At Florida climate change summit, VP Harris stresses optimism
MIAMI BEACH — Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday there is renewed cause for optimism given major U.S. laws enacted recently to tackle the global problem of climate change on multiple fronts.
Harris was the star attraction at the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, now in its second year in Miami Beach. The event drew about 2,300 participants including other politicians, corporate CEOs, climate activists, entrepreneurs, artists and many others. Harris appeared with Miami singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan in an interview setting on stage.
The thrust of the conversation revolved around the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August 2022. Despite its name, the measure is considered the biggest climate change legislation ever passed in the U.S. with some $370 billion directed to tackling the problem over 10 years. A major infrastructure bill also has numerous climate-related provisions.
The overarching goal is for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — from vehicle tailpipes to power plants — by 2030 to curb rising global heat.
“I think we all understand we have to be solutions driven. And the solutions are at hand,” Harris said. “We need to make up for some lost time, no doubt. This is going to have an exponential impact on where we need to go.”
The conference is located in one of the most vulnerable U.S. cities to climate-related problems including sea level rise, extreme heat, strong tropical storms and threats to vulnerable wildlife such as manatees. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat, said the area has more days of extreme heat than anywhere else in the country.
“We all know our environment is our economy,” Levine Cava said at a Wednesday morning conference session, noting that the county established the first official chief heat officer of any government in the world. “Two years ago, when we started, people laughed at us. No more.”
Estefan, who emigrated from Cuba as a child and has lived 38 years in Miami Beach, told Harris it’s obvious to her that climate change is altering South Florida in many ways, from rising seas to the disappearance of coral reefs.
“We need an administration focused on the things that need to be fixed,” Estefan said. “We absolutely need to do something to stem the tide.”
The Inflation Reduction Act, among many other climate provisions, includes tax credits for electric vehicle purchases and investments in renewable energy such as wind and solar. There’s $60 billion in business tax credits to manufacture things like solar panels and batteries and other tax credits for nuclear power and carbon capture technology aimed at reducing fossil fuel emissions. There’s money to convert the entire United States Postal Service fleet to electric vehicles, pay for electric school buses, assist farmers in green agriculture practices and for trees and parks in urban areas.
Harris said the incentives for people to buy electric vehicles, including cheaper used vehicles, are an example of what the Biden administration wants to make them affordable to far greater numbers of people.
“It’s about bringing down costs,” Harris said. “I think many people have the will to participate in what we must do to reduce greenhouse gases. But not everyone has the means.”
The bill would impose a new fee on excess methane emissions from oil and gas drilling while giving fossil fuel companies access to more leases on federal lands and waters. That latter tradeoff has some climate activists concerned about continued fossil fuel exploration and the broader issue of who decides where all the money will be spent as it goes out to states.
Still, Tom Steyer, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, said the legislation has opened the door to more private investment in technology and other efforts to combat climate change — and that the returns will be worth it.
“If you don’t do this, you’re a dope,” said Steyer, co-chair of the Galvanize Climate Solutions investment firm. “It’s cheaper to be clean. It’s better business to be clean.”
Although the conference is dominated by Democrats and climate activists, conservatives were also involved. U.S. Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican who pointed out his district includes Carbon County, is chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus with about 80 members in the House.
“I’m a Republican. I’m here to talk climate. Republicans care deeply about the Earth. We don’t talk about it very well,” Curtis said. “I believe we can have affordable clean energy. There’s more we agree on than we disagree on.”
Another Republican, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, said it’s clear that climate change skepticism is largely fallen out of favor among politicians of all stripes.
“We don’t have the luxury of pretending climate change doesn’t affect us,” Suarez said, noting the damage from hurricanes Irma and Ian and frequent flooding in his city. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. I’d like to see a world where we can reverse the damage that’s been done.”