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Save the Environment, Save American Democracy

9 40 26

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan got all the attention, but it is not the only important change to American foreign policy this year. In the same month that President Joe Biden declared he would end the United States’ longest war, he also announced a target for dramatic reductions in America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Fulfilling this promise will be difficult in view of partisan polarization and thin Democratic majorities in Congress, but doing so is essential for maintaining a livable environment for the twenty-first century.

Biden’s announcement, delivered on Earth Day, holds the potential for opening a new chapter in the political economy of the United States. His target of reducing emissions by roughly 50 percent by 2030, on the way to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, will entail a massive reorientation of the United States’ economy and its foreign policy. But the gains from doing so would be equally massive: the Biden administration could rescue the global environment and renew the tattered U.S. social contract by advancing a pro-climate vision that inspires a new generation of Americans.

Decarbonization requires creative destruction. The United States must take steps that will result in the demise of the fossil fuel economy and its replacement with a clean energy economy that would be both more efficient and better for people’s health and welfare. Multiple reports demonstrate how technological advances have made this feasible: mass clean electrification that fuels an electric vehicle revolution is possible now, and other building blocks for a green economy, from hydrogen-fueled vehicles to very low-emission industrial processes, are on the cusp of becoming a reality.

This effort would require substantial government investment in clean infrastructure and major changes to industrial policy. However, it would also create millions of jobs assembling wind turbines, retrofitting buildings, and constructing new manufacturing facilities. The benefits of such green reindustrialization are enormous and the long-term economic costs modest, especially compared with the costs of inaction. For reasons of both equity and political viability, the federal government also needs to use its fiscal resources and regulatory powers to ensure that the new jobs in renewable energy are as well paying and unionized as the jobs in fossil fuel industries that they replace.

Climate policy is not just domestic policy: it is foreign policy. For U.S. environmental efforts to succeed, they must not compromise the global competitiveness of American industry or encourage greater emissions by its trading partners. Climate policy must therefore be multilateral,........

© Foreign Affairs

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