By B. L. Wilson
The George Washington University Climate and Health Institute held its inaugural in-person event, a symposium at the Milken Institute School of Public Health Convening Center featuring keynote speaker Sen. Tom Carper, (D-Delaware) touting measures taken by the Congress to accelerate the country’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, including the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
“Thanks to the leadership of the guy who lives in the White House these days,” Carper said. “Thanks to the good work of experts, student activists and leaders at all levels of government, state, local and federal, we’ve broken through the major log jam on clean energy legislation.”
Several panels involving GW faculty and other experts from government, civil society and academia were held throughout the day to discuss the health and environmental justice implications of the legislation and the Supreme Court ruling limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority.
Milken Institute SPH Dean Lynn Goldman introduced GW President Mark S. Wrighton as a stellar leader in academics, a chemist who has an in-depth understanding of the research and education in which the Climate and Health Institute is engaged.
Wrighton praised the commitment of GW students, faculty and staff, including the Climate and Health Institute, who are working on the critical problem of climate change and public health and the significant steps that have been taken to move the university toward carbon neutrality by 2030.
“We are well on our way to this goal, especially through energy efficiency associated with the physical facilities of this institution,” said Wrighton, mentioning the renovation of Thurston Hall and the purchase of renewable energy from an off-site solar energy farm that meets 50 percent of the university’s electricity needs.
Carper, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, shared with the audience of faculty, students and other guests his humble beginnings in coal mining towns of West Virginia and Virginia, where his father worked as a claims adjuster and his mother at a Five and Dime store. Both were deeply religious and “made sure that [my sister and I] had a real reverence for this planet on which we had been plopped down and that we had an obligation to take care of it.”
In the Senate, he represents Delaware, a state that he said is sinking and the lowest lying state in the United States. “Rising seas, and climate change are real and personal,” he said. No community, he pointed out, whether small or large, rich or poor, has been spared the ravages of the impact of the climate crisis, most recently from Hurricane Ian.
“The cost of extreme weather and climate change are mounting, not just in dollars but in lives,” said Carper. “According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ian was the 15th, billion-dollar climate disaster that we’ve experienced in our country, not this century, not this decade, but this year,” he said.
Carper described three major climate achievements that he has been involved with:
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides billions of dollars to reduce emissions and invest in more resilient highway infrastructure; build the first ever national network of electric vehicle charging stations in the country; purchase electric school buses; and earmark funds for low-income and disadvantaged communities to use to leverage private investments in clean energy projects.
“This law is a critical down payment on reaching President Biden’s goal of cutting emissions in half by the end of this decade and achieving net zero emissions by 2050,” said Carper.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which makes significant changes, he said, in “the nation’s bedrock environmental law,” mainly by providing tax credits to help the growth of clean energy industry, specifically solar, wind and nuclear power.
Codifying the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal protocol, which aims to reduce hydrofluorocarbons by 85% over the next 15 years.
“At the end of the day, these historic accomplishments are going to address climate change in very tangible ways, and importantly these actions are going to do so it in a way that creates good paying jobs,” he said.
In a Q & A that followed, Climate and Health Institute Director Susan Anenberg posed questions from researchers and faculty from GW Law, the Trachtenberg School of Policy and Public Administration, and the Milken Institute SPH, some of whom wondered whether the Inflation Reduction Act, seen by some as “more carrot than stick,” would move the country forward fast enough to meet climate governance goals.
Carper explained that the United States automobile industry moved slowly on electric vehicles in the past because some in the industry didn’t find it feasible or trust federal administrations to continue to be supportive. He explained that now that the technology is more advanced, and vehicles can travel longer distances before charging, companies like General Motors and Ford are moving to phase out or reduce fossil fuel powered vehicles.
“What we tried to do on the infrastructure bill, he said, “and what we’re trying again in doubles and spades with the IRA is provide great incentives for building charging stations at filling stations.”