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The Need and the Opportunity

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

We need massive action on climate change right now, and the economic destruction wrought by the novel coronavirus pandemic may have inadvertently provided the United States with its last best chance to get it done.

The pace and scale of the policy response necessary to stave off the worst effects of climate change are unprecedented. Trillions of dollars will need to be spent within a decade. The problem has been that up until very recently, the political climate has been such that a program of this scale was well nigh impossible.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been advocating for a massive governmental response to climate change for awhile: first came the Green New Deal (GND) that proposes heavy government spending and mandates in order to rapidly transition to renewable energy. Of course, it entails other policy measures that address social and environmental ills not directly related to climate change. More recently, the top Democratic presidential candidates proposed spending trillions of dollars on climate change measures, either because they are authentic climate champions or saw the need to cater to the progressive wing of the party to gain the nomination,

However, at the time, the economy was on a record breaking winning streak, albeit one that mostly benefited a thin upper crust of American households. Unemployment was at near record lows along with a record breaking bull market. So the appetite for a massive change to our country's energy infrastructure was low. Despite the fact that the majority of Americans are concerned or alarmed about climate change, only a small minority put climate change at the top of their list of concerns. Therefore, the prospects for the Federal government having the political will to enact legislation mandating that trillions of dollars be spent on a program to transition our economy from fossil fuels to renewables seemed grim.

Then along came the novel coronavirus pandemic. The restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the virus has put tens of millions of Americans out of work. The Federal government has already spent trillions to stave off the worst economic effects of the restrictions. The states that have moved most aggressively to reopen business are seeing a resurgence of the virus. By the Fall, we are likely to see the reimposition of restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. This will deepen the recession. There are ominous signs that the President and the Senate will balk at additional stimulus packages. This could have catastrophic effects on the economy. State coffers are already running dry. This means the curtailing of safety net programs including unemployment, not to mention the furloughing of many state employees and the deferral of projects that would have employed private sector contractors. If the states are not given payments by the Federal government to cover these shortfalls, the situation will be dire.

The most likely results of this economic chaos is a Democratic landslide in November. This is by no means assured. Democrats will have to win most of the toss up Senate elections. And then there is the question of how difficult voting will be with a raging pandemic. In addition, there is very good chance that mail in voting will be greatly restricted in Republican controlled states. We saw chaos at the polls in Georgia. Hopefully, this is not a harbinger of things to come in November. We will need all hands on deck to ensure a Democratic sweep. That is a major task for Rebuild Climate volunteers. More on the political campaign component of the Rebuild Climate agenda in a subsequent post.

But assuming that come January, Democrats are in control of the White House, and both houses of Congress, the chance to enact climate change legislation with the level of ambition equal to the task are infinitely improved from that of the status quo. There are several impediments however. I will go into the many potential roadblocks to the passage of ambitious energy transition legislation in a subsequent post. For now, however, I want to highlight that control of one house of Congress may very well flip to GOP after the 2022 midterms. This would put an end to any ambitious legislative agenda. So it matters a lot what the legislative priorities of Congress and the President are in 2021. If the energy transition agenda slips to third place after justice/police reform, immigration reform and healthcare-for-all for instance, the likelihood of energy transition legislation getting enacted before the midterms would be miniscule.

However, when you put together the fact that in all likelihood there will still be the need for a massive Federal jobs program in 2021, it moves the energy transition way up the list of priorities. None of the other policy priorities listed above would create jobs. Electrifying transit, buildings and the electricity sectors alone would net millions of jobs. Several economic studies of the energy transition indicate that the economy would net millions of jobs even accounting for the reduction in jobs in the fossil fuel industry.

Again, here is where Rebuild Climate volunteers come in. Citizens around the country need to make it clear to the incoming Biden administration and the Democrats in congress (both incumbents and incoming freshmen) that in the critical years of 2021-2022 a package of legislation that would put the energy transition on an irreversible course must be passed.

Please join Rebuild Climate in making the historic passage of energy transition legislation in 2021-2022 a reality!

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