Editor’s Note: Kevin Johnson is an Iraq War veteran and board director of the American Resilience Project and Environmental Defense Action Fund. Mark Ruffalo is an actor, environmental advocate and co-founder of We Stand United. Both are founding members of the Clean Energy Freedom campaign. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
As energy tensions continue to rise in Europe amidst the war in Ukraine, Americans are feeling the effect at home. Russia shut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria last month, and the European Union recently proposed a ban on Russian oil imports. Meanwhile, just last week, the US Consumer Price Index showed that gas prices were up 44% (on an unadjusted basis) in the 12 months ended in April, and the national average is currently hovering around $4.52 a gallon.
It’s clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to weaponize Europe’s dependence on his country’s fossil fuels to deter support for Ukraine. This moment should serve as a wake-up call to acknowledge that our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is incompatible with the national security interests of the United States and our European allies.
That’s why a rapid transition to clean energy is imperative.
In the United States, President Biden should invoke his emergency powers under the Defense Production Act (DPA) to ramp up clean energy production and installation at a pace and scale similar to military weaponry production during World War II. Except this time, it won’t be bombs, planes or tankers we need to scale up, but the production of heat pumps, solar, wind and other clean energy technology.
The DPA grants the president broad powers to mobilize the US economy, including the private sector, to produce critical goods and infrastructure needed for national defense. This includes building out and, if need be, transforming the US energy system. In fact, the DPA explicitly recognizes clean energy independence as critical to our national defense. It directs the president, “to the maximum extent possible, domestic energy supplies should be augmented through reliance on renewable energy sources (including solar, geothermal, wind, and biomass sources), more efficient energy storage and distribution technologies, and energy conservation measures.”
The clean energy transition will of course take time — no matter what. A recent analysis by UC Berkeley shows the United States could get to 90% clean, carbon-free electricity by 2035. Others suggest 2050. The speed of our transition largely depends on how much our government, businesses and the American people decide to finally supercharge clean energy investments. Using the DPA will help prioritize this transition, and get us there more quickly than our current pace.
President Biden’s use of the DPA would be neither surprising nor unprecedented. Former President Trump used it to increase personal protective equipment and ventilator production during the Covid-19 pandemic. President Biden employed it to increase production of supplies needed for vaccines. And this year, he used it to increase the raw materials needed for electric vehicles and energy storage. That was a critical first step, but now Biden must go further by invoking the DPA to not only build electric vehicles and batteries, but also rooftop solar panels, wind turbines, tidal and geothermal plants, heat pumps and electric water heaters, and related components to update our energy grid.
The alternative is expanded reliance on fossil fuels, which imperils national and international security by accelerating the climate emergency. In October 2021, the US Department of Defense released its Climate Risk Analysis, identifying climate change as having “significant implications” for US national security. It even raised the possibility of “state failure” if climate impacts stress economic and social conditions. Continued and increased fossil fuel reliance only creates more opportunities for adversaries like Russia to gain political influence or military advantage, the report found.
By using the DPA to accelerate technological innovation and move us toward clean energy independence, Biden can protect national security and insulate against Russian-engineered shocks to fossil fuel prices. Clean energy will give Americans more choice in how we power our lives and businesses and protect us from the mounting impacts of the climate emergency.
Accelerating clean energy will also create jobs across the country. To build, install and maintain our clean energy infrastructure, the United States will need to recruit, train and hire hundreds of thousands of additional workers.
The United States has a long legacy of leading the world through times of crisis with bold innovation. We, along with our NATO allies, can emerge victorious from this war by harnessing the power of the sun and the wind, our water and tides, and even the earth itself. We know it’s possible, and it’s time for President Biden to lead the way.