President Biden has made some encouraging modest steps on climate change in his first weeks in office. He's rejoined the Paris climate accords; canceled the Keystone XL pipeline; and issued new executive orders restricting fossil fuel development on federal land, undoing Trump's cuts to emission regulations, and so on.
Currently the Biden administration is focused on getting the urgently needed coronavirus relief package passed. But already the next round of potential legislation is under discussion. The logical candidate would be a massive green investment package to fight climate change and provide jobs, and reportedly some voices in the administration and among congressional Democrats are pushing in this direction. Whether Biden can get behind such a plan, and design and implement it well, may determine if his presidency is remembered as a success.
As Noam Scheiber writes in The New York Times Magazine, Democratic policymakers and economists have been dusting off part of Franklin Roosevelt's old New Deal playbook. The slogan in the 1930s was "relief, recovery, and reform," and it's the second word getting attention now (the first, of course, applies perfectly to the pandemic). The basic idea is to use government regulations and money to kick-start a surge of new American investment in zero-carbon manufacturing and infrastructure — solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles, and so forth — both directly through state action and by standing up a green infrastructure bank to leverage private capital. This would slash emissions by replacing carbon-fueled infrastructure and also provide millions of good-paying jobs that will revitalize left-behind communities in the process.
Essentially, we're talking about the basic framework of the Green New Deal, despite Biden disavowing the specific plan put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others during the 2020 campaign (which included many more radical ideas as well). As Louis Hyman writes in the Times, this idea really is quite close to much of what happened during the New Deal — which was as much about leveraging private markets as it was about direct government spending. In the early '30s, there were gobs of private capital just sitting around. Thanks to the Depression and extreme income inequality, money pooled at the top of the income ladder, but had nowhere to go because the masses did not have the spending power that would justify fresh investment. New Dealers jump-started the process of economic circulation by structuring and insuring new lending markets for homes, rural electrification, and various types of business. Then that same process of investment (together with public works, relief spending, and taxes on the rich) helped create the income that made the loans profitable.
The conditions for doing something like this today are very promising. For instance, the cost of solar and wind power have plummeted at a staggering rate — between 2009 and 2019, the price of new solar has fallen by 89 percent, and the price of onshore wind by 70 percent. It is now cheaper to invest in new renewables than in new coal power in every major energy market in the world, and soon it will be cheaper to build new renewables than continue to operate existing coal plants. The wind and solar share of total U.S. electricity production has soared from 1.9 percent in 2009 to 10.5 percent last year. However, as solar and wind continue to ramp up, they will run into bottlenecks due to America's aging power grid, which was not designed for that kind of semi-erratic power production. As David Roberts explains at Vox, the federal government is ideal for carrying out the upgrades, interconnections, and storage additions that would make a fully zero-carbon electricity sector possible.
I must confess that, as a strong critic of Biden for the last several years, I find the fact that anyone in power is even talking about this astounding. For virtually his entire career Biden has been part of the neoliberal coalition that tore apart the New Deal. But no one would be more delighted than me if I have to eat some crow.
It seems that intellectual and political developments have combined with historical happenstance to crack apart the neoliberal consensus that held firm in 2009, at least for the moment. The supposed universal benefits of free trade have come under attack, thanks to empirical research disputing neoliberal boosterism and the enormous political mileage Trump got out of railing against the indisputable damage trade deals have done to American communities. The supposed benefits of austerity and balanced budgets are illusory, as proved by the last decade of abysmal growth. And finally the pandemic demands a massive response to restore full production and employment.
All that said, Biden and the Democrats will have to remember the third pillar of the New Deal — namely, reform — if they want this plan to work well. Roosevelt's programs did indeed leverage private capital for social investment, but he and his party also clapped strict regulations on Wall Street to make capital markets function for investment instead of speculative gambling. Moreover, today America has particular problems it did not have in the 1930s. As I have written before, the U.S. dollar's status as reserve currency gives us an intractable trade deficit that means a structural drag on any domestic manufacturing. And where the New Dealers managed to build what was then the biggest and most ambitious public works projects in history on time and under budget, today American government at all levels struggles mightily to even complete modest projects at all.
But a better opportunity to attack climate change is not likely to come again. Biden and his fellow Democrats have a duty to their country, their political future, and their historical legacy to seize it. And it's not like the New Dealers had everything figured out in advance — their signature strategy was to charge ahead into the unknown, scrambling to fix problems on the fly as they popped up. As Roosevelt himself said in a 1932 speech: "It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."