The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many existing problems in the American economy and created new ones. Now, as a new presidential administration and Congress take office amid compounding historic challenges, Brookings’s Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity provides a series of innovative, implementable federal policy proposals. In the essays discussing climate and resilience, Brookings scholars lay out policies that respond to the climate crisis both domestically and abroad.
Climate change is one of those rare issues that touches every aspect of our economic, social, and physical security. The United States continues to be one of the planet’s highest-emitting countries, reflecting high fossil fuel use, inefficient land development, and unsustainable agriculture practices. Extreme weather events from wildfires in the west to hurricanes in the east grow in frequency each year, while more gradual challenges such as natural ecosystem loss, urban heat islands, and persistent droughts are only intensifying. The net effect is a population facing deep financial risks, unchecked environmental injustice, and profound uncertainty about how to manage future growth.
However, the climate crisis also offers opportunities for a new growth model. Transitioning to a net-zero-emission economy by 2050—a stated goal of President Joe Biden and many global peers—will require new economic architecture to support it, including infrastructure, education, financial instruments, and regulation. New career opportunities will emerge, new financial instruments will be introduced, and new products and services will be invented. If managed successfully, our transition to a clean economy can also build a more just, inclusive, and entrepreneurial society.
The United States cannot respond to this crisis alone. Climate change is the ultimate global issue, with emissions anywhere affecting the climate everywhere. The United States has a moral responsibility to work alongside our global peers, and the planet will benefit if American innovators can design new solutions for emerging problems. Meanwhile, our people will benefit from using international products and services that can reduce our destructive footprint at home. Global engagement also has the benefit of promoting democracy abroad, since those norms are still the most effective way to broker compromise and hold one another accountable. The planet needs the United States to be part of productive climate action.
Brookings’s climate and resilience Blueprints focus on these fundamental structural and international issues. They draw from expertise throughout the Institution to suggest federal policies to help the United States achieve its emission reduction goals, strengthen our resilience to the inevitable changes in climate that will occur, and reinvigorate our international efforts to encourage greater climate ambition and learn from our global partners.
REDUCING FEDERAL CLIMATE RISK
The federal government is far more than the country’s regulator-in-chief. Together, its various agencies and departments function as one of the country’s largest land managers, building owners, and financial investors. The federal government is also a giant insurance company, protecting everything from its military bases to our private homes. Solving the climate crisis can start by better managing the federal government’s own exposure to climate-related risks.
To advance resilient outcomes within the federal government, Joseph W. Kane, Jenny Schuetz, Shalini Vajjhala, and Adie Tomer suggest we first focus on the built environment and our need to address unsustainable land use systems. They recommend establishing a Climate Planning Unit within the White House Office of Management and Budget to focus on reducing the fiscal impacts of climate change. Such an office could take a whole-of-government view to climate risk mitigation, focusing on both quick wins and opportunities for long-term structural change—doing right by the environment, the people, and the federal budget in the process. The office would be focused on cost savings and partially funded through recovered costs. Its work would also focus on lower-income households and communities of color, which are impacted most by climate change and often overlooked in existing programs.
PREPARING STUDENTS AND WORKERS
For too long, the United States has spent too much time debating the existence of climate change and spent too little time educating students about our changing environment and preparing workers for the emerging jobs that will be central to humanity’s response. The federal government can play a central role in making up for lost ground.
Christina Kwauk and Joseph W. Kane propose a new kind of student and worker agenda to meet our climate goals. Achieving a net-zero economy is not just a technical challenge requiring technical solutions, but also a societal problem that requires a population educated to address it. However, such education and skills are lacking today, especially among underrepresented and marginalized people. And the federal departments most involved in education and workforce training—the departments of Education and Labor—do not have programs to provide the knowledge and skills needed in our changing economy.
The authors recommend empowering the United States Global Change Research Program—which is already devoted to providing federal leadership and interagency coordination on climate—to take on an education role as well. Programs would provide green learning across the whole of society, from K-12 through higher education, career and technical education, and teacher training.
INCENTIVIZING RESILIENT BUSINESS
Two more papers focus on funding the green transition in light of the deep but uneven economic recession the country faces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sanjay Patnaik, Siddhi Doshi, and Kelly Kennedy focus on the similarities between the COVID-19 crisis and climate change, noting that both are economy-wide risk management challenges. As the federal government mounts a huge spending push to overcome the pandemic’s economic impacts, the authors argue that we should not miss the opportunity to make the economy more climate resilient in the process. Their plan suggests that larger businesses receiving aid should be required to disclose their climate-related risks. Such businesses would also be subject to discounted interest rates on the aid if they use an internal carbon price in their decisionmaking. Additionally, aid for the automobile and airline sectors should be predicated on better environmental performance, and no more aid should be distributed to the fossil fuel industry.
Since the forced shutdowns in March 2020, small businesses have felt some of the most acute economic pain. This has had outsized impacts on American entrepreneurs and the nearly 50% of the U.S. labor force that works in small business establishments. Yet even before COVID-19, small businesses faced headwinds in making low-carbon investments, especially due to a lack of access to financial capital. If the U.S. marketplace does not figure out how to get small businesses back on their feet and help them prepare for a greener economy, then the net effect could be hollowed-out local economies, increased market power for large firms, and worsened income equality. Addisu Lashitew’s piece recommends the creation of a $30 billion Small Business Opportunity Fund to fund grants, loans, and bonds for green investments in small businesses. The loan and bond components of the Fund could be channeled through intermediary financial institutions, building on the experiences of the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program and Main Street Lending Program.
REENGAGING THE GLOBAL COMMUNITY
The Trump administration’s distaste for multilateralism represented the reversal of roughly a century of American global leadership. Climate policy was not spared, embodied by President Donald Trump’s departure from the Paris Agreement. Now, with the Biden administration reversing course, the United States must find a way to rebuild trust on the world stage as we reengage the global community during a crucial year for the climate.
In their piece, Nathan Hultman and Samantha Gross discuss steps the United States can take to return to credible leadership on climate. All countries in the Paris Agreement are obliged to submit new emissions reduction pledges in advance of a key global meeting in November. The United States must make an ambitious but achievable pledge and assist other countries in doing the same. Subnational actors have led U.S. efforts over the last four years, and they can share their skills and ambition with their counterparts abroad. Finally, the United States can lead through its outsized role in the global financial sector, strengthening its climate change reporting rules and supporting efforts to finance emissions reduction and climate adaptation projects in the developing world.
Each of these recommendations addresses portions of the government-wide effort that will be needed to achieve a zero-emissions economy by midcentury. But all of them—or other essential ideas such as energy grid modernization, green infrastructure standards, and improved vehicle fuel efficiency—will confront a polarized political climate. Even though a clear majority of Americans now recognize the scientific validity of climate change and the need to collectively respond, federal progress has lagged behind our global peers. Overcoming political friction demands finding common interests such as a robust small business sector and growth in good-paying jobs, and then ensuring our climate-focused policies deliver on those shared goals. The path is difficult, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.
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