What’s the right role for government in addressing climate change? Look to the past

A photograph of the Lincoln Memorial.

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America was built on innovation and ingenuity, from the Industrial Revolution to the economic boom that followed World War II. Government, businesses, and workers can come together again as we innovate to build a better, stronger, more resilient economy to address the challenge of climate change.

When it comes to innovations and technology, we often celebrate the inventors and the business leaders who helped bring new, wonderful products into our lives. Usually, though, we forget that government leaders and workers inspired, challenged, and sometimes badgered American companies to innovate.

It’s true of the polio vaccine, for which we celebrate the life-saving scientific advances of Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk. Less known are the contributions of President Franklin Roosevelt who launched the March of Dimes, which funded both of those vaccines.

Government also played a major role, often overlooked, in building the transcontinental railroad, which in 1869 linked the final two sections of the new route that would transform cross-country travel and commerce. That technological leap, which seems quaint now, shaped the future of the nation, transformed the U.S. economy, and helped heal the rift caused by the Civil War. The Golden Spike, the final spike that completed the railroad, was engraved with the names of railroad executives. But the name of Abraham Lincoln, who signed the 1862 Pacific Railway Act that provided land and loans to build the railroad, wasn’t engraved on the spike. Neither were the names of the clerks in the land grants office or the government officials who helped persuade investors to buy the bonds.

The United States’ response to the Soviets’ Sputnik launch in the 1950s was another government-led business partnership. Today, decades after American tech and aeronautics firms met President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land an American on the moon by the end of the 1960s, it’s easy to take the U.S. space industry for granted. But billions in government R&D money continue to fuel those industries, including the so-called NASA spinoffs. These technological advances and entire companies that have grown out of space technologies are improving weather forecasting, making better cold-weather apparel, and even helping small breweries recapture and reuse CO2 instead of venting it into the atmosphere.

Saving lives, creating good jobs, building a stronger economy

Electric car parking spot

Flickr / Noya Fields

Climate change is exactly the kind of problem that, as history tells us, requires our government to lead the way. Left to their own devices, most business leaders struggle to think beyond the next quarterly report. But our elected leaders can, and should, think about next-generation jobs and the future of the country. Government can provide the necessary guidance, support, and incentives for American companies:

  • Helping to cut carbon emissions by investing billions in research and development funds for key elements of clean energy technologies, such as battery storage and carbon capture and sequestration.
  • Investing directly — through purchases of electric vehicles for government fleets, such as military vehicles and mail trucks.
  • Sparking sales of electric vehicles by building a network of recharging stations available to private citizens.

The climate change challenge we face today is complex, but with the right policies and leadership, we can unleash the full potential of American workers. We can create a future in which climate change spinoffs like NASA— those once-unimaginable technologies, industries, and jobs—transform and improve our lives.

This article was produced and distributed in partnership with Climate Power.

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