Posted on August 10, 2020 by Leslie Carothers
Watching the U.S. government botch the response to the pandemic may deepen pessimism about our prospects for meaningful action to prevent catastrophic climate change. But multiple failures in foresight and management of a simpler crisis may well help make the case for serious national climate protection policies. In fact, strategies for climate action are gaining momentum. And environmental lawyers are stepping up to help.
Two developments in late 2018 created new pressure for action. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C (October 2018) warned that avoiding increasingly severe impacts requires achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and reductions of 45% by 2030. Soon after, young activists led by the Sunrise Movement announced the Green New Deal. Proposed House Resolution 109(Feb. 7, 2019) calls for a 10 year “national mobilization” to meet 100% of the U.S. power demand through “clean, renewable, and zero emission sources,” and to establish a host of programs to address economic weakness and inequality through investments in priorities like infrastructure, universal health insurance, and even a jobs guarantee. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was cool to the “Green Dream,“ and Republicans dismissed the Green New Deal as a socialist takeover. But despite its many critics and its daunting ambition, the Green New Deal has spurred an emerging climate policy consensus on the left and beyond.
Many civil society organizations representing environmental groups, the labor movement, and front-line environmental justice communities harmed by pollution have produced new reports and platforms influenced by the Green New Deal. For example, the U.S. Climate Action Network, a coalition of environmental organizations, issued a Vision for Equitable Climate Action that presents a concise statement of climate policy solutions from a consensus building initiative involving 100 groups. An analysis of this agenda and others by David Roberts in Vox stresses their common focus on achieving the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 by similar means: stringent sector-based energy standards; large scale public investments in efficiency, technology, and infrastructure to reduce emissions and create good jobs; and environmental justice, a commitment not only to protect disadvantaged communities from excess pollution but also to support a just transition for fossil fuel industry workers displaced by the transition to a clean energy economy.
The Democratic members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis established by the Speaker issued a 540-page report in June with comprehensive recommendations for legislative committees. That report sets the same major priorities of setting sector standards, public investment, and environmental justice, with much more elaboration of the details. Neither the Climate Action Network report nor the House Committee Democrats reject the use of market mechanisms to set a price on carbon, but market tools are not central to their agendas. What is clear is that climate strategies combining energy use standards with big public investment to rebuild our infrastructure, generate good jobs, and protect vulnerable communities have won wide acceptance by environmental organizations and the broader Democratic Party, now including the Biden campaign.
The Biden plan announced in July would set technology neutral clean energy standards for the power sector that could allow trading of credits among sources, while pledging major infrastructure investments and greater monitoring of pollution sources to protect disadvantaged communities. His plan calls for a transition to 100% green energy in the power sector by 2035, a national net zero emissions goal by 2050, and $2 trillion in federal investments in clean energy infrastructure, procurement, and research over 4 years. The Democrats’ call for massive federal spending on decarbonization of the economy akin to the original New Deal looks less extreme following a Democratic primary campaign spotlighting decades of wage stagnation amid exploding health and housing costs for the majority of Americans. Today’s pandemic and the resulting economic damage and unemployment have only strengthened the case for more federal spending to revive a long underperforming economy.
In another important policy development, the Climate Leadership Council, the leading proponent of a revenue neutral carbon tax with revenue returned to citizens to offset higher energy costs, issued a Bipartisan Climate Roadmap in February, 2020. The updated plan, narrowed from earlier versions to focus on stationary sources of carbon dioxide and stripped of non-starters like liability protection for fossil fuel companies, estimated that it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 57% by 2035, “unlock” $1.4 trillion in capital investment, presumably private, and create 1.6 million jobs. Initially developed by respected Republican elders James Baker and George Shultz, the plan has many high-powered endorsers from diverse sectors and retired public officials from both political parties. Thorny issues like how this plan can intersect with existing state emission trading and renewable energy portfolio standards remain. But the bigger question is whether this ambitious market-oriented plan would finally bring many congressional Republicans to the table to work on a national law. It is noteworthy that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, mirabile dictu, issued a new statement of climate policy priorities last year, concluding in bold type that “inaction is not an option.” Can the Republican Party be far behind? We shall see.
It’s great to see lawyers advancing concrete climate response actions, too. The report on Legal Pathways for Deep Decarbonization in the United States (2018) edited by ACOEL members and climate experts John Dernbach and Michael Gerrard offers 25 chapters by lawyers who donated their time. (The report and a short summary document are available from the publisher, the Environmental Law Institute). The editors have now recruited 24 law firms and legal clinics to draft model laws implementing the ideas or serve as peer reviewers. More volunteers are still needed. Here is the link to the recently launched website on the project where the work will be published. If readers have interest and time to contribute your skills to this fine project, check it out.
Nearly 30 years ago, the U.S. Senate ratified the 1992 United Nations Framework Climate Convention calling for national efforts to work toward stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels. Those of us dismayed by our national failures since then should applaud young activists for transforming the debate with the Green New Deal’s call for urgency, equity, and economic revival to meet the challenge of the climate crisis. It’s about time.