As I watched President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress last night, it was refreshing to hear about actual policies and the state of the nation irrespective of whether you agree with him or not. As a climate scientist, it was particularly exciting to hear climate change mentioned several times. As I have written in this space previously, the climate crisis rises to the level of a national emergency and should be addressed with an “Apollo or Manhattan” project scale initiative. President Biden’s focus on climate change and jobs was interesting because it debunks cliche claims about harming our economy.
President Biden has already been very intentional on climate change. He added the United States back into the Paris Accords, proposed aggressive targets for emissions, and held a Summit on Climate Change with world leaders. However, his focus on jobs is very much at the root of arguments that I have made for years. The average U.S. citizen is not going to resonate with narratives about polar bears, carbon dioxide trend lines, model sensitivity, or the latest heat record. The discussion has to be centered around “kitchen table” issues that matter to Americans such as food costs, water availability, public health, energy, infrastructure, and jobs.
President Biden has proposed a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure. While economists and and policy analysts can quibble about it, who can argue with the need for improved bridges, roads, power grids, dams and railways? The plan is also a climate plan. Biden said in his speech, “The American Jobs Plan will put engineers and construction workers to work building more energy-efficient buildings and homes.” The plan also hardens our infrastructure against emerging climate – extreme weather risks. The White House website notes, “In 2020, the United States endured 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, costing $95 billion in damages to homes, businesses, and public infrastructure.” The plan also addresses equity and infrastructure vulnerabilities in marginalized communities.
Of course, there are still standard talking points in some corners that cling to the notion that climate solutions will harm the economy and kill jobs. The premise is that plans like the Green New Deal would cause job losses in the fossil fuel sector and that carbon taxation would lead to economic shockwaves rippling in many directions. However, recent piece in Scientific American argued that carbon taxation will lead to explosive economic growth and an a new “industrial revolution” driven by new jobs in labor-intensive renewable energy and clean technology. A recent discussion in Bloomberg, however, does point out that a clear plan is needed for displaced fossil fuel workers, and I agree.
My Forbes colleague Silvio Marcacci wrote in 2019, “Renewable energy jobs are booming across America, creating stable and high-wage employment for blue-collar workers in some of the country’s most fossil fuel-heavy states, just as the coal industry is poised for another downturn.” According to a 2018 Environmental Defense Fund report, “Solar and wind energy jobs outnumber coal and gas jobs in 30 states, including the District of Columbia.” Investments, like what President Biden proposes, could also spur innovation of services and technologies that we cannot even imagine yet.
There is certainly tension because, as Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” However, opportunity exists. As a native Georgian, I see a huge factory that will make batteries for electric cars sprouting up along an interstate highway in rural northeast Georgia and a growing solar industry presence. At the end of the day, I am pleased that policymakers are finally speaking the language that normal people understand about climate change rather than sounding like policy wonks or Ivory-tower scholars.