President Biden deserves high praise for rejoining the Paris Climate Accords at the recent COP27 Summit and steering his major climate change legislation — the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — through a highly polarized Congress. Given our deeply divided Congress, there is, however, little hope for another major legislative initiative on climate. So, what should a president do? If you can’t deliver legislation, then focus on implementation.
The UN has warned us all that we could see global temperatures rise by a catastrophic 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with the IPCC advising that we have until 2030 to get this right. Getting the IRA projects off the ground is critical and will not be easy, as major structural and policy change must happen over these next eight years. Significantly more political capital must be invested at the national and local levels to build the public will required to ensure its full implementation. With support from groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the fossil fuel industry is gearing up once again to shape laws, run influence campaigns, and coerce the public behind the idea of maintaining the energy status quo. We cannot afford to let them define our climate future.
You are reading: It’s time for a climate moonshot in America
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What we need is for President Biden to take a page from President Kennedy’s playbook and call for a Moonshot on climate change. It is imperative that he take control of the national narrative, and emphasize to the public the grandeur and scale of this obvious national security challenge. Families across America have experienced major losses from climate change, starting most prominently with Hurricane Katrina in 2001, until recently, with continuous summers of fire devastating our western coast. As a result, the public consciousness is clearly shifting, with 72 percent percent of Americans understanding that climate change is a serious challenge and supporting bold policy action. The president has a massive opportunity to grab this moment to convince Americans that we must move rapidly toward a future beyond fossil fuels.
While the public is moving, the politicians are not, having proven too cowed by industry lobbyists. Rather, the president needs to ignite the public imagination, unite Americans across party lines, and build the political will from the grassroots to drive bold action. Most of the national environmental movement are working hard to build public support for climate action across the country, and would be quick to mobilize their resources behind a Moonshot initiative, but we need the support from rural Americans and red states, too.
President Kennedy took his crusade into schools across the country, appealing to our belief in our can-do spirit, and making it a competition we had to win. President Biden could easily do the same, utilizing the resources he already has at his fingertips. The first lady could lead the charge on educational campaigning, and ask students to plant trees as part of a national carbon capture campaign, for example. Firing the imaginations of children, and getting them involved in their own future early, will capture the attention of parents and children alike, reinvigorating an interest in the natural and physical sciences. Celebrities would line up to join the president and first lady in endorsing this effort.
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The secretary of the Interior could explore ways that U.S. public lands might be used for the development of large solar farms through public-private investments. The secretary of Agriculture could develop an initiative encouraging family farms, with subsidies or tax breaks, to integrate their farming systems with solar and wind technologies. The EPA and Forestry Service could be enlisted to intensify their work. Print, electronic, and social media should be used creatively to reinforce these messages and efforts. By aligning many elements of the federal infrastructure behind this vision, it would allow for a unified platform and coordinated messaging about government leadership and action on this issue.
The nation will suffer if the fossil fuel industry or billionaire philanthropists are allowed to control the national narrative on climate. Rather, they should be forced by public will, government incentives, and monetary pressure from investors to transform their companies into leaders, not laggards, in driving the transition to renewable energy. Only the president has the bully pulpit required to drive this moonshot — it is time for him to use it. If not now, when?
Raymond Offenheiser is the director of the Pulte Institute for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame and President Emeritus of Oxfam America.