Today, pundits and political strategists fill the airwaves with arguments both for and against a Green New Deal. They parse the strategic wisdom and voter appeal of how (or whether) to take urgent action to reverse the unraveling of global ecosystems and stem the destruction of the true underpinnings of America’s economy. Here, we forego this political debate. Rather, we take it as a given that urgent action is necessary on climate, and we make the case instead that the New Deal and World War II mobilizations offer literal, instructive policy precedents for the job before us. In the whole history of the United States, these national efforts provide perhaps the closest corollaries we have for the immediate work of confronting our climate challenge and building a green and just economy.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression, and the subsequent war effort that defeated fascism, confronted those existential challenges and unleashed a generation of investment in economic development, manufacturing industries, worker protections, and corporate accountability. In turn, building the arsenals that defended democracy once the United States entered World War II drove decades of industrial innovation and global economic leadership. If looked at squarely, retooling our economy to respond to the mounting climate crisis is an even greater challenge than WWII or any regional dust bowl. The term “Green New Deal” is not therefore a political metaphor. It is quite simply and literally the task at hand.
The Case for an Urgent National Climate Mobilization
In a world marked by climate disruption, the path of inaction leads to catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. The United States—and indeed the planet—stands at a crossroads. One path leads to natural systems collapse, with commensurate threats to food, water, ecosystems, and public safety as well as untold human suffering. The alternative is decisive action and bold investment in technology and productive infrastructure, upgrading tools of regulation and public accountability, and unleashing a new wave of public and private investment in a more functional, effective, and just economy. Our current reality is not unlike the challenges faced in World War II, with a pressing global threat demanding decisive action to avoid grave consequences.
When the next President takes office in 2021, there will be less than a decade remaining to head off climate catastrophe. The next two presidential terms therefore offer the final chance to embark on the national mobilization needed to decarbonize our economy and build a clean energy future. This must be the top priority for the next President and should guide every facet of his or her administration—from presidential appointments to use of executive authorities to legislative negotiations with Congress and the crafting of every federal budget. The lessons of the past suggest that, in order to succeed, a bold program of investment and reform must work across all layers of government to touch the whole economy. And importantly, it must also be grounded in justice to avoid structural inequities that undermined previous national programs.
This essay presents some of the key requirements for a national mobilization, with particular attention paid to federal leadership, government structures, and administrative tools. Performance standards must drive transition in all economic sectors, from electricity and buildings to transportation and industry. Trillions in transformational public investment are needed over the next decade, as are new policies and incentives to leverage still greater private investment in the deployment of new technology, manufacturing, infrastructure, research and development, and workers. All this will require muscular and creative use of the federal government’s convening authority with industry, to revive the public sector’s once-considerable powers of industrial policy. And, bold federal action must be joined with a “progressive federalism” that partners with states, cities, tribes, and local communities. Finally, such mobilization involves a deep-seated commitment to justice and equity—to build a twenty-first century American economy that is fairer and more inclusive than its predecessors.
We suggest new federal government structures and operations to drive prioritized, coordinated action throughout the American economy. This includes a new White House office and council, led by a director, to steer this national mobilization. It also includes the creation of federal climate mobilization councils in each state, to push bottom-up, community-based solutions and support each state’s path toward a clean energy future. Nothing short of a systemic, all-of-government effort will meet the scale, scope, or speed of the climate crisis in this crucial ten-year window for action.
Finding Precedent in Past National Mobilizations: The First New Deal
In his second radio address to the nation in 1933, two months into his presidency, FDR laid out his New Deal program to mobilize a country that was “dying by inches” in the Great Depression, through “loss of homes, farms, savings and wages . . . [and] that sense of security for the present and the future.” This series of legislative reforms, new government programs, and executive actions, unfolded over six years, from 1933 to 1939, and centered around three goals: to increase and stabilize employment, reduce economic insecurity for farmers and workers, and reform the financial market conditions that had triggered the Great Depression. These efforts were animated by the intention to provide “more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.”
The New Deal offers many useful precedents for creating a clean-energy economy. The Tennessee Valley Authority and federal Rural Utility Service leveraged public investment to provide energy to rural communities that utilities refused to serve. The Public Works Administration built state-of-the-art dams, bridges, and public facilities. The Civilian Conservation Corps put hundreds of thousands of unemployed men to work planting trees and restoring natural ecosystems damaged by the Dust Bowl and unsustainable agriculture. These efforts were accompanied by macroeconomic reforms, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and financial regulation to reduce risk and improve consumer protection and labor policies that expanded workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. Together, these programs contributed to economic growth, good job creation, and industrial development, and many of the efforts allowed for significant local control.
In the final analysis, the New Deal reduced income inequality, increased worker power, and created nearly 15.5 million jobs. It supported a faster recovery from the Great Depression, with gross domestic product recovering at four times the pace of recovery from the Great Recession in 2007 and 2008. Yet, everyone did not benefit equally. Millions of black people and other marginalized groups were excluded from many New Deal programs, and these communities still suffer from the legacy impact of being written out of some of the most effective social policies in U.S. history. Further, the New Deal recovery was incomplete, and it would require a second mobilization upon entering World War II for the U.S. economy to recover fully from the Great Depression.
Lessons from the World War II Mobilization
The economic mobilization required to win World War II exemplifies the potential of deep cooperation between the public and private sectors to drive industrial transformation. It also showcases the forward-looking exercise of executive power required for such a transformative national project. As the largest economic mobilization in U.S. history, the war effort required not only putting troops into battle, but also building new manufacturing capacity to produce weapons, artillery, and machinery—the “arsenal of democracy”—needed to power the Allied forces.
The United States had to equip, clothe, and feed 12 million American troops, and supply the British and French militaries as well. There was simply no way to manufacture that much material solely through public means. The government had to mobilize the largest industrialized economy in the world to close the gap. Tightly coordinated public-private partnerships backed by high levels of public investment made it possible for the United States to increase production capacity significantly in such a short amount of time. Before entering the war in 1941, the United States produced only 12,500 aircraft per year, fewer than 100 tanks, and just 0.3 million tons of merchant ships. By the end of the war, the country had built approximately 550,000 aircraft, 88,000 tanks, and at least 18 million tons of merchant ships. The production of component materials also skyrocketed, with synthetic rubber, magnesium, and aluminum increasing anywhere from seven times to 288 times the pre-war average.
No entity besides the U.S. government could have organized such economy-wide coordination, nor marshaled the rapid investment required. WWII cost approximately $4.1 trillion over four years in today’s dollars, and spending reached 36 percent of total GDP at its peak. This spending is more than ten times today’s already robust investment in the U.S. military, about 3.1 percent of GDP in 2018. This sudden infusion of public investment at such high rates left behind a legacy of productive assets and new industrial capacity. Indeed, of this spending, nearly $20 billion—almost 10 percent of all WWII defense spending (equivalent to roughly $285 billion today after adjusting for inflation)—went toward manufacturing and machinery alone, more than double what private industry invested during the war and nearly all of it was invested directly into private businesses. Unemployment also plummeted as a result of this industrial boom, as women entered the workforce and young men went off to war, dropping from 14.5 percent in 1940 to 1.9 percent in 1945—all while increasing wages and significantly reducing income inequality.
Some critics may argue that public-sector-led economic mobilization will stifle “free enterprise” and disadvantage the private sector. But private industry benefited significantly from the World War II mobilization. During the war, companies that manufactured war goods or ran armories and shipyards as Government Owned/Contractor Operated (or GOCO) facilities received contracts that reimbursed them for all authorized production costs plus guaranteed profit. After the war, many were able to purchase the GOCO factories for a fraction of the market value. Private companies were paid to expand or convert existing facilities and, in some cases, to license new technology that resulted from private R&D. Military officials and key members of the Roosevelt Administration partnered with civilian contractors to manage complex supply chains, train new workers quickly, and run increasingly large and complex production facilities—many of which had more in common with civilian factories than military armories. And the mobilization relied heavily on small and midsized firms that participated as prime contractors, subcontractors for larger firms, and licensees for new and patented technologies.
Workers benefited as well. The industrial boom caused by the WWII mobilization created a tight labor market that increased wages and redistributed national income downwards, away from the wealthy, to build and strengthen the middle class. The share of national income held by the top 1 percent dropped from 15 percent in 1939 to 10 percent in 1945, and fell even more steeply for the top 10 percent. The effect continued throughout the postwar period, contributing to low rates of income inequality until the 1970s. The war mobilization especially benefited marginalized workers, even those who had been left out of the New Deal, as the share of national income for many—including African Americans, women, and agricultural workers—rose sharply during the 1940s. Nevertheless, many workers were again locked out of opportunities to build lasting wealth in moving from war to peacetime, due to discriminatory implementation of policies like the G.I. Bill.
Restoring America’s Commitment to Public Institutions
America is now “dying by inches” from a different threat: the mounting climate crisis. While the precise solutions for a national climate mobilization will differ in important ways from those of the New Deal or World War II, the parallel roles for policy, public investment, and government institutions are inescapable. The political movement for a Green New Deal has thrust bold action to confront climate change and rebuild the economy onto the D.C. policy agenda with new urgency. Nevertheless, even with a growing will to act, the federal bureaucracy today is not prepared to lead a major national mobilization at the scale, scope, or speed required for this task.
After four decades of policymaking dominated by neoliberal ideology—ever since Ronald Reagan insisted that government was the problem—public authorities have been curtailed and public institutions have atrophied. The federal government once supported working families with a robust agenda for economic security, ranging from Social Security, to rural electrification, to the GI Bill, largely due to reforms passed during the New Deal and WWII mobilizations. Likewise, federal regulatory authorities were broadly viewed as a bulwark for public protection, ensuring high standards in everything from food safety, to labor law, to financial markets, to clean air and water. Today, the national narrative on public institutions has shifted from that of ensuring broadly shared democracy, economic access, and prosperity, to one of “getting out of the way” of purportedly free markets. To rise and meet the climate challenge, however, we need to once again remember how to use the powers of government to mobilize in the national interest.
Of course, we should remember that in 1929 and 1941, the U.S. federal government was similarly ill-equipped to handle the challenges that lay ahead. But presidents used the muscle of their administrations—and of the Executive Office of the President itself—to drive transformational progress for the country—from the Great Depression and World War II efforts, continuing through the later Apollo Program and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda. As this generation now turns to building our own twenty-first century mobilization to meet the climate crisis, a bounty of progressive legal, policy, and intellectual tools remain available—green shoots that can be scaled into new and more robust elements of a true mobilization.
As the next President and progressives in Congress seek to rally our nation to save the planet, they will have at their disposal many hard-won federal institutions and authorities passed down from the New Deal of the 1930s, the Great Society of the 1960s, and America’s revolutionary federal environmental laws of the 1970s, as well as elements of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—which made our nation’s first $90 billion down payment in transformative green investments. Informed by these lessons of history, and with a focus on revitalizing the tools of public administration and oversight, the next President must rapidly harness and reclaim the powers of the federal government to lead this national mission.
Using the Tools of Government in Time to Avert Catastrophe
The response to our climate emergency cannot be treated as a “single issue,” an environmental challenge to be addressed in a single “climate bill,” or a program led by just one agency. Retooling the American economy to run efficiently on state-of-the-art infrastructure, powered by clean energy, while creating good jobs in local communities, will take deep coordination, prioritization, and committed leadership at a systemic level.
To succeed, this effort must be driven by the President, offering focused leadership through the White House to the entire federal bureaucracy. Diverse agencies will be called upon, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE), to the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Treasury, the Small Business Administration (SBA), and so on. No corner of the American economy will be spared by this crisis, and so too the entire federal government will be called upon to realize new and intersectional solutions. Neither will any part of the global community be spared. Therefore this bold domestic agenda must be paired with a transformative vision for international engagement to confront this global crisis with a truly global response. The next President and administration must deploy all of the tools and agencies involved in international relations—in diplomacy, trade, finance, aid and assistance—in service to this mission.
In crafting a strategy for national climate mobilization, it is essential to understand clearly the various policy levers and authorities required. We highlight five key areas of action here:
- Performance standards to drive the transition across sectors to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy;
- Major direct public investments in productive infrastructure, manufacturing, clean energy deployment, research and development, communities, and workers;
- Policy incentives to leverage greater private-sector investment and spur economic transformation;
- Use of federalism, industrial policy, and the federal government’s convening power to mobilize additional resources and capacity, economy-wide and in every region; and
- An overarching—and enforceable—commitment to justice and inclusion that guarantees that the benefits of this national undertaking are broadly and democratically shared without discrimination, beginning with our nation’s most vulnerable populations.
First, it is essential that strong performance standards are set through appropriate regulation of industry and markets, to foreclose “low road” abuse of workers, communities, and the environment, and help pave the “high road” through market rules that reward high performance and sustainability. The next President must champion standards that require power utilities to swiftly transition to 100 percent clean, renewable, and zero-emission electricity; that compel automakers to shift rapidly to manufacture and sell only zero-emission vehicles; and that ensure all buildings constructed or renovated throughout the United States transition rapidly to a zero-carbon footprint. Other standards will be needed to drive emission reductions throughout manufacturing industries. High standards must also regulate financial markets, both to rapidly decarbonize investments and to properly account for and manage risk.
Yet individual workers must not be left to bear the cost of the clean energy transition, so strong regulation of labor and wage standards and the right to organize a union must likewise be part of any just transition. Some of these standards will require new legislation from Congress, while others fall squarely within existing, well-established regulatory authorities of federal agencies. All, however, will require strong leadership from the executive branch.
Second, just as in the first New Deal and WWII mobilization, major federal investment will be essential. Public investment on the scale of trillions of U.S. dollars over the next decade will be called upon to rapidly modernize transportation and transit infrastructure; upgrade drinking, storm and wastewater infrastructure in cities and small towns; deploy new transmission and distribution grids for electricity, working with public utilities and power marketing authorities; and to construct green and affordable public housing. Robust public investment will also be required for job training and apprenticeships to meet the need for skilled workers, build industry supply chains, and harden community infrastructure for resilience to any unavoidable climate impacts.
Third, strengthening incentives for private-sector investment in climate solutions will be tremendously important to “crowd in” trillions of dollars more in needed energy, technology, and infrastructure assets. By intelligently using the tax code, smart credit enhancements, and the establishment of a federal Green Bank—an independent federal financing authority that will catalyze major investments in the deployment of clean energy technologies—new debt and equity investment can be incentivized within emerging markets for clean energy and green production. Such policies can take the form of producer-facing incentives—such as tax incentives for building or retooling domestic manufacturing facilities to produce electric vehicles, battery storage, or renewable energy technologies—that speed new American-made goods to market and scale production. Rapid transition will also be aided by consumer-facing incentives to assist families and small businesses in making the switch to electric cars, more energy-efficient homes, and other clean technologies.
The importance of private capital leverage is hard to overstate in reversing climate change. There are many parts of the economy that public spending can touch directly, but they are limited. For example, transmission lines to move wind and utility-scale solar from the Great Plains and desert Southwest to cities can be funded directly by the federal government through the four Power Marketing Administrations. However, the vast majority of the electricity grid is privately owned by Investor Owned Utilities or electric cooperatives. Likewise, federal spending is critically important for greening affordable housing, through HUD support of local Public Housing Authorities. Yet, the vast majority of affordable housing is owned by tax-credit investors and nonprofit developers, funded through private markets and incentivized by Low Income Housing Tax Credits and the Community Reinvestment Act. And the broader market-rate real estate building stock is even more remote to direct federal spending on retrofits, with most commercial office buildings, shopping malls, homes, and condominiums held in private ownership. While federal spending for Community Development Block Grants, manufacturing conversion tax breaks, and transit matching funds are truly catalytic, it is state and local government, developers, industry, and private investors responding to these cues that deploy far greater sums to complete construction. So, just as in the World War II mobilization, when the federal government formed partnership with private industry, so too federal climate leadership will steer far greater private investments, through standards and investment, to transform the nation’s productive economy together.
Fourth, in addition to shaping standards, direct investment and incentives, the federal government is also uniquely positioned to convene and coordinate market actors to facilitate economic transition and growth of key industries. This convening power was used effectively during WWII, to shape procurement, scale production, and set industry standards on fair pricing, competition, and labor practices. In later years, agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have leveraged the convening power of the federal government to help launch the Internet, map the human genome, and promote utility cooperation on sharing consumer data, among many other market and technology breakthroughs. The U.S. government has played an indispensable role in unlocking new industries and advancing America’s global leadership in technology innovation.
Building the clean energy industrial transformation should be no different. It will require public-private collaboration toward an innovation agenda, expanding existing programs like the DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. But new initiatives will also be required, like a DOE office committed to industrial decarbonization, a new USDA office tasked with innovations in climate-smart agricultural practices, and a Quadrennial Industrial Review at the Department of Commerce to sustain America’s competitiveness in manufacturing, modeled on similar reviews for defense and energy policy.
The federal government can also reach across the boundaries of federalism to ensure coordination within all layers of the public sector. A national climate mobilization must facilitate collaboration across states, cities, metropolitan regions, and tribal governments to align investments, incentives, and technical support around a shared climate mission. This will allow the federal government to build upon crucial climate leadership that is already underway in states and cities over the past decade, such as in the 11 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., that have passed 100 percent clean energy laws. And this will be especially important in energy transition, to support any workers who are impacted by the movement away from fossil fuels, offering greater economic security by protecting health-care benefits and pension plans for mineworkers and their surviving families.
Likewise, energy transition resources must also flow to communities to build new industries with living wages that draw on the abundant infrastructure assets, skilled workforce, and natural attributes of these resource-dependent communities. Local stakeholders will also be critical in ensuring that climate justice, inclusion, and democratic representation shape the design and implementation of both federal programs and resulting investment patterns on the ground.
Fifth and finally, while the vision behind the New Deal and WWII mobilizations was built around principles of economic justice and inclusion for all Americans, in practice these efforts were implemented in the context of prevailing injustice from racial exclusion and a discriminatory distribution of benefits that distorted the wider economy of the day. The USDA loan programs did not underwrite equally for black and white farmers. Federal Housing Administration policies permitted and even encouraged “redlining” of entire neighborhoods of color, choking off the urgently needed capital investment, while propelling similarly situated white families into inter-generational middle-class wealth and prosperity; Great Society urban renewal programs allowed low-income neighborhoods to be razed by bulldozers in the name of ending blight and making way for highway infrastructure. Consistently, minority communities and vulnerable populations have been denied equal voice and power in shaping implementation of major periods of investment and expansion, even as they have disproportionately borne the costs of transition, and found themselves last in line for the benefits.
To fully learn the lessons of the past, a national climate mobilization plan must therefore build justice centrally into the core of its design and into the structure of its implementation from the start, lest we risk once again saddling future generations with new legacies of inequity. Marginalization can no longer be accepted as the price of progress, as outlined in the principles of the congressional Green New Deal Resolution.
Structuring Federal Executive Leadership of a National Climate Mobilization
The leadership required for a Green New Deal must be fully manifested in the vision of the new President, and it must infuse every aspect of her or his administration. From day one, key bureaucratic reforms will be necessary to allow this mobilization to succeed.
This begins with personnel, including the choice of the White House chief of staff, and each individual Cabinet secretary, all of whom will have a critical role to play. It also includes the entities created and the personnel chosen to lead the President’s climate mobilization agenda. This prioritization must inform the administration’s crafting of the federal budget; its legislative strategy in Congress; day-to-day programmatic and operational decision-making in all agencies; and engagement with state and local governments, tribal nations, communities, and businesses. No administration in American history has yet made confronting the climate crisis its utmost priority in any of these areas, much less in all of them at once. But that is what is now required.
To help the next President forcefully drive this agenda throughout the federal government and the national economy, there should be established, by executive order, a new office and council within the Executive Office of the President (EOP) charged with leading this mobilization. These should be led by a director, with the title of Assistant to the President for Climate Mobilization, and staff who are understood to act with the full power and authority of the presidency. The office and council will work across the President’s Cabinet agencies to convene, coordinate, drive, and ultimately hold accountable every federal department to this national mission. And this council should have formalized engagement with states and local governments—like with the U.S. Climate Alliance of 24 states and one territory that are together committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement.
This new office will be modeled on similar entities throughout history. The Office of War Mobilization was created by FDR during World War II, under the Office of Emergency Management he established immediately prior to the U.S. entry into the war—through an executive order that has never been formally terminated or abolished and may offer a useful touchstone for future policy. This Office of War Mobilization was given the authority “to provide for the more effective coordination of the mobilization of the nation for war.” The executive order that created it tasked this office to “develop unified programs and to establish policies for the maximum use of the nation’s natural and industrial resources . . . [and] to unify the activities of the Federal agencies and departments engaged in or concerned with production, procurement, distribution or transportation of military or civilian supplies, materials, and products” for the war effort.
The creation of the Office of War Mobilization arose from recognition of the lack of coordination in America’s mighty industrial effort, despite considerable investment levels overseen by the War Production Board. This office was empowered to issue “directives on policy or operations” to other agencies throughout the government, and its director, James Byrnes, would come to be referred to as the “assistant president” due to the considerable power he wielded in this position.
Earlier in his presidency, in response to the Great Depression, FDR had also established the National Emergency Council—later succeeded by an Industrial Emergency Council—to coordinate across the federal agencies most involved in New Deal economic recovery. The creation of a similar National Climate Council—which has been proposed elsewhere—also draws inspiration from current examples such as the National Security Council (established by legislation in 1947) and the National Economic Council (created by executive order in 1993), two White House entities that today hold great power over the direction of federal policy and coordination of federal agencies around a shared agenda in service to the President.
These entities offer significant precedent for launching new White House structures to assist the next President in leading a true national climate mobilization. The President’s authority to structure the EOP is well established, although it is subject to some statutory limitations (including the number of personnel), and also to Congress’s willingness to appropriate funding. Ultimately, the authority and influence held by this new mobilization office and council, and especially their director, will only be able to accomplish as much as the President allows and then actively defends. This position must not merely be a “czar,” and its role cannot be perfunctory. Rather it must wield considerable influence in decision-making, sit close to the seat of power, possess authority that touches every agency, and actively drive both budget setting and program implementation.
Two existing White House offices that must play a critical role in this national mobilization are the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The real and potential power that resides in the modern OMB are hard to overstate. It oversees drafting and implementation of the $3 trillion-plus annual federal budget. It also controls personnel appointments and procurement policy and holds the final word on regulations for nearly all agencies.
The CEQ, on the other hand, has not been considered a powerful federal office for most of the twenty-first century, but its potential role in national mobilization should not be underestimated. The council can provide significant new capacity inside the federal executive branch. The CEQ is charged with ensuring that all federal agencies attend to environmental protection and adhere to the landmark 1970 National Environmental Policy Act. This law provides substantial authority that the CEQ chair can use aggressively to ensure that every federal agency is committed to reducing greenhouse gas pollution and addressing the climate crisis.
The CEQ’s role can also help ensure that this national mobilization leads to an American economy that is truly more just and equitable than the extractive fossil fuel economy of the past. Robust assertion of the council’s responsibilities provides the opportunity to establish that federal agency operations prioritize environmental justice—in everything from reviews of the community impacts of major infrastructure projects to honoring tribal treaty rights.
Reforms in how the federal government engages with state governments, cities, counties, and tribes are just as important as these bureaucratic changes. While this project is national in scope, it will require leadership at all levels of government, and its solutions will reside in, and often be led by, individual communities. Retail electricity markets are regulated by state utility commissions for example, while the power to set building codes rests with local and state governments. Furthermore, for the past two decades, states and cities in particular have provided leadership on pioneering clean energy policies that now provide a foundation for national action. Too often federal programs and investments have been discordant with solutions pursued by states, cities, and the demands of local communities. Instead, these partners should be seen as the front line of implementation.
The federal government can ensure alignment between national mobilization and each state’s march toward decarbonization and a just, green economy by establishing federal interagency climate mobilization councils in every state and territory that include all relevant federal agencies operating in that jurisdiction. These councils can be supported by detailed staff from White House offices, especially CEQ, just as FDR’s National Emergency Council placed field directors in each state to coordinate New Deal economic relief. From the rural conservation investments made by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; to enforcement of pollution standards by EPA regional offices; to urban development and sustainability capacity-building undertaken by regional HUD offices; as well as the regional economic development that can be supercharged through entities like the Appalachian Regional Commission and Tennessee Valley Authority, the next administration must undertake a coordinated engagement with all states and local communities to build America’s clean energy future as a matter of economic development.
The United States, along with the rest of the world, sits at a profound crossroads. The reality of climate change is already being felt painfully, from coastal communities to the nation’s heartland. In just the past 18 months, in American towns like Paradise, California, Davenport, Iowa, and the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami, Florida, along with communities around the globe as diverse as Beira, Mozambique and New South Wales, Australia, people are suffering the sting of catastrophic fires and floods made worse by a changing climate. These disastrous climate impacts have arrived even more swiftly than the scientific community predicted. But the worsening destruction, human suffering, and economic harm that will unfold from this crisis in coming decades, absent swift global economic transformation, is already clearly understood.
We need a multi-year national climate mobilization, together with the opportunity that such a project can provide in building a twenty-first century American economy that is more just, inclusive, and prosperous. We must look to and build on the legacy of U.S. economic and wartime mobilizations under FDR’s presidency, especially the major federal investments and the ambitious policy agendas they required. And, we must reexamine the ideological trends that have in recent decades depleted Americans’ faith in public institutions, and overcome this faltering commitment to place the tools for survival once again within our reach.
This mobilization depends on a policy agenda built around five key characteristics: aggressive performance standards for the economy; massive new direct public investments; policy incentives that spur even greater private-sector investment; a new federal focus on industrial policy, progressive federalism, and the robust use of convening power; and a foundational commitment to justice and equity. But this transformation will be achievable only if the next President pays careful attention to the governmental structures and new institutions that can put this vision fully into action—including a cross-cutting commitment to bold climate action as a centerpiece of economic renewal in every cabinet agency, every federal program, and throughout the entire federal budget. Crucially, this national mission should be driven throughout the federal government by a new White House office and council. And this coordinated project should reach down into every state, through locally engaged climate mobilization councils.
The deepening climate crisis already threatens the communities where all Americans live, work, and raise their families, as well as the stability of ecosystems on which all life depends, portending profound harm to the global economy. Rising to meet this challenge at the scale, scope, and speed that science demands will not be easy. Federal action is essential, and the next President must become a true climate champion. While daunting, history offers useful precedent for just such transformational public leadership. Though driven by science, at its heart, the climate crisis remains a challenge to our vision of governance and our economy. As FDR said, “[E]conomic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” We are not without agency. Yet the actions of the coming decade will determine whether this nation will rise to meet our current existential challenge, as it has done in the past, and in so doing lay the groundwork for a new generation of American prosperity, public welfare, and global leadership. The choice is ours.