When I lived in the Himalayas in the early 1980s, the villagers in Manang would frequently distill their harvested buckwheat into potent ‘rakshi’ (रक्सी), the Nepali word for spirits (which carries the exact same double meaning of “high-proof alcoholic beverage” and “supernatural beings” as does the English word).  An aspect of the distillation process which I gained appreciation for as I observed and sometimes lent a hand was the quantity of the grain stock needed to produce a given quantity of home-grown moonshine.  A large quantity of grain distilled down to a precious few, highly potent drops.

Thirty-eight pages of, as officially named, The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice can be distilled down to the 11 words of that title and the 33 words of its first sentence.  That first sentence reads, “From coastal towns to rural farms to urban centers, climate change poses an existential threat – not just to our environment, but to our health, our communities our national security, and our economic well-being.”

There is of course much more that could be said about what is unofficially called the Biden Climate Plan.  And I will have more to say about it in future posts.  But it seems as good a place to start as any to look at those first 44 words and savor them as a distillation of the entire plan.  The plan packs a wallop compared to Trump’s tasteless concoction while also revealing a different blend than the Green New Deal. 

The three key ideas embedded in the title are: (1) the link between the environmental crisis and a clean energy-led transformation of the economy;  (2) the scale and urgency of the transformation requiring revolutionary, not incremental, levels of response; and (3) the implication that neither the environmental nor economic response can grow fully — sustainably and with regenerative power — without a social justice tap-root.

 The first idea restates an approach to mitigating climate change initially developed in the second term of the George W Bush Administration and then substantially expanded during the eight years of the Obama Administration.  That approach was to take the U.S. National Labs model for innovation, developed after WWII, and update it to a Version 2.0 in order to foster clean energy industries for the 21st century challenge of climate change.  In both versions of the model, government leads the way with basic research and early commercial proof-of-concept work until the private-sector is motivated to take over with commercialization, applying skills in lowering costs and building consumer acceptance.  Government’s role during commercialization shifts to articulating policy so that investors have enough time-horizon certainty to deploy capital to accelerate commercialization and build out the market. The story of DARPA and the development of the Internet is the classic case study cited for this approach.

As to the “revolutionary” aspect, thoughtful conservatively-minded people – by which I mean, political conservatives who don’t deny anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) climate change — have gravitated to an alternative approach. Their preferred approach is to keep government out of the market except to articulate an across-the-board carbon tax system  This latter approach, promoted most prominently by James Baker, George Shultz, and Hank Paulson at the Climate Leadership Council, is one that current Big Oil companies are more willing to work with.  It raises their cost of doing business but does not pose the existential challenge of a government-led ‘new economy’ transformation.  Conservatives argue that nothing will happen until the oil giants and the big utilities sign on.  An evolutionary approach. Liberals argue that the oil giants and big utilities will only sign on when a ‘new economy’ transformation forces them to.  In other words, a revolution.

The third pillar holding up the title is ‘environmental justice’ highlighting the fact, equally apparent with the COVID-19 pandemic, that climate change affects the health, livelihood and well-being of disadvantaged communities much more deeply and perniciously than it does more privileged communities.   Rather than plunge into that deep topic here, I recommend anyone who’s looking for an informative and lively toe-dip into the subject to view this three-and-a-half primer on the topic by Grist.

Moving on to the 33 words of the first sentence, three key points are being communicated here:

First, climate change is an existential threat.  Period. 

Second, it threatens every single American, wherever they live and whatever they think about it.  Like with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, if we don’t master it, it masters us. 

Third, the threat is varied and far-reaching, applying to the quality of the environment we live in, to our health and morbidity, to the strength of our communities, to our economic well-being and, importantly, to our national security.

Rather than go through each of these, I’ll close this post with just a quick look at the threat to our national security.  To outline the different dimensions of threat posed to our national security, I’ll draw directly – and with a grimace of irony —  from the Trump Administration’s own assessment, an assessment it is required by law to make even while the White House studiously ignores it.

So here goes in the Trump Administrations own words …

  • “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth;”
  • “Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century;”
  • “The quality and quantity of water available for use by people and ecosystems across the country are being affected by climate change, increasing risks and costs to agriculture, energy production, industry, recreation and the environment;”
  • “Impacts from climate change on extreme weather and climate-related events, air quality, and the transmission of disease through insects and pests, food and water increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable;”
  • “Ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society are being altered by climate change and these impacts are projected to continue. Without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, transformative impacts on some ecosystems will occur; some coral reef and sea ice ecosystems are already experiencing such transformational changes;”
  • “Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the United States. Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability;”
  • “Our Nation’s aging and deteriorating infrastructure is further stressed by increases in heavy precipitation events, coastal flooding, heat, wildfire, and other extreme events, as well as changes to average precipitation and temperature. Without adaptation, climate change will continue to degrade infrastructure performance over the rest of the century, with the potential for cascading impacts that threaten our economy, national security, essential services and health and well-being.”

We’ll have occasion in the future to look into the health and morbidity impacts, the community well-being impacts, and importantly the economic impacts of climate change. But this quick inventory of some of the national security impacts, by the Trump Administration’s own reckoning, should be enough to make clear that we need to be doing more.

So, what would I tell the Biden team after taking this first sip of the Biden Climate Plan?  It’s all good as far as it goes.  But it could go farther.  Why take an either/or approach when the scale and urgency of the problem call for both/and.  A commitment to advancing the carbon tax solution in parallel with the plan’s advocacy of clean energy market transformation would make it possible to move farther and faster.  Like a climber uses two surfaces to climb an otherwise unclimbable rock-wall. 

We need to be moving up this mountain fast and skillfully. We’re currently stuck mid-way up, staring at a formidable facade, and wondering how in the world we’re going to scale it.