Earth Day Special: Christy Goldfuss on the Climate and Clean Energy
Part of a Series
In honor of Earth Day, Daniella sits down with Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president of Energy and Environment at the Center for American Progress and former managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to discuss recent climate science findings, the state of climate legislation, and the need for energy independence. Daniella also talks about what Democrats can do to strengthen their election chances as the midterms approach.
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Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hey everyone, welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger, and if you can’t tell, I’m a little under the weather. Yes, I have a cold, which feels very weird to say, given masking and all of that. But yeah, I was around some people, and they had colds. And now I do, and it’s fine. But I sound like this. So, sorry.
Earth Day is coming up this Friday. So, we’ve got the Center for American Progress’ own Christy Goldfuss with us to discuss recent reports on global climate change, the state of U.S. climate legislation, and the urgent need for U.S. energy independence. Christy is a senior vice president of Energy and Environment Policy at CAP and former managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, so you won’t want to miss what she has to say. But as always, first, let’s get to some news.
With a little more than six months to go until the midterms—I can’t believe I just said that, six months—there’s more and more focus on those important races this fall. Now, if you listen to the media pundits, you’d think that the Democrats are totally screwed. Now, that’s not to say we aren’t facing some significant headwinds for the party in power heading into their first midterms. You know, let’s look at the Republicans in 2018. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there is still plenty of time for Democrats to get their act together. There are a couple of things I think the party needs to do ASAP.
First, Democrats need to remind people over and over again that despite being handed a flaming bag of—let’s call it “garbage”—when he was sworn into office, President Joe Biden and his administration hit the ground running. Remember how in January of last year, under Trump, more than 3,000 Americans on average were dying a day, there was no plan to distribute or administer the vaccine, schools were virtual, and millions and millions of jobs had been lost? So, it’s all the more remarkable that the Biden administration quickly turned the country around in just one year by getting more than 500 million shots in arms, safely opening schools, passing the American Rescue Plan, and passing the bipartisan infrastructure law, which is sending needed investments into towns and cities across the country as we speak.
Look, and that’s not all. Biden added more jobs during his first 14 months than any other president. Ninety-three percent of jobs lost at the start of the pandemic are back—93 percent. Wages are up. That’s right, they’re up. And in 2021, Americans had on average nearly $340 more in disposable income each month than they did in 2019, even after adjusting for inflation. We need to hear way more about this from our friends in the Democratic Party heading into the fall. We know Republicans would be crowing about this if they were in control. When the unemployment rate was this low in 2018, Republicans called it “historic.” Democrats need to stop acting like they are embarrassed about this economy and the recovery. We need to make sure the American people know that Joe Biden and Democrats are the ones who got us this far in the recovery, and they are the only party that is fighting for solutions.
Next, we need to also remind voters that Democrats are still fighting to get a lot of important things done, like lowering the cost of prescription drugs by finally allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies; making our tax system fair so no billionaire ever pays less in taxes than a firefighter or a secretary would pay; and moving us to a clean energy economy so we can finally be free of petro-dictators like Vladimir Putin. These provisions and others in the president’s economic agenda will also help address inflationary pressures in the long term and protect consumers from the price gouging we’re seeing today. It’s a commonsense and broadly popular agenda that they’re fighting to implement without any help from the Republicans.
And third, Democrats also need to be reminding the American people that they are making a choice between the party that’s fighting for them and the one that’s trying to overthrow our democracy. MAGA Republicans have officially taken over that party. In case you missed it, the MAGA Republican agenda is full of cartoon supervillain policies that hurt all Americans, and we need to be spotlighting that. They want to raise taxes on 100 million families, including nearly two-thirds of seniors. They want to end—that’s right, end—Social Security and Medicare in just five years. They want to end all federal funding for public schools and colleges. And surprise, surprise, some even want to try to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which we know has provided millions of Americans with lifesaving health care coverage.
We’re also learning more and more about the true extent of Republicans’ involvement in planning the January 6 insurrection. Case in point: We learned late last week that Republicans like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) were actively working with Mark Meadows and Donald Trump to try to overturn the election. That comes on the heels of reporting that other influential Republicans like Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, were also actively involved in efforts to try to keep Trump in office. But guess what: Not a single Sunday show covered Mike Lee, Chip Roy, that news this weekend. While I appreciate the media’s commitment to fairness, at a certain point, balancing your coverage of these two parties to put them on the same playing field means ignoring the fact that one party is actively trying to destroy our democracy. That is blatantly un-American, and our friends in the media need to call that out for what it is. They need to stop doing this both-siderism stuff, because both parties aren’t doing this.
Now, the House Select Committee is working tirelessly to get to the bottom of those events. And yet, Republicans continue to ignore subpoenas for information and downplay the significance of that day. The committee will soon start holding public hearings later this spring and will put on full display how Trump and his cronies very likely broke the law in their failed effort to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. As we get closer to these public hearings, I look forward to the growing spotlight that will be cast on Republican involvement and suspect it will shift our midterm conversations—at least I hope it will. But Democrats need to seize the moment and remind the media and voters alike that the 2022 midterms are a choice between Democrats—who’ve been busy improving and saving American lives these past two years—and the Republicans, a collection of MAGA fanatics who spent those years turning our government upside down on behalf of billionaires and fascists.
If there’s anything else you’d like us to cover on the pod, hit us up on Twitter @TheTentPod, that’s @TheTentPod. I’m excited to announce that going forward, we’ll be posting transcripts for “The Tent” each week. We’ll note in the description where transcripts are available, and you can access them by clicking through the episode website from your streaming service. Stick around for our interview with Christy Goldfuss in just a beat.
Gibbs Léger: Christy Goldfuss is a senior vice president of Energy Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining CAP, she was the managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, where she helped develop and implement the Obama administration’s environmental and energy policies, including President Obama’s signature Climate Action Plan. While in the White House, she co-chaired the Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, as well as the National Ocean Council. And she’s a former deputy director of the National Park Service. Christy, thanks for joining us on “The Tent.”
Christy Goldfuss: Oh, thanks so much for having me, especially this week.
Gibbs Léger: Exactly! Earth Day is obviously a time of awareness about our environment. And in particular, this year, we really need to be using this as an opportunity to think about how we can mitigate the effects of global climate change. The headlines on climate lately, as you know, have been pretty terrifying. There was the recent IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report in which the U.N. scientists said it’s quote, “now or never” to limit warming. Can you break down some of the findings from these recent reports and what the headlines mean? You know, what exactly is going on and to what extent is it fixable? That was a lot.
Goldfuss: Yes, it’s a lot. And to try and clarify what the scientists say, or at least put it in terms that are understandable: There’s a certain amount of climate pollution that’s already baked into the system. So what we’re trying to do here, during this decade and into the future, is really to halt the amount of climate pollution that we’re emitting into the atmosphere, which won’t stop the warming immediately, but kind of like a giant oil tanker out in the ocean, it will very slowly turn around. And over, hopefully, the coming decades, we will see a slowing down of the overall warming of the planet, which will limit the damage that we see as a result of climate change.
Now, the scientific warnings about “time is running out”—they’re hard to digest. And to a certain extent, people will say, “Well, we’ve heard scientists say this for decades,” and that’s true. So, I am very cognizant that we need to act, and we need to act urgently, and the science has been right for decades—everything that they predicted would happen if we did not change our behavior and were to continue with as much carbon pollution as we have now—everything has come to pass. However, humans are incredible in terms of our ability to innovate, and so it’s impossible to predict the future. But the warnings are stark and real. And we need to do what we can to slow down this crisis, and we have the solutions at our fingertips. We know how to do it, and we need to do it now.
Gibbs Léger: So, despite the urgency here, you know, getting anything climate related through Congress right now is an uphill battle, with Republicans basically sticking their fingers in their ears on the subject of climate change and, you know, some moderate Democrats continuing to cater to the coal industry, Big Oil and Gas, et cetera, by blocking necessary climate efforts. But one piece of legislation that did pass included some climate provisions, and that was the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It’s not everything that Democrats wanted to get done—and more on that in a moment—but can you talk about some of the climate and clean energy elements of this bill and why they were a win?
Goldfuss: Absolutely. Everything that was included in this infrastructure package is about really setting the foundation for this incredible transition to clean energy that we need. So, it’s putting the charging stations into communities. It’s supporting the deployment of electric school buses. It’s fixing the grid so it can handle more wind and solar energy. So, a lot of what was included in that infrastructure package was kind of setting the table for the rapid decarbonization that we need, making sure that the systems that we have in place are able to accept the clean electrons, so that we can get to a place where we have, say, 80 percent of our electricity in the United States coming from clean, renewable sources. It is 100 percent true that we would not be able to get to the level of clean energy that we need without the investments that were made in the infrastructure package. That is essential, an essential foundation to making the progress.
However, it is also true that we will not build or deploy the amount of wind and solar energy that we need if we don’t take the next step, which is to actually invest in building those projects, not just invest in setting that stage. You know, you’ve got to do both. So, it’s great. It’s incredibly important progress. It’s complicated, because it’s also a historic investment—once-in-a-generation investment—in infrastructure for this country. So, a huge win, but we still obviously need to take one more really—well, multiple—big steps, but one that is hanging out there and has us all focused on this particular moment in time.
Gibbs Léger: So, let’s talk about that other piece that needs to happen. You know, is there any other, climate-related legislation or policy that you think we could actually see from this Congress or the White House this year?
Goldfuss: Yes. I don’t know how to say this in a way that doesn’t just get lost in the D.C. drone, or what has become kind of hyperbole. But for real, I think we’re looking at a set of weeks between now—Earth Day really being the start of the shot clock—to Memorial Day, where both the White House and Congress have a last-gasp opportunity to act on policy. After Memorial Day, we know how close we are to the midterms. We know how crazy everything gets. And I think this is it. Many folks heard Chairman [Joe] Manchin (D-WV) in December say that he could not be for Build Back Better. And that was the end of that legislation. There were a good amount of climate investments that were supported in that House package that are still very much supported in the Senate, and even Chairman Manchin himself has said that he is for investing in clean, renewable energy at an incredibly high rate to get to where we need to go. So, if he’s supportive, and we have 50 senators—Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema (D-AZ) has said it over and over again that she is for the climate investments that the House passed—how could we get out of this moment in time without moving forward and making progress? That is the deeply distressing and nerve-wracking moment that we’re in, because it seems like everything’s there. The support is there. The policy solutions are there. It’s just a matter of having a deal come together.
And frankly, I think everything that we’re seeing right now with Putin’s war in Ukraine, and putting a very fine point on dictators and their connection to fossil fuels, has just brought along even more supporters for making a transition to real energy independence, which has to be centered around clean energy that doesn’t run out and can be made here in the United States. So as if we needed more reminders, if you didn’t want to just hear it from the scientists, once again—and I do believe that that is something that’s important to Chairman Manchin—is looking at how do we insulate ourselves from these erratic dictators, and how do we think about making more energy here in the United States? And clean energy is a key part of that.
Gibbs Léger: So that’s a perfect segue into my next question—which you answered a great deal of it—which was, you know, the sharp increase in gas prices is on a lot of Americans’ minds right now. And there are many contributing factors, but you know, the war in Ukraine is one of them, and that clean energy independence is emerging as a long-term solution that can both help the environment and help prevent future energy crises like this. So, you talked a little bit about what energy independence would actually mean or how we would achieve it, but I want to also ask you about what you hear from some folks in the gas industry who say, “Yes, we support energy independence, too. And it should be an ‘all-of-the-above.’ And that includes more drilling for”—do you drill for natural gas? Or is that just…
Goldfuss: Mhm, yeah, you’re good. “Fracking,” it’s “fracking.”
Gibbs Léger: “Fracking?” Right, so they’re like, “So yeah, we support energy independence. And that means we should pull more resources out of the ground, in terms of natural gas.” So, what do you say to those folks who make that argument?
Goldfuss: Well, it’s very simple. The oil and gas industry is a global market. So, to the extent that anyone thinks we are keeping everything that we drill here in the United States, that’s just wrong. It’s a market that everyone draws from. And as long as you have Saudi Arabia and other countries very much in control of OPEC and how the oil and gas markets work, the United States is not going to be able to drill its way out of this problem. That’s just never going to happen. So, it is a question of, what do we do in the near term to really limit the pain at the pump? Because it’s real. I’m sure you see it, Daniella, when you look at your grocery bill, which, you know, gas prices and how much it costs to transport things is a huge part of that now. And when you fill up your car, this is having a real impact on people’s lives. So not to diminish at all that there needs to be solutions right now that are helping families get through this particular period of time, but drilling is not going to help families right now or even in the next couple of years. Oil and gas companies have 9,000 permits that they aren’t executing on. So, they could start working through those permits right now, and a lot of that oil and gas wouldn’t come online for another year-and-a-half to two years.
So, the solutions that really would help families now are looking at what are the options for returning some money to families or those who need it most, or really going after the oil and gas industry CEOs who have made clear publicly that they don’t want to change what they’re doing or what their calendar is to have more production because they’re perfectly happy with these really, really high costs and the amount of money that is going back to them. So, to limit profiteering, we really could look at a windfall profits tax. That means companies would have a greater incentive to invest in production rather than doing stock buybacks or just turning it over to their investors. So, there are solutions that can help with the impacts of the pain at the pump. But really, the transition—if we’re going to be spending money, and we’re going to be looking at what we want to invest in overall—the solutions in the three- to five-year time frame are renewable energy. That’s where we want to invest, and that’s what the investments and the tax credits that have been debated on the Hill for the last couple of years would do. They would get us to a place where we are reducing costs for families for their overall energy bill and deploying the clean energy we need to break our dependence on fossil fuel. There is no way to drill our way out of this problem. There is no freedom at the bottom of the barrel. It is really about looking at the abundant clean energy that we have here that no one can take away from us. And we know how to build out to really support what we need.
Gibbs Léger: I like that: “There’s no freedom at the bottom of a barrel.”
Goldfuss: I would love to take credit for that, but I’m pretty sure that came from Ali Zaidi in the White House, and I just repeated it because it’s good.
Gibbs Léger: Oh, good. Oh, Ali. So, you’ve mentioned windfall profits tax. And I know your team at CAP recently called on Congress to implement this on companies. And you know, you just talked a little bit about it. What do you say to people who would say, “OK, that sounds great, but aren’t these companies just going to then pass that along to the consumer somehow?” Like, how does this not come back—because they’re very good at doing that anyway—how will this not eventually come back to hurt consumers?
Goldfuss: Right, shout out to Trevor Higgins and Seth Hanlon from the team here at CAP, because really, when they were thinking about how to design the policy, that was the key. How do you make sure that what this windfall profits tax does incentivizes the right behavior out of the industry, which in this case, we want them to focus on the permits, the leases, the assets they have right now and produce more energy right now to help with the particular crisis that we have. So, as a result, the windfall profits tax is designed to kind of focus on the profits portion of the margin. And, you know, their cost of doing business doesn’t change, while they get these huge, enormous increases in profits. So they have a choice when they look at it, and they look at the ledger: Do we want to take these profits that we’re getting and we didn’t expect, and we have this large new profit margin? Are we going to buy back a bunch of our stock, pay off more of our investors? How are we going to look at that side of the equation? Or, are we going to invest in producing more oil and gas right now?
And the way the profits tax works, it makes the ledger where you would produce more oil and gas more attractive. And so that cost doesn’t get passed on to the consumer, because they’re using the profits that they’re getting to invest into that activity. So it is a change and a different way of looking at how to incentivize behavior and is really designed to insulate what we know the energy industry does, which is just pass any increased costs in doing business on to the consumers. So, this is different. It’s the profit side of the margin.
Gibbs Léger: Great! Well, very clever, Seth and Trevor. That rhymed. That was not intentional. We like to leave off on a positive note here at “The Tent,” especially with a topic as heavy as climate change. So, in honor of Earth Day, let’s take a moment to appreciate the beauty of our Earth. So, I want to ask you, what is your favorite national park and why?
Goldfuss: Oh—gosh—well, Daniella knows I was deputy director of the National Park Service, so I’ve been asked this question a lot, a lot. I think I just have to cheat because I’m going to pick a natural one and a historic one. So, I’ll start with the historic one. The Rosie the Riveter World War II memorial site in California, around Oakland, is just an absolute gem. And there used to be a Park Service ranger there. She just retired. She was the oldest Park Service ranger in the entire National Park Service system. Betty Soskin—yeah, and I got to meet her. She was absolutely amazing—African American woman who told the story of what happened at the Rosie the Riveter location where all these women started to—white women—started to work, building ships during World War II. But as an African American woman, she then went on to tell the story—and she grew up just a couple of miles away from that site—that Black women had been working for years. And so, adding the element to our history and really kind of clarifying what was so unique about that, and then what it meant for her and her family in terms of the story that they were always told and what she grew up believing. I’m sure she trained a lot of storytellers on how to share that expanded view of our history, so anyone who is in the Oakland area and just wants to stop and see an amazing park, that’s one.
And then number two, I mean, it’s hard for it to be anything for me besides the Grand Canyon. It is an absolutely stunning location that makes you feel like—it just it takes your breath away. Every time I’ve been able to hike into it or be there, it just reminds you that the planet is an incredible place. And it will go on, no matter what happens with climate change. It’s a question of how long do we, as humans, get to stay on this planet. And so, while this is a heavy moment in so many different ways, I am always, always—I couldn’t do this job otherwise—optimistic that we will find solutions and come together as a species to do what we need to do. But really—really—we need to act in the next couple of weeks, Daniella. So I will end with: We are rallying across the country after Earth Day here. There’s Fight for Our Future rallies around the country, here in Washington, D.C., and Georgia, and Arizona. And this is an opportunity to really get out, celebrate this planet that we all live on and how special it is, and then motivate our leaders to do what we need to do to protect our future. So, thank you so much for having me.
Gibbs Léger: Well, Christy, thank you so much for joining us with your energy and your passion—“energy”—I did not intend to make another pun, but it just happened.
Goldfuss: Well, you can’t even see me in my office. I just knocked over my coffee because of my, you know, enormous hand gestures. But yes, “energy” is the right way to describe it.
Gibbs Léger: Well, thank you for the work that you do. And thanks for joining us this week.
Gibbs Léger: As always, thanks for listening. Be sure to go back and check out our previous episodes. Before we go, I have to talk about something very cool that happened last week. I was invited to go to the White House on Friday—last Friday—to attend the celebration of the confirmation of soon-to-be Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. I have to say, it felt so weird going back to the White House. So, it’s the first time I have been back in that building since December of 2020, when I went to a holiday party very pregnant with my child and very emotional because I knew that the next inhabitant of the White House was not going to be anybody great. So, it felt really weird, but it felt awesome to walk back onto those hallowed grounds, to see so many friends that I haven’t seen in years, to see colleagues that I’ve only seen their faces on Zoom or heard their voices on the phone, to meet new friends who worked with us, and we worked with them, around building support for this nomination.
But to see Vice President Kamala Harris, to see a Black woman up there, and then, you know, to have President Biden turn the mic over to the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court, to be able to sit there and be witness to that—it was amazing. There’s so much that is awful and depressing with our world. But there was something amazing about that day and that moment. It had been raining and cold and really a crappy week of weather last week, except Friday. Friday was the most beautiful, springlike day we have had yet in D.C. I feel like I want to walk away from that saying that was, like, symbolic. Like, you know, spring is a time of renewal, of new beginnings. And I know there’s so much that we’re facing, so many headwinds, but that was just such a great and powerful moment that I’m going to carry that with me when, you know, the news is bleak, when people are being bleak. I’m gonna remember that I got to sit on the South Lawn and witness that history close up, and I’ll be able to tell my son about it. We have to find the moments of joy in our lives because there is enough around us that can just kind of bring us down. But there are some good people doing good things out there and fighting good fights. So, let’s try to focus on that. And let’s try to find those people, and let’s try to lift them up, because lifting them up lifts ourselves up too. So on that note, take care of yourselves, and we will talk to you next week.
“The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me, Daniella Gibbs Léger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. Tricia Woodcome is our booking producer, and Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Politics. Policy. Progress. All under one big tent. Produced by CAP Action, “The Tent” is a news and politics podcast hosted by Daniella Gibbs Léger. Listen each Thursday for episodes exploring topics that progressives are focused on.