For scientists and climate experts, it’s been a tremendous lift to hear President Biden’s cabinet talk about the climate crisis on a daily basis, and to see the White House hiring some of the best and brightest climate minds in the country. After four years of the Trump administration’s dangerous climate change denial and shameful disregard for public service, this new urgency to understand and address the full scope of the climate emergency feels like history being made.
But the federal government is a behemoth, and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion – the law of inertia – explains that more massive objects have a greater tendency to resist changes to their state of motion.
Nowhere are the laws of physics better illustrated than at my old agency, the Department of the Interior – an enormous agency with 70,000 staff and responsibility for our National Parks, for America’s fish and wildlife resources, for world-class research, for management of one-fifth of the U.S. landmass and outer continental shelf, and for providing services to nearly 2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
Journalists often ask me what Secretary Deb Haaland’s Interior Department must do to address climate change, and I recite a checklist: Restore the science enterprise, protect our nation’s life-support system of public lands and wildlife, invest in the resilience of Native American and Alaska Native communities, and, above all, find legal and just ways to slow the extraction of fossil fuels on federal lands. While that last item is the hardest, it carries the most urgency.
The scientific consensus is that climate change threatens catastrophic impacts if we don’t limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC tells us that to have a fighting chance of doing so, we have to cut global emissions approximately in half within this decade, and then continue to drive them down to net zero by mid-century.
In the United States, this means taking a hard look at our federal lands, which are responsible for nearly 25 percent of our national CO2 emissions because of the fossil fuel extraction permitted by the Interior Department. A public resource managed for the public interest, federal lands should be an easy starting place for cutting emissions. Complicating matters, however, is the fact that some communities have become economically dependent upon fossil fuel revenues from federal lands, including many in Wyoming, Alaska and New Mexico, Haaland’s home state.
This is the conundrum that the secretary inherited when she was sworn in last month. Ending fossil fuel extraction on federal lands can help us slow emissions, but if not done thoughtfully, people will suffer. If not done at all, many more people, and the natural systems we all depend upon, will suffer. Compounding the problem is the agency’s longstanding institutional fidelity to the fossil fuel industry and the waning but still immense political power of oil and gas interests.
This is where Newton weighs in once again. His second law of motion says that the rate of change in the momentum of a body depends on the amount of force applied to it. In other words, in the face of the climate crisis, half measures at Interior won’t do the trick.
The Interior Department must become a forceful catalyst for a just transition to clean energy. To accomplish that, the agency must focus on how decisions impact people and the environment and shake off the agency’s cultural and historic deference to the fossil fuel industry. This is far easier said than done and will require active engagement from Congress as well as the private sector to ensure that communities do not suffer. Interior can’t go it alone.
There are, however, some climate levers that Interior can pull on its own to limit fossil fuel extraction on federal lands with little or no economic impact on communities.
For example, there is no need to continue leasing federal lands to an industry that already sits on a glut of unused leases. The most recent agency numbers show that 53 percent of the 26 million acres already leased onshore remain unused and inactive, while 77 percent of the 12 million acres leased offshore are unused. At very least, the Biden administration’s leasing moratorium should be made permanent.
The same glut exists for drilling permits. The agency hardly needs to accelerate permitting when the industry is already sitting on thousands of approved but unused permits. It’s an ineffective use of human capital at a time when the national interest requires the deployment of renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar – a timely and important role for the leasing and permitting workforce at Interior.
Other important levers to pull at Interior that would have little to no negative economic impact on communities include increasing the rock-bottom royalty rates on oil and gas production so taxpayers receive a fair return, enacting and enforcing restrictions on emissions of methane – a potent pollutant and greenhouse gas, and insisting that companies provide financial assurances that they will clean up after themselves. These measures would also go a long way toward building equity, providing jobs and improving the health and safety of the communities where these companies operate.
But even these economically benign measures will prove difficult due to Newton’s third and final law of motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Fossil fuel interests are pushing back, hard.
As the economy reels from the impacts of climate change – in 2020 the U.S. suffered $95 billion in damages – the fossil fuel industry continues to slow climate action, fund disinformation and reject the coming energy transition. They, and their political supporters, have an opportunity now to pivot their capital and influence toward the future, provide jobs, and help frontline communities at risk. Those businesses played an important role in building the American economy, and I hope they recognize that their social license to operate is now in the hands of the people who are struggling each day to make ends meet during a crisis this industry created.
Regardless of their reaction, however, Interior must work closely with Congress, fellow agencies and the private sector to ensure that the urgent and inevitable energy transition provides jobs and protects the health, safety and prosperity of communities and the ecosystems they depend upon. The ultimate goal must be for an economy-wide transition to carbon-free sources of energy if we hope to avert a national – and global – catastrophe that we cannot afford.
Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Prior to joining UCS and the Belfer Center, Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since resigning from public service in 2017, he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy.