WASHINGTON — The world's richest and most powerful country is back in the fight against climate change. That is hugely important news for everyone already on the planet, and for our grandchildren yet to come.
The executive orders President Joe Biden signed Wednesday will not, by themselves, solve the climate crisis. The high-powered White House team he put in charge of climate policy — led by Climate Coordinator Gina McCarthy and Climate Envoy John Kerry, the first people to hold these new roles — has no magic wand to make greenhouse gases go away. But we now have a better chance of avoiding worst-case environmental ruin, and we have a better chance of seeing the U.S. economy thrive in the inevitable shift toward clean energy.
Arguably the stupidest view held and acted upon by the Trump administration (and that's saying something) was the notion that climate change is some kind of hoax or Chinese plot. For four long years, the official policy of the United States was to ignore the science of global warming and encourage the production and use of fossil fuels, which release heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane.
The Trump years happened to be four of the warmest ever recorded. We witnessed the impacts of climate change — rising sea levels, melting polar ice, devastating hurricanes and wildfires, punishing heat waves even in northern Siberia. Yet the world's greatest economic power pretended not even to notice, much less care.
Biden promises a return to sanity. One of his first official acts was to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, which sets voluntary targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. On Wednesday, he signed executive orders designed to make climate an "essential element" of foreign policy and national security. Among a host of other measures, Biden has declared a moratorium on new oil and natural gas leases on federal lands, ordered federal agencies to procure electricity from renewable sources and decreed that the government will buy a fleet of zero-emission vehicles.
None of that will begin to solve the global climate crisis — but the leadership it represents will help more than skeptics realize.
Just as American initiative after World War II forged a system of alliances and institutions that enabled peace and prosperity, so can American leadership shape a world that runs on clean energy — and that averts the calamities that would result from letting the temperature rise unchecked.
The United States is the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and so whatever progress McCarthy can make as domestic climate czar will make a measurable difference. But our emissions are now not just exceeded but dwarfed by those of China. This is the big problem that Kerry, as climate envoy, will try to begin to solve.
"The stakes on climate change just simply couldn't be any higher than they are right now. It is existential," Kerry said Wednesday.
Free-market forces are playing a more constructive role than could have been imagined just a few years ago. Even in an era of cheap oil and gas, the costs of solar and wind energy have plummeted to become competitive. Carmakers are placing big bets on electric cars and trucks, with General Motors announcing Thursday that it will stop making gas-powered cars and SUVs by 2035; and bullish investors have made Tesla founder Elon Musk one of the richest individuals in the world. Consumers are using their patronage to push companies to reduce their carbon footprints.
But China's emissions keep rising — including from newly opened coal-fired power plants — even as Beijing, at the same time, makes a play to dominate the global market in manufacturing clean-energy equipment such as solar panels. Kerry will have to try to convince China, India, Brazil, Russia and other big emitters to set ambitious new targets for reducing the amount of carbon they spew into the atmosphere. That will be a Herculean task. But it would be impossible without a U.S. commitment to lead the way — a commitment Biden is making.
Biden's vision is that the next breakthroughs in solar, wind, batteries and other clean-energy technologies should be made in the United States — and that the jobs that flow from those advances should go to American workers. This idea should be uncontroversial, even for Republicans who spend more time trying to revitalize America's industrial past than imagining its future. But the GOP will probably resist, if only for resistance's sake.