Ezra Klein and four environmental thinkers discuss the limits of politics in facing down the threat to the planet.
Of late, I’ve been obsessing over a single question: What if political systems, in the United States and internationally, fail to curb climate change?
It can seem an impolite question, even as it’s the path we’re on. President Biden’s climate agenda is both ambitious and, on its own, insufficient. Its political prospects are mixed at best. The international picture is little better. Only a few countries are on track to meet the goals laid out in the Paris agreement, and none of the major emitters are among them.
That is not to say there is no reason for optimism or hope. Clean-energy and battery technologies are outpacing even the brightest projections from a few years ago. Activist movements worldwide are gathering strength and flexing newly won power. A rising generation understands the urgency of the moment, even if their elders do not. The trends are, broadly, going in the right direction. But they need to move faster.
And so we convened this panel of climate experts with different backgrounds — technological, literary, political, academic — to try to reconcile the reality of our political progress with the scale of the emergency. – Ezra Klein
Chief scientist and founder of both Otherlab and Rewiring America, a nonprofit that advocates rapid electrification to meet our climate goals.
Climate-policy director at the Roosevelt Institute and an author of the Green New Deal.
Professor of science and technology studies at the Harvard Kennedy School.
New YorNovelist and author, most recently, of “The Ministry for the Future.”
Are our political systems even capable?
Ezra Klein: The American Jobs Act, President Biden’s infrastructure bill, includes an ambitious clean-energy standard and huge investments in renewable-energy and electric-car technologies. It is effectively this administration’s big climate bill. Its passage right now certainly isn’t clear. But even if it did pass in its proposed form, how far would it get us on the climate fight?
Rhiana Gunn-Wright: It would certainly be a good start, but it really leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, the scale is simply too small; $900 billion on climate is not enough to catalyze the pace of decarbonization we will need in order to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2030, while providing millions of good jobs. That’s more like $10 trillion over 10 years. It isn’t entirely the Biden administration’s fault. The reconciliation process in Congress, just because of the way that it is structured, really forces you to rely really heavily on existing programs. For example, the plan routes some of its investments in the built environment through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, which has a history of being exploited by developers. It also relies heavily on existing tax credits to fund the building and deployment of clean-energy infrastructure. If the programs that we had were enough to decarbonize, they would have done that already. It is certainly better than what we have now, but there’s still a lot of room to improve.
Saul Griffith: It’s not even remotely close to sufficient. But something extraordinary did happen when the Biden administration came out and said it was aiming for a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. It may not be binding, but that is enormously more ambitious than John F. Kennedy standing up and saying we’ll go to the moon by the end of the decade. We knew how to build rockets, and we knew where the moon was. We don’t know all the answers of where we’re going.