Carolyn Leigh / McClatchy DC The following editorial appeared in The Washington Post.
Vice President Joe Biden, eager to get back in the public eye and paint his side of the 2016 campaign, has met with some of the country’s biggest boosters for Hillary Clinton. He’s been on the road with labor leaders and nonprofits, getting messages he wants voters to carry home to their own employees. But the times he’s campaigned the most in 2016 have been in states ravaged by extreme weather. Once again, “climate change” was the defining issue in his three meetings with business leaders this week, almost all of them located near the coast.
Of course, it was never just a metaphor for destructive forces on our climate. But for Biden, “climate change” has suddenly become an economic threat of epic proportions, and environmentalists may find themselves an even weaker force in his second potential White House bid. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Monday that the United States experienced seven of the top 10 months on record for heat during the first half of the year. The agency also noted a significant rise in tropical and subtropical cyclones, most of them intense and deadly, all of them occurring between May and July. One month in just three years — 2015 — is enough to sum up the response: More than $1 billion in damage, more than 80 deaths, and the destruction of half a dozen shoreline communities at a time when few states are imperiled by a natural disaster more frequent than a cold snap. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have done the same to Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, respectively. Another study in the journal Nature has found that the US could face up to 90 fatalities by the end of the century from flooding and storm surges linked to climate change.
Older assessments of climate change and associated threats to the US political economy were more balanced and holistic than today’s, but also measured with longer time horizons. The tragedy of the Bush Administration’s Iraq war, the fragility of the global economy and the assault on civil liberties and the collective bargaining power of organized labor are stark reminders of the tremendous risk of jumping into conflict and taking much longer to resolve them. Climate change, by contrast, is a symptom rather than the main condition of political stagnation or immiseration, and it’s in the best interests of the administration to protect the economy and promote opportunity in the long term rather than stifle economic growth.
But Biden has spent much of his political career in search of consensus, and this White House has made it harder than ever to find agreement on basic questions of policy. If the president has his way, every agency in the government will be required to evaluate whether climate change is real and if emissions pose a threat to public health and the economy before taking any action to clean it up. The Environmental Protection Agency has yet to issue a single rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It is hard to think of a better way to end the debate than start addressing the global challenges of water pollution, carbon pollution and job creation. To take just one example, there is no road to coastal development on which heavy industrial emissions have not contributed to ocean acidification, creating a vulnerable environment and skyrocketing insurance costs.
Meanwhile, businesses have been free to lobby Congress to block any regulation or restrictions that could hinder growth. The result is that nearly every new rule would be invalidated by a court challenge. Donald Trump is hardly the first president to choose his battles; most recent Republicans also picked ideological objectives over the economy. What’s surprising is that some people want to fight an economic war — including a vice president of the United States — in the face of overwhelming evidence that the war is already over.
This article appeared in Context, the monthly publication of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.