How Should US Leaders Tackle Climate Change?
Some believe climate change is such a hard problem and faces so many political roadblocks, that there's nothing we can do to avoid calamity. That's false. The President of the United States has enormous powers to advance pro-climate reform across multiple branches and agencies -- even without much support from Congress.
The next president, whoever it may be, should use those executive powers. There is no time to spare. According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have only a decade left to avoid catastrophe. From day one, the next president should elevate climate change to the center of US foreign policy.
"According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have only a decade left to avoid catastrophe. From day one, the next president should elevate climate change to the center of U.S. foreign policy."
That said, the United States must get its own house in order before demanding action from others. Domestic climate action reinforces US foreign policy -- and vice versa. Ideally, the president and Congress would sequence policies by using domestic moves to elicit reciprocal responses from elsewhere in the world. Political leaders from both major parties should advance domestic reforms with an eye to the international context, and, conversely, use foreign policy to remove obstacles for domestic climate action.
Given the various uncertainties in Congress, we, at Brown University's Climate Solutions Lab, have studied how the next US President could combat climate change through executive action. In our report, Presidential Climate Action on Day One: A Foreign Policy Guide for the Next US President, we've identified ten executive climate actions that are central to securing US global leadership on climate change and the nation’s overarching foreign-policy goals -- beyond what either Joe Biden or Donald Trump has already pledged.
"Political leaders from both major parties should advance domestic reforms with an eye to the international context, and, conversely, use foreign policy to remove obstacles for domestic climate action."
For instance, the right mix of policies could avoid a climate-related financial crisis that would far exceed the severity of the 2008 or 2020 crises. Today, the nation's largest financial institutions continue to lend to, invest in, and underwrite the very fossil fuel industries that have created climate change. Left unaddressed, this will lead to dire consequences. For instance, the effects of climate change could create cascading mortgage failures in assets like coastal real estate.
Dr. Jeff D. Colgan and Amanda Little Instagram Live conversation streamed on 10/23/2020.
Among the report's ten recommendations, we urge the next president to direct the Federal Reserve and other US regulators to address this malign feedback loop -- where finance for fossil fuels exacerbates climate change, and climate change, in turn, destabilizes the US financial system. The Fed can do so, in part, by embracing some of the techniques other central banks around the world have already adopted.
"Today, the nation’s largest financial institutions continue to lend to, invest in, and underwrite the very fossil fuel industries that have created climate change. Left unaddressed, this will lead to dire consequences."
A second climate opportunity lies in the global trade system and what is referred to as a "Climate Club." Global trade wars and other actions have undermined the World Trade Organization (WTO). Its rules need updating. To borrow from Biden, the United States should "build the WTO back better," to ensure trade rules do not inhibit pro-climate policies. In doing so, the next president should start building a "Climate Club" where major economies would agree to collectively reduce emissions while using trade measures to penalize non-participants. Many scholars and practitioners believe the Club model is the most promising approach to addressing a central impediment to international climate cooperation: the lack of enforcement.
The United States should also embrace a "Climate Club" because many countries are going ahead with punitive trade measures unilaterally -- and the US will not want its industries to be left behind. The European Union, for instance, plans to implement carbon-border adjustments by 2023. If applied to US goods, these tariffs would make it harder for US companies to export to Europe. Similarly, presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to place US carbon tariffs on other countries' exports. A Climate Club would coordinate these pro-climate policies, protect Club members from each other's carbon tariffs, and economically disadvantage non-participants.
A third opportunity is for the next president to formally declare a national climate emergency. This move would send a strong message to the world that the US views climate change as one of the most pressing threats to national security and is ready to take action. Invoking the National Emergencies Act would also unlock 123 special statutory powers that the next president could use to protect the US economy against climate-related disruptions.
For instance, the next president could use special construction authorities and issue loan guarantees to rapidly modernize the US electricity sector in ways that make it greener, more secure, and more cost-effective. This effort would upgrade and integrate the country’s outdated electrical grids, securing them from modern threats like climate disruptions and cyber-attacks.
"... rapidly modernize the US electricity sector in ways that make it greener, more secure, and more cost-effective. This effort would upgrade and integrate the country’s outdated electrical grids, securing them from modern threats like climate disruptions and cyber-attacks."
There are, of course, drawbacks to using executive actions, which can be reversed or stalled in court. Still, most environmental executive orders are durable, even into future presidential administrations. Court reversals of environmental measures are quite rare. Moreover, the president must use all the tools available to him, given the scale and urgency of the problem.
Urging the Fed to address climate change to avoid financial catastrophe, creating a Climate Club, and declaring a national climate emergency are just three of the ten ideas we explore in our report on the vast powers of the executive branch. By identifying actionable items, we hope to make climate reform a little less daunting.