Fighting for a U.S. federal budget that prioritizes peace, economic security and shared prosperity
Brian Kahn & Dharna Noor
President-elect Joe Biden has an unprecedented opportunity to walk the U.S.—and perhaps the world—back from the brink on climate change. After four years of harmful deregulation, his work is cut out for him.
But to truly address climate change will require more than simply repealing President Donald Trump’s rollbacks and maybe strengthening a few rules on power plant emissions before calling it a day. Because climate change is an everything problem, the entire and considerable weight of the federal government will need to be thrown into addressing it. Like rowing competition, the race to address climate change can only be won if everyone is pulling in the same direction.
This “all of government” response to the crisis at hand is the only way to ensure a shot at keeping the globe from heating up more than the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) goal outlined in the Paris Agreement, to say nothing of the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target outlined in a landmark United Nations report. Over the next four years, Biden will have to center climate change at every agency, from the obvious ones like the Environmental Protection Agency to others like the Department of Education and Treasury.
Earther has pulled together ideas and actions federal agencies can take to address climate change, based on conversations with dozens of experts who know the federal government’s levers of power and how to pull them so that they’re all geared to lower emissions. The ideas below are not exhaustive nor do they include solutions that can be applied at all agencies such as installing climate advocates at all levels, using procurement to electrify the government vehicle fleet, and diversifying the workforce so that new problem solvers are welcomed into the fold. But they do represent some of the best ones out there for how to get the ship turned quickly.
But importantly, the visions aren’t merely technocratic. The climate crisis is the result of an unjust system of environmental destruction and racial inequality and violence. Sure, President-elect Biden could issue an executive order to close all coal plants but without fostering a just transition for workers or putting in place plans to remediate pollution in communities, we’ll end up with the same crappy world with slightly cleaner air. Fighting climate change requires tearing down systems of oppression and allowing communities to chart their own course in the clean energy. It requires healing the scars left by more than a century of extractive capitalism. It requires reparations for people and the land.
“We all fight for Mother Earth, and right now she is ill and we have to find a way to make her healthy in order for us to be healthy,” Ann Marie Chischilly, the executive director of Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University, said. “This is [about] our viewpoint for seven generations to come and making decisions at that level of thinking that far out. You have to really think holistically.”
Below is an agency-by-agency along with other facets of the executive branch breakdown of how to reimagine the federal government for the climate change action era. If you know Joe Biden, please share these ideas with him. (And if you are, in fact, Joe Biden, please read this over carefully. Also hey.)
The DOD is at once a big driver of climate change and affected by it. The Pentagon is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the federal government, using more than the entire countries of Sweden and Denmark. It’s also the largest institutional greenhouse gas polluter in the world.
Under Biden, there are limitless possibilities to clean up the military’s carbon footprint while also insulating its bases from climate change and improving national security. For instance, as the policy organization Climate and Security Advisory Group has suggested, the administration could charge its security advisors with making plans for climate security in the world’s most vulnerable regions domestically and abroad, helping those areas to handle climate stressors and deploy clean energy to preserve safety. It’s important that this is not simply used to promote American-made clean power, but that it promotes the use of the best-available technology.
The Pentagon could also continue to research which of its bases are most vulnerable to the impacts of the changing climate like wildfires and droughts, and ensure they are ready to weather those disasters. It also has a chance to remediate land it has poisoned. Among hundreds of examples are Vieques, Puerto Rico where decades of Navy chemical pollution have hugely increased locals’ risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and working to investigate and eliminate the horrific impacts of the depleted uranium that troops used in Iraq.
When resources are set aside to carry out these projects, the administration should also ensure that those projects are seen through. This summer, the Pentagon received $1 billion from the nation’s covid-19 stimulus bill to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus,” but it diverted the majority of those funds to defense contractors to produce military items such as parts for jet engines and armor. If funds are obtained for green projects, the administration should ensure that that’s how they’re used.
That doesn’t address the underlying issue of its use in destabilizing entire countries and regions. So while its role is purportedly meant to keep Americans safe, in practice, DOD perpetuates endless wars and contributes to the existential threat of climate change through its copious fossil fuel use, both of which put people at risk. Cutting the Pentagon budget could save countless lives by limiting both. But this doesn’t mean the government should spend less overall. Biden could reappropriate the funds for programs that reduce emissions and meaningfully make the world safer.
“Pentagon funding doesn’t keep people on the Gulf Coast safe from hurricanes, or people in California safe from wildfires,” Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies. “But investing in renewable energy, public transportation, energy efficient buildings, and ecological agriculture does help keep people safe. So if the goal really is to protect people from actual danger, we should be funding climate protection, not the Pentagon.”
An Institute for Policy Studies brief recommends starting by slashing $350 billion from the Pentagon budget, which is a little under half. That would still leave the U.S. with the largest military budget in the world. In addition, the brief includes a call to close hundreds of bases outside U.S. borders, many of which have leached dangerous pollutants into air and drinking water.
With the budget the department has left, the new administration should ensure that no wars are being waged to protect fossil fuel access. Since 1973, between one quarter and one half of all U.S. wars have been waged at least in part for oil. Instead, armed forces should be deployed to clean up the dirty legacy of war.