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Hours after taking the oath of office, President Biden signed a slew of executive orders making good on his campaign promises to environmental activists (among other members of his coalition) by canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris climate agreement. Opponents of the treaty reacted with predictable outrage. The Wall Street Journal editorial board and the petroleum industry decried the effects on workers and the economy as a whole. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was especially scathing, issuing a statement that condensed a season’s worth of Fox News talking points into just 28 words.
“By signing this order, President Biden indicates that he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh,” Cruz said.
Biden’s position, in fact, reflected his interest in the views of scientists, public health experts and even economists. As Emily Atkin wrote in her climate newsletter Heated, the reaction is a “revealing window into how Republicans and the fossil fuel industry plan to fight the new president’s climate efforts: By lying to the public about the enormous threat climate change poses to the economy and human life.”
Aside from his passing slur at the City of Light, Cruz got two other things wrong in his tweet, the part about jobs and the part about Pittsburgh.
It is an article of faith among Republicans that any regulations meant to advance the public interest hurt the economy, but statistics say otherwise, at least in the case of renewable energy mandates. According to a report from the climate advocacy group E2, there were more than 3.4 million Americans employed in clean jobs prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than three times the number employed by the fossil fuel industry. That same report found that clean energy jobs outpaced national job growth from 2015 to 2019 by 70 percent. In Pennsylvania alone, E2 counted nearly 100,000 jobs tied to clean energy.
Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, told Yahoo News that the transition to clean energy jobs, including upgrading the grid and electric cars, will provide both jobs and climate stability.
“Does Ted Cruz not care about the 240,000 people in Texas that are working in this sector?” Wetstone said. Cruz’s home state of Texas leads the nation by far in wind-turbine power, with nearly 25 gigawatts of capacity, enough to power 6 million homes. Contra Trump, this has not led to an epidemic of cancer, and the homes still have lights even when the wind isn’t blowing. Texas was also the state that suffered catastrophic flooding and $125 billion in damage in 2017 from Hurricane Harvey, whose destructive force may or may not have been augmented by global warming. All the windmills in Texas haven’t reversed global warming, but they are a start on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. “What planet are they going to live on when the climate is no longer habitable?” Wetstone asked rhetorically. “At what point does that begin to matter? It’s a mystifying perspective that I can only think is founded in blind ideology that has no relation to experiences in the working world of folks in our sector and folks who care about the world they’re living in and the climate we’re leaving to our kids.”
The administration is expected on Wednesday to unveil additional climate policies — including urging China to toughen its emissions targets — to elevate the issue as a national security priority.
Regarding Pittsburgh, Mayor Bill Peduto first addressed the juxtaposition of his city with the capital of France nearly four years ago, when President Trump made the same alliterative comparison when pulling out of the climate agreement. The climate accord offers no outsized benefits to Parisians — theirs was just the city where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was held in 2015. (It was also the city that Trump’s likely pseudonymous, possibly imaginary, friend “Jim” refused to visit any longer, according to a standard line from his 2016 campaign.) Cruz has been roundly mocked for this, including in a viral tweet from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Cruz’s newfound concern for Pittsburgh came exactly two weeks after he tried to disenfranchise many of the city’s voters by objecting to Pennsylvania’s presidential election results. But he also espoused an outdated view of the city and much of the industrial Northeast and Midwest.
Pittsburgh, in particular, has evolved over the last two decades to revolve around its universities, hospitals and tech companies. In a piece published in the New York Times in 2017 with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Peduto wrote, “Investments in smart infrastructure, bike sharing programs, new mass transit options and building efficiency means Pittsburgh is on track to meet our goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2023. While the majority of electricity in the state of Pennsylvania is still generated from fossil fuels, Pittsburgh will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2035.”
After Cruz’s Inauguration Day comments, Peduto tweeted, “Pittsburgh has exceeded our Paris commitments. Recognized by [the U.S. Conference of Mayors] as National Environmental Initiative of 2020, we’ve met our 2030 goal of 100% renewable energy for city operations, ten years early. If we can do it in a city that is/was fueled by coal/nuclear, you can, too.”
While in Pittsburgh itself, green jobs far outnumber those tied to fossil fuels, there are surrounding communities that rely on coal mining and fracking as their primary industries. The key is for the Biden administration to guide further investment into renewable jobs in those areas so that towns that were hollowed out by deindustrialization aren’t left without an economic driver if fossil fuel extraction continues to decline. Trump attempted to make fracking a key issue in the state, but polls showed that Pennsylvania residents were not overly invested in the issue, with one survey last summer finding a slim majority opposing the natural gas extraction process.
Economics aside, scientists generally view climate change as an existential threat to the nation and the world. According to a report issued earlier this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the United States suffered 22 climate disasters costing $1 billion or more in 2020, a new record. Per the NOAA estimates, the total cost of the events — including hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, a drought, a wildfire, Texas hailstorms and a Midwest derecho — approximate $95 billion.
Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, said those incidents make the effects of climate change dangerous to ignore.
“What’s been surprising to me is how quickly it has become obvious that climate change is an economic issue,” Keefe told Yahoo News. “We’ve obviously been talking about climate change for a lot of years, but for a lot of years we were talking about melting ice caps and parts per million emissions of carbon — very few people know what that looks like or what it means. But when you have disasters like we saw in the Midwest, where we saw $7.5 billion of crop damage in one storm, when you see the horrific fires in California that continue just to get worse, when you see record numbers of hurricanes on the East Coast, when you see the extent of the economic damage — not just to houses and buildings, but in 2018 we had three hurricanes that wiped out billions of dollars in military assets — those are taxpayer expenses.”
In 2019, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska was crippled by flooding of the Missouri River. Offutt is home to the U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for the nuclear arsenal, and lost 60 buildings and a half-mile of runway to the waters and toxic sludge, with repair costs estimated at $420 million. Earlier that year, the Pentagon had issued a report in which it identified the effects of climate change as a national security issue.
Michael E. Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State and the author of “The New Climate War,” concurred that the suggestion that the climate policy would kill jobs, particularly in Pennsylvania, was “simply ridiculous.”
“The cost of climate change damages — in the form of devastating extreme-weather events, including heat waves and floods, that have ravaged our state in recent years — far outweighs any cost of taking action,” Mann told Yahoo News. “There are far more potential jobs available in clean energy than there are in the largely automated fossil fuel industry.”
Mann said he felt that Biden was making good on his campaign promise to focus on climate, saying, “In the past, climate policy has often been confined to the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. Biden’s appointments suggest a multi-agency approach, incorporating climate-forward policies in the departments of Interior, Treasury, Agriculture and beyond. Moreover, Biden clearly seeks to reestablish our status as leader in the international climate effort, using the full weight of the presidency in negotiating international cooperation.”
“It’s a start,” Wetstone said of rejoining the Paris climate accord. “The signals from this administration reflect an awareness that it’s only a start and we have to deliver on achieving the transition to an economy that is founded in cleaner power — and we can do that. We have the technology, and not only do we have it, but it’s more cost-effective in almost every part of the country today than any other way to generate electricity.”
“What those executive orders do, first and foremost, is they send a signal to the world and to the marketplace that America is back in business when it comes to clean energy, and that’s pretty significant,” Keefe of E2 said. “Obviously, we need to work out the details, revise the goals for Paris and make them even stronger.”
Keefe likened the investment in climate technology to the money spent on the interstate highway system and the predecessor to the internet, calling it “just another turn in the evolution of the American economy.”
“If you don’t see clean energy as an economic growth opportunity for America and replacing the opportunities that have passed,” he said, “you’re either oblivious, you’re not telling the truth or you have an alternative reason for saying otherwise.”
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