At Florida Climate Change Summit, Harris Stresses Optimism

Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday that there is new reason for optimism, given major U.S. laws recently enacted to address the global problem of climate change on multiple fronts.

Harris was the star at the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, now in its second year in Miami Beach. The event attracted around 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 onstage interview.

The crux of the debate revolved around the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August 2022. Despite its name, the measure is considered the largest piece of climate change legislation ever passed in the US with about $370 billion earmarked to address the problem over 10 years. A major infrastructure bill also includes many climate-related provisions.

The primary goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions — from vehicle tailpipes to power plants — by 50% by 2030 to curb rising global heat.

“I think we all understand that we have to be driven by solutions. And the solutions are at hand,” Harris said. “We have to make up for lost time, no doubt. That will have an exponential impact on where we need to go.”

The conference is located in one of the most vulnerable US cities to climate-related problems such as rising sea levels, extreme heat, powerful tropical storms and threats to vulnerable wildlife such as captives. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniela Levine Cava, a Democrat, said the area has more extreme heat days than anywhere else in the country.

“We all know our environment is our economy,” Levin Cava said at a meeting Wednesday morning, noting that the county established the first official heat chief of any government in the world. “Two years ago, when we started, people laughed at us. Not anymore.”

Estefan, who immigrated from Cuba as a child and lived in Miami Beach for 38 years, told Harris it’s clear to her that climate change is changing South Florida in many ways, from rising seas to disappearing coral reefs.

“We need an administration focused on the things that need to be fixed,” Estefan said. “We absolutely have 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 sources such as wind and solar power. There are $60 billion in business tax credits for making things like solar panels and batteries, and other tax credits for nuclear power and carbon capture technology aimed at reducing fossil fuel emissions. There is money to convert the entire United States Postal Service fleet to electric vehicles, pay for electric school buses, help farmers green farming practices, and for trees and parks in urban areas.

Harris said incentives for people to buy electric vehicles, including cheaper used vehicles, are an example of how the Biden administration wants to make them affordable to a much larger number of people.

“It’s about cutting costs,” Harris said. “I think a lot of people have the will to participate in what we need to do to reduce greenhouse gases. But not everyone has the means.”

The bill would impose a new end to excessive methane emissions from oil and gas drilling, while giving fossil fuel companies access to more leases on federal lands and waters. This latest compromise has some climate activists concerned about continued fossil fuel exploration and the broader question of who decides where all the money will be spent as it goes to the states.

But Tom Steyer, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, said the legislation opened the door to more private investment in technology and other efforts to fight climate change — and that the gains would be worth it.

“If you don’t do that, you’re a narc,” said Steyer, co-chairman of investment firm Galvanize Climate Solutions. “It’s cheaper to be clean. It’s better to be clean.”

Although the conference is dominated by Democrats and climate activists, conservatives also participated. U.S. Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican who pointed out that his district includes Carbon County, is chairman of the roughly 80-member House Climate Conservative Caucus.

“I’m a Republican. I’m here to talk about the 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 is more on which we agree than on which we disagree.”

Another Republican, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, said it’s clear climate change skepticism is largely out of favor among politicians of all stripes.

“We can’t afford to pretend that climate change doesn’t affect us,” Suarez said, noting the damage from Hurricanes Irma and Ian and frequent flooding in his city. “There is still a lot of work to be done. I would like to see a world where we can reverse the damage that has been done.”

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