The U.S. Should Lead the World on Climate Change


During his campaign for the White House, and for years before that, President-elect Joe Biden has emphasized the threat from climate change and the need for the U.S. to act. He’s right. The turmoil in the country’s politics can’t be allowed to sideline prompt, bold action to confront the existential threat of global warming.

What Biden has said about his priorities is encouraging, and so are many of his proposed appointments — including Michael Regan, a longtime champion of environmental responsibility, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and Gina McCarthy, a former head of the EPA and president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, as White House coordinator of climate policy. The president-elect has correctly called for a whole-of-government approach, meaning that every policy should be weighed for its climate-change implications. If Biden follows through, this kind of commitment can reverse the backsliding of the past four years and make a real difference not just to the U.S. but to the whole planet.

Climate change is a global threat requiring global action, so it’s essential that the U.S. join, and preferably guide, worldwide cooperative efforts. Among Biden’s first acts should be notifying the United Nations that the U.S. will rejoin the Paris Agreement — a global framework for carbon abatement, advanced by the U.S. and then abandoned by Donald Trump. Its targets need to be made more ambitious, and the U.S. should lead not by exhortation but by example.

An ambitious target for clean power is crucial, and a fast transition is feasible. The cost of clean energy from sources such as wind and solar has fallen dramatically and is still falling. In many cases, clean power is already cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels, even without taking its huge environmental and health benefits into account. Hydrogen, a storable fuel, is poised to become the next significant clean power source. Battery technology is improving all the time. And with new and better energy infrastructure, the U.S. can build a smart power grid. Clean power is within reach.

Biden should strengthen incentives for clean power production, urge Congress to set new standards for energy efficiency, and restore and tighten pollution controls for coal and gas plants. A faster transition will put some communities under stress, so Biden should work toward providing jobs and financial help for those affected. All subsidies for fossil fuels should stop.

New incentives are needed to help businesses and households replace appliances and systems that waste energy and pollute. Biden has promised to upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes. Transportation should also be cleaner and more efficient, with all new passenger vehicles pollution-free by 2035. Federal standards on gas mileage should ramp up over time. States and cities need help to build out networks of charging stations for electric vehicles. The highway system needs to be electrified, with charging facilities every 20 miles. The administration should support clean public transit and roads and paths suited to bikes and walking. Low- or no-carbon fuels should also be prioritized in shipping, through stricter standards, public spending on port facilities, and price incentives. As soon as feasible, all ships docking at U.S. ports should be required to plug in.

Biden’s recognition that fighting climate change touches everything requires new thinking in countless other areas of policy. For instance, many questions should be seen afresh through the lens of environmental justice — to ensure that communities that have suffered most from pollution get redress, especially in the form of affordable clean energy and good-paying jobs. Climate resilience ought to be another focus. It calls for the protection and upgrading of critical infrastructure; measures to protect parks, public lands and oceans; wildfire preparedness; and thorough environmental assessment of new projects. There’s scarcely an element of government spending that doesn’t have climate implications.

It’s an agenda of intimidating breadth, all right — but it can’t be shirked any longer. The past four years have seen the U.S. ignore these issues and even, with policy after policy, deliberately set things back. Biden has promised to end this scandal and put climate change where it belongs, at the center of American government. It can’t happen too soon.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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