate plans announced in the weeks and months leading up to the Earth Day summit and the November UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in the United Kingdom.
Biden is inheriting a world of problems; a Dumpster fire's worth. But when it comes to slowing climate change and creating jobs, he has no choice but to do both.