Joe Biden's climate plan
A start but far from complete
The Biden plan will not get the job done without emphasizing energy conservation, which it currently does not do. Conservation by both citizens and governments will be a key to beating the climate threat.
In October 2020, Joe Biden issued his "climate plan" as an element in his campaign for president. It would be normal to compare it to that of his opponent in the election, Mr. Trump, but of course there was no climate plan from Mr. Trump since he denies that the Earth's climate is an issue. If it is changing, he says, well – the climate changes from time to time. But of humanity affecting the climate he has seen no evidence, despite having been officially presented with mountains of evidence.
H. Paul Lillebo
In fact, the warming of the Earth's climate is the greatest crisis that the human species has ever faced, and we – humanity – are responsible for it through our careless releases to the atmosphere of excessive amounts of carbon dioxide – CO2, as a result of our burning of carbon fuels. The warming is a direct and immediate US security threat, identified as such by the Pentagon. It is a looming catastrophe both for the US and the world as a whole, and has been identified as such by every scientific body that has studied the subject, including the quadrennial National Climate Assessment reports by US government scientists, the latest from 2018. The ignorant Mr. Trump denies the existence of this crisis. To put it plainly, he should have been impeached for denying and ignoring this existential national security threat.
About carbon dioxide: When we burn our common fuels such as oil, gas, wood, peat, coal, etc, we obtain energy by breaking chemical bonds in the carbon compounds that make up these materials. We break the bonds by heating the material and adding one of the most reactive elements in the universe, oxygen. We get the oxygen from our atmosphere, add it to the heated fuel, and it attacks the bonds between the carbon atoms, breaking them apart. In the end, when we have extracted all the energy from the fuel and have reduced the carbon compound to its lowest energy state by breaking all the bonds, we are left with individual carbon atoms, each tied to two oxygen atoms. That's our waste gas, CO2 – carbon dioxide, that we can do nothing with other than to "throw it away". We throw it into our atmosphere. In the end, for every atom of carbon in our burned fuels, we have bound up two atoms of oxygen (yes, that's the precious stuff we need to breathe) from our atmosphere in a waste product. But all is not lost: We have plants on Earth, and plants use the energy of sunlight to convert CO2 back into useable molecules of oxygen. All the oxygen in our air comes from plants. Unfortunately, we seem to have decided that concrete is more valuable than plant life, and day by day less oxygen is made on our planet because we are daily reducing the green cover that gives us life.|
Mr. Biden's climate plan is based on the plan developed by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. That plan was authored by the staff of the majority Democrats and adopted by the majority Democrats on the committee. It was apparently not possible to get Republican agreement to a bipartisan plan, since they, like their leader Mr. Trump, see no issue that needs addressing. As the Democrats still have a majority in the House following the recent election, it's reasonable to expect that Mr. Biden will present something like his plan in his first budget proposal. The plan paints the future as full of economic opportunity in the development of new technology and sources of renewable energy, supported by massive infusion of federal funds. These technological wonders will not only rescue us from the climate crisis, but provide well-paid jobs for a great number of Americans, according to the plan.
The Biden plan is a restart after four years of neglect and inaction, in that it acknowledges the seriousness of the crisis, but it bears the marks of being a political campaign document (not strange, since that's what it is) in its overoptimistic tone and its underemphasis on the difficulties of funding the program. Even more seriously, the plan is missing a crucial element which, let it be said, is not found in any politician's climate plan, but which is nevertheless absolutely necessary for success. I speak of the need to dramatically reduce our use of energy by reducing our consumption of goods and services that require energy.
If this note seems less optimistic than Mr. Biden's plan, it's because I think optimism is not the best basis for planning, unless it's based on solid information. I see no evidence that the Biden plan, as it stands, can reverse global warming, even if its ideas are repeated around the world. There's a significant chance that even the rigorous plan I envision will not be enough to rescue us from a scenario of run-away warming. A key point is that the excess CO2 we have already loaded into the atmosphere guarantees continuing warming of the Earth for quite a while. Whatever we do now to reduce our CO2 input will help to slow the further increases in temperatures, but won't bring a reversal in our lifetimes; very challenging times are ahead for the human species, as a result of failure of political will in nearly all countries. Indeed, Mr. Trump is not the only denier in the face of this challenge – practically every national leader is complicit in ignoring its seriousness. It is therefore not encouraging to see that Mr. Biden's plan, as least as presented to date, does not contain the key ingredient for possible success, which is to turn citizens from consumers to conservers, to be frugal with energy use, in fact to slow our economies.
Reducing the use of energy.
Every use of energy, even that which is advertised as being wholly renewable, is associated with greenhouse gas emissions somewhere along the line. Our greatest immediate need is to reduce emissions by reducing the use of energy. This requires no new technology and no funding, and its effect on our emissions will be immediate. The bottom line is that we must become conservers rather than consumers. It is easy to see why this necessary part of the climate solution does not find favor with politicians. It turns the normal business model on its head. It requires a slowing of production of nearly all products and commercial services other than those that are strictly necessary. This means a reduction in our GDP, perhaps even a long-term recession. But it is clearly necessary for our survival, and the challenge for governments will be to design an economy that distributes the fruits of our work in such a way that we can get along without the overproduction and waste that characterize our current lifestyles and provide many of our jobs. This task of rearranging our economic relationships may sadly prove to be beyond the capacity and wisdom of our political leadership.
The sensible way to begin a program to reduce the use of energy is to first minimize wasted energy, and second, to reduce the use of energy for trivial or unnecessary purposes. Then we can tackle the truly difficult reductions, if still necessary. In all of these recommendations, the involvement of governments will be required, and in many cases uncomfortable rules and restrictions must be made and enforced if we are to succeed.
The transportation sector accounts for a large part of energy use world–wide, and offers great opportunities for reduction of waste, both in transport of goods and people.
Because of excessive competition in commercial aviation, airliners fly a great many more daily miles, using far more fuel, than necessary. A chief reason is the airline "alliances" that prevents cooperation among all airlines in ticketing and baggage handling. This often makes it impossible for passengers to book on the most direct set of flights, and we wind up with excess mileage and duplication, leading to wasted fuel and emissions. During our crisis we need to reduce competition by treating passenger air transport as a public utility, awarding routes in an efficient and equitable fashion, with universal cooperation among airlines to serve what must become a much reduced market. Passengers must be offered the most direct connections possible, regardless of airline. This will require international coordination and rulemaking.
The business of pleasure cruising on shipboard, as well as international tourism generally, must come to a standstill during the crisis. We simply cannot afford to burn fuel and discharge carbon dioxide just for fun. In spite of significant economic consequences, the need to cut globe-heating gas emissions is more vital. Many other high-energy uses for entertainment will also need to be curtailed, such as motor sports.
Transport of goods has grown vastly with the growth of distant manufacturing centers. With the shift of production of manufactured goods and foodstuff to countries with low-cost labor, chiefly in southern and eastern Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the burning of oil to transport goods and raw materials has increased. In order to reduce emissions, we need to shift our manufacturing locations nearer the consumer or the raw material. As customers we need to buy wares produced as locally as possible, and our governments need to make this happen through regulation
Perhaps the greatest force for continued human survival on our planet is the plasticity of human behavior. Innumerable times during the roughly two-thousand-centuries-long history of the modern human species "we" have been faced with changing climate or other life-or-death circumstances, that have demanded of us to "adapt or die". Many branches of our family tree failed to adapt, and died out. But some did adapt to changing circumstances (or were lucky), and that is why we are here today. We are now faced with the same demand: We must alter our behavior (we can't count on luck), or our species may die out in the intolerable environment that our carelessness is rapidly bringing about.
A quick aside about a relevant fragment of Earth's history: About 250 million years ago, tectonic movements of the Earth's crust brought on a period of intense volcanic activity that loaded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other gases, which in turn warmed the Earth intolerably. The result was the extinction of perhaps 95% of life forms, ending what is known as the Permian period. The heating continued for hundreds of thousands of years during the following Triassic period, which saw the dominance of small reptiles and, after some millions of years, development of dinosaurs. The take-home lesson is that extreme heating of the Earth as a result of heat-trapping gases has happened before, with disastrous consequences for life. It can happen again, and climatologists are warning that our current lifestyle is bringing it about.|
So, how must we alter our behavior? What are we doing that is wrong? Plainly, we are using too much carbon based energy, and we are not able to use this energy without emitting carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Between our capitalistic ways, which have made the creation of personal profit the highest good, and modern advertising, which preys on human frailties to make us buy things we don't need, the trend in "modern" countries has been to turn citizens into "consumers". We're no longer surprised at hearing ourselves designated in this offensive and cheapening manner, it has become our accepted role in society. Our mission has become to "consume:" to buy, throw away, and buy again in order to maximize profit. But we cannot continue with that model. The capitalistic model of competition does not take account of pollution impacts unless such costs are added as fees or taxes by the government, and all governments have been slow to impose costs on emissions of CO2. Since CO2 is a normal component of the atmosphere, governments have been reluctant to consider it a pollutant. After all, normal breathing by humans and animals alike do the same as our machines: we breathe in oxygen, convert it to CO2 and discharge it to the atmosphere. But it's the vast scale of our energy use in manufacturing, power generation, and transport that has made those activities harmful to the planet, and the capitalistic model that always seeks to maximize production and consumption, depending for pricing efficiency on competition and duplication, cannot bring about the needed reductions in CO2 emissions.
As often, it's a great deal easier to criticize a situation than to find a remedy for it. I'm not in a position to design an economic system that can work during this crisis period, but most who think seriously about our needs at this time might agree on these features: We need a system that provides for people's needs while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. This entails a reduction in unnecessary or trivial production and transport. This cannot be achieved without direction by government. It's very likely that governments must take extraordinary powers ("war powers") to be able to direct the economy and assure a fair distribution of the means of life to their citizens, since most of us will be economically affected by the needed reductions in economic activity. We are reminded that President Roosevelt was given emergency powers during World War II, which allowed the US federal government to plan and direct the production and movement of needed war materials. The climate crisis before us is an even greater threat than the war, and similar governmental powers will probably be needed to plan and coordinate our response.
When Al Gore warned of a tipping point fifteen years ago, he was entirely right, and the scientific basis supporting his warning, which was clear at that time, has only become more clear and alarming since then. It has become clear that technology is not enough to get us through this crisis; our behavior also needs to change from consuming to conserving. That said, my best wishes go to President–elect Biden and his team as they take on this challenge.
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