This article was published by Grist on Dec. 19, 2023.
By Tik Root
‘Tis the season to be merry … and get graded. As students across the country anxiously await their report cards, we thought it would be a good time to ask climate experts to grade the United States’ efforts to address the issue over the last year.
They were more than happy to play along.
“As a professor of sustainability, grading is very much in our working dialog,” one respondent told us. Another chimed in: “I’m finishing up my fall semester class right now, so grades are on my mind.”
The stakes, however, are much greater for the planet than for their students. This almost certainly will go down as the hottest year in recorded history, and the time for meaningful action is drawing short. Although the U.S. showed great effort as the Inflation Reduction Act started to roll out, it fell short of its potential with incomplete work on issues such as permitting reform, not to mention the approval of a massive drilling project in Alaska.
While experts varied in the grade they assigned, everyone agreed the country has a lot of homework to do if it hopes to pass the planet’s hardest test.
CEO, Rewiring America
Let’s start with the highest grade, from Ari Matusaik, who leads the electrification nonprofit Rewriting America. In awarding an A-, he hailed the billions of dollars the Department of Energy and other agencies have started allocating under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA. The landmark law ushered in a record level of investment in clean energy projects, from solar to battery manufacturing. But even as that money begins flowing, he noted, “we’re already headed in the right direction.”
“Sales of heat pumps are outpacing oil and gas furnaces for the second year in a row and by the end of 2023 electric vehicles representing nearly 9 percent of total light-duty car sales,” he told Grist. And that, he said, is “far past what experts say is the tipping point to wide-scale adoption.”
Former U.S. Representative, founder of RepublicEn.org
Bob Inglis is an avowed conservative, a former congressman who represented South Carolina, and a devoted proponent of climate action. He awarded the country a “high B+,” in large part because he sees momentum to address climate change building on the political right.
“Young conservatives want action,” he said, adding that Republican legislators have been introducing bills to advance sustainability. He cited bipartisan efforts around low-emissions cement and holding countries with dirty production accountable as examples.
That focus on foreign pollution is of particular interest to Inglis, who would like to see the United States move toward what he called “a carbon border adjustment mechanism” that taxes emissions-intensive imports. The European Union is in the process of implementing such a system, and will initially target sectors such as cement, iron and steel, aluminum, fertilizers.
“It uses the prize of access to the American market to basically muscle the rest of the world into accountability for negative externalities,” said Inglis, who also founded RepublicEn.org to promote market-driven solutions to the climate crisis. But enacting that may take time, especially with a party beholden to the politics of former President Donald Trump, who Inglis referred to as the “death angel in Republican primaries.”
Director of the Energy Justice Program at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund
One grade landed squarely in the middle of the spectrum: a C from Jean Su, the energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.
Su praised the Biden administration’s announcement that it is ramping up efforts to curb emissions from methane, a greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide in the 20 years after its release into the atmosphere. She also heaped plaudits on the IRA’s funding for renewable energy and community solar, as well as more stringent fuel efficiency requirements for cars and light trucks.
“However,” she said, “the Biden administration’s fossil fuel record undermines those strides.”
Like others, she was disappointed by the administration’s approval of the Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope. That project is expected to release more than 249 million tons of CO2 over 30 years once the 600 million barrels it produces are drilled and burned. That’s the equivalent of adding some 2 million cars to the road annually. She also condemned its green-lighting of liquefied natural gas exports, as well as its support for a controversial natural gas pipeline in Appalachia.
A recent Center for Biological Diversity analysis, she noted, found that fossil fuel projects approved by the Biden administration “threaten to erase the climate emissions progress from the Inflation Reduction Act and other climate policies.”
Vice president of energy and innovation at the University of Houston
The only thing that spared the nation from earning an F from Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a chemistry and petroleum engineering professor, was the generous curve he used. His litany of laments was long.
For starters, the United States still hasn’t made meaningful progress on reforming the permitting process for new electricity transmission. “No projects at scale are likely to move forward without this,” he warned. Although the White House made an attempt at this sorely needed step, that effort has been bogged down in congressional politics..
Interest rates have been another drag, he added. Higher rates have made it a lot more challenging for investors to support new clean energy projects such as offshore wind. And even if there was more momentum to break ground, he fears there aren’t adequate plans to supply the workers needed to construct them. “We have not truly developed at scale programs that will deliver the right workforces at the right time for the projects,” he wrote.
Even the year’s bright spot — EV sales — is dimming in what Krishnamoorti dubs a cooling of “the best story of climate progress.” Some hurdles he sees impeding wider adoption include supply chain issues, the cost of EVs, and inadequate infrastructure. Cutting charging times further would help, too.
The rise of NIMBYism is another concern for Krishnamoorti. He attributes opposition to things like wind and solar farms to a “sugarcoating of the bottlenecks and the tradeoffs that are necessary for the energy transition — there is a narrative that energy transition technologies do not require tradeoffs and there are no bottlenecks.”
“NIMBYism is dictating every project,” he remarked. “Unless there is clarity on the true cost of U.S. climate programs and the impacts it will have — we will not move forward.”
Associate scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Center
Anna Liljedahl, a hydrologist with focus on the Arctic, had no qualms about failing the U.S. Her reasoning was straightforward: Many patents, including climate technologies that would help mitigate the problem are locked away from public view. Although patents are a matter of public record, they grant those holding them exclusive rights to the technology and prevent others from developing or commercially exploiting it for years.
“I bet many are on alternative and low-cost energy solutions,” she said. “Until that confidentiality is lifted, I am giving our country the lowest grade possible — no matter what else happened during the year.”
Physicist and professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley
Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, said it’s unclear exactly what the U.S. grade should be, given its mixed performance. For that reason, he’s awarding an incomplete.
He echoed the near universal praise others had for the Inflation Reduction Act, but said the impact of that landmark climate legislation remains unrealized. Any gains that might have come from the Biden administration’s signature bill were at least somewhat offset by its approval of the Willow project.
Still, Kammen saw the potential for real progress in the climate agreement the United States and China signed last month. In finding rare common ground on the issue, the two superpowers agreed to “sufficiently accelerate” the deployment of clean energy in a bid to begin displacing fossil fuels and address the climate crisis.
“The U.S.-China Sunnylands Agreement could reset the international climate investment and progress effort,” Kammen said.
Climate activist, author, and, yes, an emeritus member of the Grist board
Kammen wasn’t only one doling out incompletes. Although environmentalist Bill McKibben lauded the investments already made under the IRA, he called such efforts just “half the assignment.”
“[They] completely punted on the other half — the dirty energy side,” said McKibben, the founder of Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 for action on climate and justice. But, he added, there are ways to make up for it — particularly by reining in recent efforts to build out the domestic production capacity of liquified natural gas.
“A decision to block new export licenses for LNG permits would be the biggest single move possible on our planet right now to slow the fossil fuel juggernaut,” he wrote. “And give them lots and lots of extra credit.”
Senior climate scientist, Project Drawdown
Climate scientist Kate Marvel wasn’t terribly impressed with the country’s efforts and also gave the U.S. an incomplete. Although the general trendline is headed in the right direction, the nation’s efforts lack urgency. “Total emissions in the U.S. are falling (mostly due to declines in coal) but nowhere near fast enough to meet Paris Agreement targets,” she said.
Although she noted that federal legislation such as the IRA, bipartisan infrastructure act and the CHIPs Act have all helped to accelerate the deployment of clean energy, the need for faster action became abundantly clear in 2023. “The toll of climate disasters this year was heavy: deadly wildfires, devastating floods, brutal heat waves, and smoky skies,” Marvel said. “Climate change has come to the U.S., and the warming is accelerating. Let’s hope climate action accelerates, too.”