As Americans across the nation suffer from extreme heat and wildfires ravage much of the West, President Joe Biden recently declared climate change “a clear and present danger” and described it as a national security emergency. Rather than trying to turn national attention to climate change during a historic global energy crisis, the Biden administration should sharply focus its message on addressing energy and national security, a politically savvy strategy that would reap more benefits for the climate. With the Senate’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), it seems the administration is finally understanding that industrial policy and pragmatic political economy of energy security is a much more powerful driver for change.
A formal declaration of a national “climate emergency” will not move the needle on the diffuse set of actions needed across various sectors of the economy. In many ways, it does just the opposite, doubling down on the language of fear rather than emphasizing positive economic and national security benefits that are more likely to win political and popular support. Most importantly, the climate emergency framing limits policy responses and mindsets.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) pitched this narrative in mid-July, and it appears to have stuck in the IRA, which Biden hailed as making “investments in our energy security for the future.” But even as the Manchin deal with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was being negotiated, one of the country’s most experienced political strategists, John Podesta, grieved that Manchin had “…single-handedly doomed humanity.” The media has also misinterpreted the motivations, noting “The climate bill won’t stop global warming. But it will clean the air.” For the majority of voters, cleaning the air is more tangible, and therefore a stronger political motivator than limiting the global temperature rise.
The IRA is a big step forward in the fight to address climate change, but most of the provisions that do so have to do with clean energy. Positive narratives like incentivizing growth in clean energy industries and subsidizing renewable energy for households are far superior messages.
Three flawed paradigms contribute to the global failure of governments to tackle climate change. First, perceiving the world solely through a climate lens does not motivate most people, politicians, or companies to change their behavior. “Build back better, blah blah blah, Green economy, blah blah blah,” Greta Thunberg infamously summarized. Climate is too global and too diffuse an issue to make positive, discrete changes through existing policy levers. Part of the problem is that these levers are also diffuse: they exist in various departments and agencies with diverse mandates such as energy, transportation, agriculture, and housing.
Second, climate change is a priority to only a small percentage of people globally, and almost no governments regard it as a top-tier issue. In most of the world, the highest-priority issue areas are related to economic growth and vibrant livelihoods, and ensuring personal freedoms, and these necessarily garner the most political attention, legislation, and funding. An article in Science magazine dryly noted the obvious, “The available evidence does not yet indicate that the world has seriously committed to achieving the 1.5°C goal.”
Finally, the United States is not perceived as a global leader on climate change. President Donald Trump famously pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2020; but the United States never backed the Kyoto Protocol and, as the most powerful country in the world, has never been eager to impose climate constraints on itself. Even after Biden rejoined the Paris Accord on his first day in office, the spotty U.S. record on climate action forced the administration to back down from its attempt to “name and shame” other industrialized nations.
The only way for the United States to achieve meaningful change on climate action is to change its approach — and work towards a new, inclusive, and holistic energy and national security paradigm. The United States is a highly militarized country, with the largest budget for defense in the world. The language, tools, and power of security are pervasive in American society and thus are more likely to galvanize voters.
This refined messaging must explicitly acknowledge that, as the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels and a country with a distinctly divisive political system, climate change is best transacted as a subset of other goals, such as those to address rural development, or air and water pollution, and energy security. Investing in geothermal energy, for example, could boost development in rural communities and reduce consumer utility spending. The IRA will provide clean electricity tax credits that could greatly reduce emissions and protect domestic renewable energy sources, including nuclear energy, that face competition from hydrocarbons. The provisions outlined in the bill are still not enough for the United States to meet its Paris goal of a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, so integrating climate goals with other key initiatives remains critical. The global energy crisis and resulting pain at the pump for American consumers provides traction for the Biden administration to enact policies that support American energy security through a pragmatic clean energy transition.
This narrative shift towards something that is locally grounded and practically doable allows for real changes to take place without less political theater. That is, discrete changes can take place, and should be understood not to be insignificant, but rather the most effective way to make change.
It also acknowledges the reality that climate change is unlikely to be a top tier priority for many people or governments until it is too late. We can enact the right policies, for different reasons. Insisting on the pure, or the grandiose, or the “right” simply ensures that we continue to fail.