A Moon Shot for Climate Change

We need to think as big on climate as we did on the space race. Here’s how.

By Alex Laskey Jake Levine

Tagged CaliforniaClimate ChangeCongressfederal governmentFranklin D. Roosevelt

In October of 1957 the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit on the back of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Sputnik circled the Earth as humanity’s first adventure in outer space. For the United States, it was a national security crisis. The Soviets had just demonstrated they could successfully launch a nuclear missile capable of reaching Western Europe—and that the United States was not the only leading technology power.

Compare the “Sputnik Crisis” to a present-day national security threat: Climate change claims the lives of thousands of Americans every year. In the ongoing fire “season” the flames of climate-induced wildfires in the West have killed more than 30 people and their smoke is likely to have claimed as many as 3,000 additional lives. Other recent climate catastrophes have been similarly grim: The death toll from Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico three years ago, is believed to be 3,057. Perhaps the most menacing climate impact—extreme heat—will cause more people to die by the year 2100 than all infectious diseases. For anyone living through a global pandemic, that should be sobering. Like Sputnik, climate change also threatens U.S. leadership in the global order, as China—with massive investments in electric vehicles, renewables, and a renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement—steps into the void Trump has created.

In the 1950s, government whipped into shape to respond. In a matter of months, Congress and President Eisenhower created the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). Projects Mercury (1958-1963) (human spaceflight), Gemini (1961-1966) (crewed spaceflight and precision landing), and Apollo (1960-1972) (Moon landing) won the space race. Today, NASA is charting a path to take humankind to Mars.

In the postwar era, NASA’s creation was standard operating procedure. The modern administrative state has similarly adapted to crisis since then: Automobile deaths and environmental emergencies in the 1960s led to the creation of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). More recently, gaps in counterterrorism exploited by terrorists on 9/11 led to the Office of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) (and the Department of Homeland Security), and the predatory lending that unraveled in the Great Recession became the case study for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB).

We are facing an unprecedented technical, national security, and economic threat. Yet we have no NASA, no DNI, or CFPB to help us win this race. We need to cultivate a focused national climate mission that does three things: first, more and more unified climate science and solutions research; second, policy (i.e., legislation and regulation) coordination, including with state and local jurisdictions; and third, financing mechanisms and leadership to rally industry to the fight. To do these things well, we need a new federal climate agency to effectively provide leadership and accountability.

The federal climate policy structure is balkanized. The EPA, notably, regulates air pollution—including greenhouse gases. The Department of Energy (DOE), Interior (DOI), and the DOT are each involved in setting the agenda for their own slice of the climate problem. There are substantial—yet in some cases unhelpful—divisions and competition within the agencies themselves. At the DOE, for example, more than half of the budget is dedicated to nuclear technologies, the majority of which goes to nuclear security efforts. A mandate for security spending can drain focus on pure energy projects. Other agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have immense authorities (e.g., to regulate the role of clean energy technologies, like stationary storage, or policy tools such as carbon pricing, on the grid), but fly under the public radar. (FERC also maintains jurisdiction over pipelines.)

In the absence of a permanent, Cabinet-level coordinating body, our fractured approach has become susceptible to the swings of politics, and industry capture. Indeed the current President has fairly swiftly mobilized the federal bureaucracy to proceed in plain contradiction of the will of the people: Recent public polling shows that two-thirds of all Americans, regardless of political party, believe the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of climate change. According to the Pew Research Center, between 70-90 percent of Americans reliably support progressive policies to mitigate climate change—such as tougher fuel economy standards for cars, or taxing corporations based on their carbon emissions. And 63 percent of Americans say that global climate change is affecting their local community. Yet Trump successfully installed veterans from the coal, oil, and shipping industries at the head of EPA, DOI, and DOT, just to name a few. They have canceled more than one hundred environmental regulations enacted by previous administrations.

It is time for something more streamlined, better positioned to rally industry and American entrepreneurialism, and insulated from politics.

A number of climate leaders have proposed (including in this journal) a National Climate Council, modeled on the existing White House National Security or Economic Councils. This is an excellent proposal. It contemplates a critical coordinating role, and acknowledges the need for leadership at the highest level of American government.

But for a few key reasons it does not go far enough.

First, climate leadership requires long-term, formal regulatory authority. While Executive Office of the President (EOP) offices are able to persuade agencies around a President’s agenda, their relative power can be constrained more by relationships than substance: How close would the Director of the National Climate Council need to be to the President in order to make meaningful progress? And because they may come and go with new administrations, these offices are subject to short-term political influence. Imagine if NASA’s mission to Mars were limited to a four-year time horizon. That approach makes no sense in the climate context, either.

Second, clearing the path for new leadership also means jettisoning old and no longer useful offices and agencies. Do we really need a climate forecasting function at NASA, Commerce (NOAA), EPA, DOE, and DOT?  Such a role should be housed within one agency focused on climate change. Other substantive questions may pose more difficult choices. It probably does make sense, for example, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture maintain a role in soil health and resilience. A new Climate Resilience Agency can string together disparate agencies to avoid duplication within the interagency, and deploy them  in concert toward a set of common goals.

Third, unlike an internal-facing EOP outpost, a new independent agency can foster a national sense of mission for the American public. The federal government does extraordinary work on climate. Just this month, the National Laboratories announced a promising new discovery in flexible perovskite solar technology, which would allow automakers to install solar panels on vehicle parts, like sunroofs; DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (“ARPA-E”) announced a major investment this month in technology to detect and quantify methane leaks. Just as NASA invested in creators like Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Annie Leibowitz to inspire a new generation of Americans toward the moon, a new climate agency could lift our climate stories up, too, to illustrate a more resilient future.

In order to build a national climate mission, any EOP coordinating body must therefore constitute the precursor to a legislatively enacted Climate Resilience Agency that drives research, policy coordination, and financial scalability through private sector engagement.

A presidential transition and a new administration are well-positioned to evaluate the various organizational decisions that new agency creation entails. But in considering a Climate Resilience Agency, they should keep three design principles in mind:

First, a new Climate Resilience Agency should unify climate science and climate solutions research efforts across the interagency. Consolidating climate research functions at NASA, NOAA, USGCRP, EPA, and others would achieve efficiencies and afford badly needed space for intersectional issues that require interdisciplinary collaboration—for example, to better investigate the interplay between climate change and environmental justice. (We already know, for example, that communities that disproportionately experience air pollution, water contamination, and infectious diseases such as COVID-19 will see even worse public health outcomes when you layer on climate impacts such as increased heat, among others.) The Departments of Defense, Energy (including the National Labs), Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation have historically led efforts in climate solutions research. To more effectively decarbonize our industries, buildings, supply chains, materials, power and transportation sectors, as well as the way we grow our food, the Climate Resilience Agency must realign the agencies doing this work.

Second, the Climate Resilience Agency should unify and coordinate policy efforts among our climate regulatory agencies, and with key partners in state and local jurisdictions. In much the same way that the Director of National Intelligence was created to coordinate policy among the Intelligence Community after 9/11, the Climate Resilience Agency would provide a North Star for EPA, DOT, DOE, FERC, and the other agencies promulgating regulations intended to decarbonize our economy. The Agency would similarly lead efforts with Congress, providing expertise and policy resources to legislators, and driving a coordinated whole-of-government approach. And the Climate Resilience Agency can play a critical but overlooked role in state and local implementation. What good does new financing to get electric heat pumps and electric induction stoves in every American home do if city councils or local zoning boards don’t allow them?

Third, the Climate Resilience Agency must rally industry to build a robust partnership between government and the private sector. Remember here, as Doris Kearns Goodwin observed of the World War II mobilization in a 2001 essay in The American Prospect, “[O]ne almost totally forgotten lesson of the war is that deep government involvement doesn’t have to mean a command economy…. the things we revere about capitalism the parts that spur energy, efficiency, and entrepreneurial skill were still in place. What the war did was tap that energy, not constrain it.” The “Arsenal of Democracy” was not built by government alone. FDR created urgency, mission, and ambitious goals, but it was the enterprise of American industry that mastered mass production of airplanes and Liberty Ships—not government. Here, too, our arsenal for climate solutions can be guided by government, but ultimately it must come from the American people, and with the partnership of American business. That also means that the Climate Resilience Agency must lead the development of financial tools that will unlock participation in a decarbonized marketplace for all American consumers—so that people can afford solar on their rooftops, electric mobility  to get to work (whether an individual car or through mass transit), and zero carbon consumer products. Indeed, designing such tools will be good for consumers: Bringing these products to the American home stands to save the average household thousands of dollars per year in reduced energy costs.

These points are critical for achieving the most important piece of the climate puzzle: scale and urgency. Some new climate moonshots are worthwhile investments (e.g., carbon removal); but the technology we really need is not that sexy (e.g., electric heat pumps and hot water heaters), and we already have it. Now we need to mass produce it, deploy it, and install it.

A new project to better design our climate governance structure can draw on plenty of helpful precedent. A particularly productive model here is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS consolidates and leads key functions in research and innovation (e.g., through the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention); it works with industry to forge meaningful public safety regulation (e.g., at its Food and Drug Administration); and it administers a series of financing structures designed to support better care programs (e.g., through the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund). These are the functions a Climate Resilience Agency should be leading, too. Also, HHS has developed a productive working model with state and local health departments, which also disburse federal funding and are able to provide health-care services better tailored to their specific regional needs. That type of model for regional- and community-based policy implementation will be critical to advancing climate justice and equity priorities, too.

Another worthwhile model lies outside the federal government in  the California Air Resources Board (CARB). CARB is an independent regulatory agency, with express direction from the state legislature to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. The Board was created by then-Governor Ronald Reagan when smog in Los Angeles threatened public health and the economy.  Over time, CARB has grown into the leading global policy innovator on climate: It has created novel regulatory tools, such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, the Advanced Clean Cars Program, and the Cap-and-Trade Program, which have provided industry with the flexibility and predictability they need to reduce emissions without threatening economic growth. CARB participates in, and spurs investment and innovation in, hard-to-solve sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, industry, and heavy-duty transportation. CARB has no doubt been on the receiving end of criticism by California’s “moderate caucus,” which has been opposed to intense climate regulation. But its civil servants maintain a sense of mission. And it is a point of pride for California: Policymakers from around the United States and the world regularly learn from and replicate CARB’s policies in their jurisdictions. (This has encouraged meaningful cross-border partnerships, including one recently upheld in a U.S. federal court, the “linkage” between California and Quebec’s carbon trading markets.)

Nearly all historical precedents for new agency creation—and some White House offices, such as the National Economic Council—share something that has been a matter of some controversy in climate policy circles: They required legislation. The Climate Resilience Agency can be legislatively enacted, too. Without legislation, carbon regulation will be subject to lengthy litigation and increasingly politicized judicial review. (During her confirmation hearings, Judge Amy Coney Barrett refused to acknowledge the scientific fact of climate change.) Also, legislation is critical for adequately funding the investments we need in research, innovation, and community resilience—particularly those that work to reverse historical inequities that have made poor and Black and Brown communities more vulnerable to climate change. Finally, Congress is more prepared than it has ever been to act here (Democrats in the House and Senate have indicated how they might proceed).

In order to build a cohesive national climate mission, a new climate leadership structure should ultimately be designed to form the foundation of an independent federal agency. President Eisenhower understood the importance of national mission when he established and empowered NASA to rival the Soviet space project. The next President should use the same leadership tools to address climate, a crisis at least if not more urgent.

Read more about CaliforniaClimate ChangeCongressfederal governmentFranklin D. Roosevelt

Alex Laskey is the co-founder and Executive Chair of Rewiring America, an organization that creates policies for the climate emergency. 

Jake Levine is an attorney in Los Angeles. He served as a climate aide to President Obama and as Senior Counsel to the California Senate Select Committee on Climate Change.

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