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Activists Hail Biden on Climate Initiatives

Wed, 04/28/2021 - 18:32
"What a difference an election can make," said Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island, pictured in 2018 taking a photo at the Accabonac Solar array in East Hampton Town.
Durell Godfrey

President Biden's announcement last Thursday, Earth Day, that the United States will cut greenhouse gas emissions to 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade was hailed by South Fork activists this week as commensurate with the urgency of the climate crisis.

Hosting a two-day virtual summit of 40 world leaders, Mr. Biden's announcement stood in stark contrast to his predecessor's approach. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement, the goal of which is to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. (The nation rejoined the Agreement on Mr. Biden's first day in office.)

With a closely divided Congress and congressional apportionment set to shift toward conservative states, based on 2020 census data, Mr. Biden, who urged all the other heads of state to be more aggressive in their own emissions-reduction targets, may have limited time in which to act on climate, although several Republican lawmakers and corporations have warmed to the long-range goal of a carbon-neutral economy.

East Hampton Town has been similarly aggressive in emissions-reduction targets. The town board, which voted to declare a climate emergency last month, has adopted or is considering policies pertaining to electric vehicles and energy efficiency, and has set a goal to derive all of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030. Activists here cheered the announcement this week.

"What a difference an election can make," said Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island. "The president's commitment to emissions reductions puts the United States back where we belong, and that is, into a position of climate leadership, alongside Europe. I'm also thrilled that the president committed to a zero-emissions goal in the electricity sector by 2035," five years earlier than New York State's goal as set in its 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. "That puts us on a path to reach net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. That's what we need."

President Biden seeks to achieve the emissions reduction target by virtually eliminating the use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, and by a rapid wholesale transition to electric vehicles. He emphasized the job creation inherent in a $2.3 trillion plan that would see the building of new energy and transportation infrastructure.

"I agree in seeing climate change as a threat," said Paul Munoz, chairman of the town's energy sustainability committee, "but it also is a big opportunity for the country as a whole to get back to what it used to be: making stuff in America, being competitive with good paying jobs here, improving the middle class."

The president "has given us all hope," said Lena Tabori, also of the energy sustainability committee. "He is asking the government and the world to look at every action through the lens of climate change." But he has to act quickly, she said. "Speed matters, because the midterm elections are at the end of 2022, and Biden is betting on bringing great new renewable-energy jobs to America with all the good feelings that will engender. Americans need to be in love with Democrats by Nov. 8, 2022, because there is a very real possibility of Republican gains in both the House and Senate, with all the forms of voter suppression taking place in Republican-controlled states."

The administration's goals are ambitious but achievable, Mr. Munoz said. "I like to think that the most powerful country in the world should be able to do it. We were able to be a great contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, we can also contribute to the solution. I think it's only fair for the United States to do that and to be a leader, especially in environmental justice."

"Some of the goals he's setting on a federal level apply very much to East Hampton," Mr. Munoz added, pointing to the town's recently adopted policy to buy electric vehicles wherever possible and its consideration of a stringent building code emphasizing energy efficiency and "green" energy generation. "It seems like we're on the right track."

Mr. Biden's plan does not include a carbon fee and dividend, which Citizens Climate Lobby advocates as a market-oriented approach that would speed a transition to clean energy and reduce emissions by as much as 30 percent in the first five years. Nonetheless, said John Andrews of C.C.L.'s Long Island East chapter, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If the plan as it is gets passed, that's way better than not doing anything, and it doesn't eliminate the possibility of carbon pricing in the future."

Conservatives, Mr. Andrews said, should embrace a market-oriented approach "simply because it's market-oriented as opposed to relying on regulations." Even Exxon Mobil, once the most valuable energy company in the U.S., supports a carbon-tax plan advocated by the conservative Climate Leadership Council, which is similar to C.C.L.'s proposal, he said.

But Mr. Biden's announcement dovetails with many corporations' intentions, Mr. Raacke noted. Multiple automobile manufacturers have already announced a phaseout of internal combustion engine vehicles, for example, and Exxon Mobil has been eclipsed by NextEra Energy, the world's largest producer of wind and solar energy.

"This is the way the wind blows," Mr. Raacke said, "the way technology is going, where money is to be made. It's great to have the President of the United States commit to this, but this is not just a political movement, this is a global movement toward carbon-free renewable energy sources and building a new, carbon-free economy."

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