An Optimistic View On Climate

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad / The New Yorker; Source photographs from Getty.

We appreciate the author’s wide reach and tireless exploration for solutions to seemingly unsolvable puzzles:

A Case for Climate Optimism, and Pragmatism, from John Podesta

The veteran political operative now has one of the nation’s top climate jobs. He speaks about the Willow oil-drilling project, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Biden White House.

“Humanity is on thin ice, and that ice is melting fast,” António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently warned, in response to a newly alarming climate report. The ice is melting, in large part, because the world keeps burning fossil fuels. To change that, the U.S. will need to join other nations in replacing machines that burn them—cars, stoves, furnaces, and eventually things like planes and factories—with machines that run on electricity. We’ll also have to generate that electricity cleanly. In recent years, both tasks have become easier. Gadgets like electric cars and bikes, induction stovetops, and heat pumps are in showrooms now. And although the prices of coal, gas, and oil are artificially low—because the government subsidizes them and because they don’t include the costs of wrecking the planet—solar and wind power are often cheaper.

The transition to a livable and sustainable future will still be a staggering undertaking. One reason is inertia: we’ve been conditioned to like gasoline cars and gas stoves; many of us don’t think about our furnaces or air-conditioners until they break, at which point we might take whatever replacement we can get. Vested interests are even more toxic: so far the fossil-fuel industry and its Republican allies have obstructed even modest changes. (Representative Matt Gaetz, for instance, declared that his gas stove would need to be pried from his cold, dead hands.) More quietly but just as ominously, proposed solar and wind and battery farms often spend years in a bureaucratic purgatory known as the “interconnection queue,” largely because utilities and regulators are so slow to approve new hookups to the grid.

John Podesta was Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, a counsellor to Barack Obama, and the chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign; he also founded the centrist Democratic think tank Center for American Progress. He told me that he “failed at retirement” so that he could accept his current role, as senior adviser to President Biden for clean energy innovation and implementation, which has the potential to be as important as any climate job. Podesta oversees the execution of the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate bill passed on a 50–50 vote in the Senate last summer after it was effectively rewritten by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. The bill contains hundreds of billions of dollars, mostly in the form of tax credits, to spur the build-out of renewable energy, electric vehicles, and clean appliances.

For the I.R.A. to achieve its goals, Podesta and his collaborators will need to make it easy and enticing for consumers to break old habits. Projects will also need to squeeze through bottlenecks like the interconnection queue. Podesta is working against two clocks: physics dictates that the world has but a few years to make this shift, and politics means that a hostile Congress or President could sabotage progress. Finally, environmental leaders will need to insure that new fossil-fuel projects do not undermine the gains—which is why many environmentalists reacted in fury last month, when the Biden Administration told ConocoPhillips that its Willow oil project, in Alaska, could proceed. (The Center for American Progress once called the project “a climate disaster in waiting.”) Despite his campaign promises, Biden seems to be focussing more on the demand side of the climate crisis—namely, consumers—than on corporations that supply fossil fuels. This is a dismaying prospect, given what Guterres recently said to the oil industry: “Your core product is our core problem.” So when I spoke with Podesta in March, that’s where we began. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Read the whole conversation here.

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