President Biden sets the correct tone on climate change from the word “go”

The new administration has a mandate for responsible government, decency, and truth-telling. This can be encapsulated in its policies to deal with climate change. It enters office with, apparently, the largest collection of climate experts in history. This is good, because it is going to be tough to solve the climate change problem, which is really many interconnected problems whose solutions are not easy nor co-beneficial. But they must be solved — and rapidly.

This is reported in the following article from the New York Times, which I’ve added here in order to reply to a few of the points made by critics.

“Mr. Biden enters office with the largest team ever assembled inside the White House to tackle global warming and has installed policy experts at the State Department as well as the National Security Council, the president’s top advisory body for all foreign policy decisions. The Treasury Department, the Transportation Department and the office of Vice President Kamala Harris all will have dedicated climate policy staff, with more hires expected in the coming days throughout the government.

“He has vowed to move quickly. … (find the rest of the NY Times story by Lisa Friedman here)

In the article, it is claimed that the Paris Agreement will harm US businesses. Indeed it may. However, inaction by the world’s largest (or second largest, depending on accounting) polluter will likely devastate many of the same businesses. Put simply, the market for fossil fuels is weak and is likely to weaken much more over the medium (decadal) term. Beyond that, companies with assets still tasked with extracting fossil fuels will be dumping them for a fraction of their present value, probably in sub-Saharan Africa and the least developed parts of Asia. Many of these assets are effectively stranded now. The argument by the congresswoman from West Virginia, that re-entering the Paris Agreement will “hurt American workers and our economy” is disingenuous, or at best shortsighted. I would not be surprised to find out later that she is not speaking on behalf of her constituents, but schilling for coal executives who are well aware that the value of their product is cratering, and the broader support that the Paris Agreement gets, the fewer their options for export.

This is likewise true for the Keystone XL pipeline. This is merely an additional piece of infrastructure (there are pipelines crisscrossing the continent) that will more efficiently move fossil fuel oil from the huge reserves in northern Alberta to the enormous refinery and port infrastructure on the Gulf of Mexico, mostly in Texas, whence it may be marketed. As a Canadian myself, I would like to consider this a resource that may be converted into national treasure, to fund the strong and stable economy (and perpetuate liberal democracy) in my home country. However, no Canadian government (until perhaps Trudeau’s, at least initially) invested thought or resources into a post-petro Alberta. The previous government, under Stephen Harper and many of his officials who emerged from Alberta, invested heavily in tar sands development because (I strongly suspected at the time) they saw the writing on the wall: they were well aware that the world would eventually trend away from fossil fuels, and wanted to extract as much as possible, as quickly as possible. In fact, perhaps with the additional impact of the Pandemic, the fossil fuel economy has cratered much more quickly than anyone expected.

The Paris Agreement is neither perfect nor complete. However, it is a treaty with broad international agreement, clear goals, and mechanisms to monitor compliance — even if it has few means to punish carbon laggards. Most important, it gives us a framework to manage decarbonization of the world economy, at least potentially. (The market, such as it is, has probably already spoken: carbon is not cool.) We do not want to suffer the unmitigated collapse of fossil fuel energy system, because it will not collapse everywhere with equal speed, regulatory compliance, and environmental co-benefits. But we do want it to collapse.

Image: Afternoon forest in Pescadero Creek Park, San Mateo County. Author 2020.

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