Engaging Coal Communities in Decarbonization Through Nuclear Energy

The United States is committed to the ambitious goal of reaching net-zero emissions globally by 2050, requiring rapid deployment of clean energy domestically and across the world. Reducing emissions while meeting energy demand requires firm power sources that produce energy at any time and in adverse weather conditions, unlike solar or wind energy. Advanced nuclear reactors, the newest generation of nuclear power plants, are firm energy sources that offer potential increases in efficiency and safety compared to traditional nuclear plants. Adding more nuclear power plants will help the United States meet energy demand while reducing emissions. Further, building advanced nuclear plants on the sites of former coal plants could create benefits for struggling coal communities and result in significant cost savings for project developers. Realizing these benefits for our environment, coal communities, and utilities requires coordinating and expanding existing efforts. The Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (FESI), the US Department of Energy (DOE), and Congress should each take actions to align and strengthen advanced nuclear initiatives and engagement with coal communities in the project development process.

Challenge and Opportunity

Reducing carbon emissions while meeting energy demand will require the continued use of firm power sources. Coal power, once a major source of firm energy for the United States, has declined since 2009, due to federal and state commitments to clean energy and competition with other clean energy sources. Power generated from coal plants is expected to drop to half of current levels by 2050 as upwards of 100 plants retire. The DOE found that sites of retiring coal plants are promising candidates for advanced nuclear plants, considering the similarities in site requirements, the ability to reuse existing infrastructure, and the overlap in workforce needs. Advanced nuclear reactors are the next generation of nuclear technology that includes both small modular reactors (SMRs), which function similar to traditional light-water reactors except on a smaller site, and non-light-water reactors, which are also physically smaller but use different methods to control reactor temperature. However, the DOE’s study and additional analysis from the Bipartisan Policy Center also identified significant challenges to constructing new nuclear power plants, including the risk of cost overrun, licensing timeline uncertainties, and opposition from communities around plant sites. Congress took steps to promote advanced nuclear power in the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, but more coordination is needed. To commercialize advanced nuclear to support our decarbonization goals, the DOE estimates that utilities must commit to deploying at least five advanced nuclear reactors of the same design by 2025. There are currently no agreements to do so. 

The Case for Coal to Nuclear

Coal-dependent communities and the estimated 37,000 people working in coal power plants could benefit from the construction of advanced nuclear reactors. Benefits include the potential addition of more than 650 jobs, about 15% higher pay on average, and the ability for some of the existing workforce to transition without additional experience, training, or certification. Jobs in nuclear energy also experience fewer fatal accidents, minor injuries, and harmful exposures than jobs in coal plants. Advanced nuclear energy could revitalize coal communities, which have suffered labor shocks and population decline since the 1980s. By embracing advanced nuclear power, these communities can reap economic benefits and create a pathway toward a sustainable and prosperous future. For instance, in one case study by the DOE, replacing a 924 MWe coal plant with nuclear increased regional economic activity by $275 million. Before benefits are realized, project developers must partner with local communities and other stakeholders to align interests and gain public support so that they may secure agreements for coal-to-nuclear transition projects.

Communities living near existing nuclear plants tend to view nuclear power more favorably than those who do not, but gaining acceptance to construct new plants in communities less familiar with nuclear energy is challenging. Past efforts using a top-down approach were met with resistance and created a legacy of mistrust between communities and the nuclear industry. Stakeholders can slow or stop nuclear construction through lawsuits and lengthy studies under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and 12 states have restrictions or total bans on new nuclear construction. Absent changes to the licensing and regulatory process, project developers must mitigate this risk through a process of meaningful stakeholder and community engagement. A just transition from coal to nuclear energy production requires developers to listen and respond to local communities’ concerns and needs through the process of planning, siting, licensing, design, construction, and eventual decommissioning. Project developers need guidance and collective learning to update the siting process with more earnest practices of engagement with the public and stakeholders. Coal communities also need support in transitioning a workforce for nuclear reactor operations.

Strengthen and Align Existing Efforts

Nuclear energy companies, utilities, the DOE, and researchers are already exploring community engagement and considering labor transitions for advanced nuclear power plants. NuScale Power, TerraPower, and X-energy are leading in both the technical development of advanced nuclear and in considerations of community benefits and stakeholder management. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), which is hosting NuScale’s demonstration SMR, spent decades engaging with communities across 49 utilities over seven states before signing an agreement with NuScale. Their carbon-free power project involved over 200 public meetings, resulting in several member utilities choosing to pursue SMRs. Universities are collaborating with the Idaho National Laboratory to analyze energy markets using a multidisciplinary framework that considers community values, resources, capabilities, and infrastructure. Coordinated efforts by researchers near the TerraPower Natrium demonstration site investigate how local communities view the cost, benefits, procedures, and justice elements of the project. 

The DOE also works to improve stakeholder and community engagement across multiple offices and initiatives. Most notably, the Office of Nuclear Energy is using a consent-based siting process, developed with extensive public input, to select sites for interim storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. The office distributed $26 million to universities, nonprofits, and private partners to facilitate engagement with communities considering the costs and benefits of hosting a spent fuel site. DOE requires all recipients of funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, including companies hosting advanced nuclear demonstration projects, to submit community benefits plans outlining community and labor organization engagement. The DOE’s new Commercial Liftoff Reports for advanced nuclear and other clean energy technologies are detailed and actionable policy documents strengthened by the inclusion of critical societal considerations.

Through the CHIPS and Science Act, Congress established or expanded DOE programs that promote both the development of advanced nuclear on sites of former coal plants and the research of public engagement for nuclear energy. The Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) has funded technical nuclear energy research at universities since 2009. The CHIPS Act expanded the program to include research that supports community engagement, participation, and confidence in nuclear energy. The Act also established, but did not fund, a new advanced nuclear technology development program that prioritizes projects at sites of retiring coal plants and those that include elements of workforce development. An expansion of an existing nuclear energy training program was cut from the final CHIPS Act, but the expansion is proposed again in the Nuclear Fuel Security Act of 2023.

More coordination is required among DOE, the nuclear industry, and utilities. Congress should also take action to fund initiatives authorized by recent legislation that enable the coal-to-nuclear transition.

Plan of Action

Recommendations for Federal Agencies

Recommendation 1. A sizable coordinating body, such as the Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (FESI) or the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), should support the project developer’s efforts to include community engagement in the siting, planning, design, and construction process of advanced nuclear power plants. 

FESI is a new foundation to help the DOE commercialize energy technology by supporting and coordinating stakeholder groups. ARC is a partnership between the federal government and Appalachian states that supports economic development through grantmaking and conducting research on issues related to the region’s challenges. FESI and ARC are coordinating bodies that can connect disparate efforts by developers, academic experts, and the DOE through various enabling and connecting initiatives. Efforts should leverage existing resources on consent-based siting processes developed by the DOE. While these processes are specific to siting spent nuclear fuel storage facilities, the roadmap and sequencing elements can be replicated for other goals. Stage 1 of the DOE’s planning and capacity-building process focuses on building relationships with communities and stakeholders and engaging in mutual learning about the topic. FESI or ARC can establish programs and activities to support planning and capacity building by utilities and the nuclear industry.

FESI could pursue activities such as: 

ARC could conduct studies such as stakeholder analysis and community interest surveys to determine community needs and concerns across Appalachian coal communities.

Recommendation 2. The DOE should continue expanding the Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) to fund programs that support nontechnical nuclear research in the social sciences or law that can support community engagement, participation, and confidence in nuclear energy systems, including the navigation of the licensing required for advanced reactor deployment.

Evolving processes to include effective community engagement will require new knowledge in the social sciences and shifting the culture of nuclear education and training. Since 2009, the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy has supported nuclear energy research and equipment upgrades at U.S. colleges and universities through the NEUP. Except for a few recent examples, including the University of Wyoming project cited above, most projects funded were scientific or technical. Congress recognized the importance of supporting research in nontechnical areas by authorizing the expansion of NEUP to include nontechnical nuclear research in the CHIPS and Science Act. DOE should not wait for additional appropriations to expand this program. Further, NEUP should encourage awardees to participate in communities of practice hosted by FESI or other bodies.

Recommendation 3. The DOE Office of Energy Jobs and the Department of Labor (DOL) should collaborate on the creation and dissemination of training standards focused on the nuclear plant jobs for which extensive training, licensing, or experience is required for former coal plant workers.

Sites of former coal plants are promising candidates for advanced nuclear reactors because most job roles are directly transferable. However, an estimated 23% of nuclear plant jobs—operators, senior managers, and some technicians—require extensive licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and direct experience in nuclear roles. It is possible that an experienced coal plant operator and an entry-level nuclear hire would require the same training path to become an NRC-licensed nuclear plant operator. 

Supporting the clean energy workforce transition fits within existing priorities for the DOE’s Office of Energy Jobs and the DOL, as expressed in the memorandum of understanding signed on June 21, 2022. Section V.C. asserts the departments share joint responsibility for “supporting the creation and expansion of high-quality and equitable workforce development programs that connect new, incumbent, and displaced workers with quality energy infrastructure and supply chain jobs.” Job transition pathways and specific training needs will become apparent through additional studies by interested parties and lessons from programs such as the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program and the Clean Energy Demonstration Program on Current and Former Mine Land. The departments should capture and synthesize this knowledge into standards from which industry and utilities can design targeted job transition programs.

Recommendations for Congress

Recommendation 4. Congress should fully appropriate key provisions of the CHIPS and Science Act to support coal communities’ transition to nuclear energy.

Recommendation 5. Congress should expand the Nuclear Energy Graduate Traineeship Subprogram to include workforce development through community colleges, trade schools, apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships.

The current Traineeship Subprogram supports workforce development and advanced training through universities only. Expanding this direct funding for job training through community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeships will support utilities’ and industries’ efforts to transition the coal workforce into advanced nuclear jobs.

Recommendation 6. Congress should amend Section 45U, the Nuclear Production Tax Credit for existing nuclear plants, to require apprenticeship requirements similar to those for future advanced nuclear plants covered under Section 45Y, the Clean Energy Production Tax Credit.

Starting in 2025, new nuclear power plant projects will be eligible for the New Clean Energy Production and Investment Tax Credits if they meet certain apprenticeship requirements. However, plants established before 2025 will not be eligible for these incentives. Congress should add apprenticeship requirements to the Nuclear Production Tax Credit so that activities at existing plants strengthen the total nuclear workforce. Credits should be awarded with priority to companies implementing apprenticeship programs designed for former coal industry workers.


The ambitious goal of reaching net-zero emissions globally requires the rapid deployment of clean energy technologies, in particular firm clean energy such as advanced nuclear power. Since the 1980s, communities around coal power plants have suffered from industry shifts and will continue to accumulate disadvantages without support. Coal-to-nuclear transition projects advance the nation’s decarbonization efforts while creating benefits for developers and revitalizing coal communities. Utilities, the nuclear industry, the DOE, and researchers are advancing community engagement practices and methods, but more effort is required to share best practices and ensure coordination in these emerging practices. FESI or other large coordinating bodies should fill this gap by hosting communities of practice, producing knowledge on community values and attitudes, or providing technical assistance. DOE should continue to promote community engagement research and help articulate workforce development needs. Congress should fully fund initiatives authorized by recent legislation to promote the coal to nuclear transition. Action now will ensure that our clean firm power needs are met and that coal communities benefit from the clean energy transition.

Frequently Asked Questions
What paths are open to coal miners in the coal-to-nuclear transition?

Transitioning coal miners directly into clean energy is challenging considering the difference in skills and labor demand between the sectors. Most attempts to transition coal miners should focus on training in fields with similar skill requirements, such as job training for manufacturing roles within the Appalachian Climate Technology Coalition. Congress could also provide funding for unemployed coal miners to pursue education for other employment.

What are other challenges in transitioning the coal power plant workforce to nuclear energy?

A significant challenge is aligning the construction of advanced nuclear plants with the decommissioning of coal plants. Advanced nuclear project timelines are subject to various delays and uncertainties. For example, the first commercial demonstration of small modular reactor technology in the United States, the TerraPower plant in Wyoming, is delayed due to the high-assay low-enriched uranium supply chain. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process also creates uncertainty and extends project timelines.

How is radioactive spent fuel from existing nuclear power plants managed?

Methods exist to safely contain radioactive material as it decays to more stable isotopes. The waste is stored on site at the power plant in secure pools in the shorter term and in storage casks capable of containing the material for at least 100 years in the longer term. The DOE must continue pursuing interim consolidated storage solutions as well as a permanent geological repository, but the lack of these facilities should not pose a significant barrier to constructing advanced nuclear power plants. The United States should also continue to pursue recycling spent fuel.

How will the construction of new SMR plants impact spent fuel management?

More analysis is required to better understand these impacts. A study conducted by Argonne National Laboratory found that while the attributes of spent fuel vary by the exact design of reactor, overall there are no unique challenges to managing fuel from advanced reactors compared to fuel from traditional reactors. A separate study found that spent fuel from advanced reactors will contain more fissile nuclides, which makes waste management more challenging. As the DOE continues to identify interim and permanent storage sites through a consent-based process, utilities and public engagement efforts must interrogate the unique waste management challenges when evaluating particular advanced nuclear technology options.

How will the construction of new advanced nuclear plants affect nuclear proliferation?

Similar to waste output, the risk of proliferation from advanced reactors varies on the specific technologies and requires more interrogation. Some advanced reactor designs, such as the TerraPower Natrium reactor, require the use of fuel that is more enriched than the fuel used in traditional designs. However, the safeguards required between the two types of fuel are not significantly different. Other designs, such as the TerraPower TWR, are expected to be able to use depleted or natural uranium sources, and the NuScale VOYGR models use traditional fuel. All reactors have the capacity to produce fissile material, so as the United States expands its nuclear energy capabilities, efforts should be made to expand current safeguards limiting proliferation to fuel as it is prepared for plants and after it has been used.

Leveraging Positive Tipping Points to Accelerate Decarbonization


The Biden Administration has committed the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050. Meeting this commitment requires drastic decarbonization transitions across all sectors of society at a pace never seen before. This can be made possible by positive tipping points, which demarcate thresholds in decarbonization transitions that, once crossed, ensure rapid progress towards completion. A new generation of economic models enables the analysis of these tipping points and the evaluation of effective policy interventions. 

The Biden Administration should undertake a three-pronged strategy for leveraging the power of positive tipping points to create a larger-than-anticipated return on investment in the transition to a clean energy future. First, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) should evaluate new economic models and make recommendations for how agencies can incorporate such models into their decision-making process. Second, federal agencies should integrate positive tipping points into the research agendas of existing research centers and programs to uncover additional decarbonization opportunities. Finally, federal agencies should develop decarbonization strategies and policies based on insights from this research.

Challenge and Opportunity

Climate change brings us closer each year to triggering negative tipping points, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet or the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. These negative tipping points, driven by self-reinforcing environmental feedback loops, significantly accelerate the pace of climate change. 

Meeting the Biden Administration’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 will reduce the risk of these negative tipping points but requires the United States to significantly accelerate the current pace of decarbonization. Traditional economic models used by the federal government and organizations such as the International Energy Agency consistently underestimate the progress of zero-emission technologies and the return on investment of policies that enable a faster transition, resulting in the agency’s “largest ever upwards revision” last year. A new school of thought presents “evidence-based hope” for rapidly accelerating the pace of decarbonization transitions. Researchers point out that our society consists of complex and interconnected social, economic, and technological systems that do not change linearly under a transition, as traditional models assume; rather, when a positive tipping point is crossed, changes made to the system can lead to disproportionately large effects. A new generation of economic models has emerged to support policymakers in understanding these complex systems in transition and identifying the best policies for driving cost-effective decarbonization.

At COP26 in 2021, leaders of countries responsible for 73% of world emissions, including the United States, committed to work together to reach positive tipping points under the Breakthrough Agenda. The United Kingdom and other European countries have led the movement thus far, but there is an opportunity for the United States to join as a leader in implementing policies that intentionally leverage positive tipping points and benefit from the shared learnings of other nations. 

Domestically, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) include some of the strongest climate policies that the country has ever seen. The implementation of these policies presents a natural experiment for studying the impact of different policy interventions on progress towards positive tipping points.

How do positive tipping points work?

Figure 1. Diagram of a system and its positive tipping point. The levers for change on the left push the system away from the current high-emission state and towards a new net-zero state. As the system moves away from the current state, the self-reinforcing feedback loops in the system become stronger and accelerate the transition. At the positive tipping point, the feedback loops become strong enough to drive the system towards the new state without further support from the levers for change. Thus, policy interventions for decarbonization transitions are most crucial in the lead up to a positive tipping point. (Adapted from the Green Futures Network.)

Just as negative tipping points in the environment accelerate the pace of climate change, positive tipping points in our social, economic, and technological systems hold the potential to rapidly accelerate the pace of decarbonization (Figure 1). These positive tipping points are driven by feedback loops that generate increasing returns to adoption and make new consumers more likely to adopt (Figure 2):

The right set of policies can harness this phenomenon to realize significantly greater returns on investment and trigger positive tipping points that give zero-emission technologies a serious boost over incumbent fossil-based technologies.

Figure 2. Examples of positive feedback loops: (a) learning by doing, (b) social contagion, and (c) complementary technology reinforcement.

One way of visualizing progress towards a positive tipping point is the S-curve, where the adoption of a new zero-emission technology grows exponentially and then saturates at full adoption. This S-curve behavior is characteristic of many historic energy and infrastructure technologies (Figure 3). From these historic examples, researchers have identified that the positive tipping point occurs between 10% and 40% adoption. Crossing this adoption threshold is difficult to reverse and typically guarantees that a technology will complete the S-curve.

Figure 3. The historic adoption of a sample of infrastructure and energy systems (top) and manufactured goods (bottom). Note that the sharpness of the S-curve can vary significantly. (Source: Systemiq)

For example, over the past two decades, the Norwegian government helped build electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure (complementary technology) and used taxes and subsidies to lower the price of EVs below that of gas vehicles. As a result, consumers began purchasing the cheaper EVs, and over time manufacturers introduced new models of EVs that were cheaper and more appealing than previous models (learning by doing and economies of scale). This led to EVs skyrocketing to 88% of new car sales in 2022. Norway has since announced that it would start easing its subsidies for EVs by introducing two new EV taxes for 2023, yet EV sales have continued to grow, taking up 90% of total sales so far in 2023, demonstrating the difficult-to-reverse nature of positive tipping points. Norway is now on track to reach a second tipping point that will occur when EVs reach price parity with gas vehicles without assistance from taxes or subsidies.

Due to the interconnected nature of social and technological systems, triggering one positive tipping point can potentially increase the odds of another tipping point at a greater scale, resulting in “upward-scaling tipping cascades.” Upward-scaling tipping cascades can occur in two ways: (1) from a smaller system to a larger system (e.g., as more states reach their tipping point for EV adoption, the nation as a whole gets closer to its tipping point) and (2) from one sector to another. For the latter, researchers have identified three super-leverage points that policymakers can use to trigger tipping cascades across multiple sectors:

  1. Light-duty EVs → heavy-duty EVs and renewable energy storage: The development of cheaper batteries for light-duty EVs will enable cheaper heavy-duty EVs and renewable energy storage thanks to shared underlying battery technology. The build-out of charging infrastructure for light-duty EVs will also facilitate the deployment of heavy-duty EVs.
  2. Green ammonia → heavy industries, shipping, and aviation: The production of green ammonia requires green hydrogen as an input, so the growth of the former will spur the growth of the latter. Greater production of green hydrogen and green ammonia will catalyze the decarbonization of the heavy industries, shipping, and aviation sectors, which use these chemicals as fuel inputs.
  3. Traditional and alternative plant proteins → land use: Widespread consumption of traditional and alternative plant proteins over animal protein will reduce pressure on land-use change for agriculture and potentially restore significant amounts of land for conservation and carbon sequestration.

The potential for this multiplier effect makes positive tipping points all the more promising and critical to understand.

Further research to identify positive tipping points and tipping cascades and to improve models for evaluating policy impacts holds great potential for uncovering additional decarbonization opportunities. Policymakers should take full advantage of this growing field of research by integrating its models and insights into the climate policy decision-making process and translating insights from researchers into evidence-based policies. 

Plan of Action

In order for the government to leverage positive tipping points, policymakers must be able to (1) identify positive tipping points and tipping cascades before they occur, (2) understand which policies or sequences of policies may be most cost-effective and impactful in enabling positive tipping points, and (3) integrate that insight into policy decision-making. The following recommendations would create the foundations of this process.

Recommendation 1. Evaluate and adopt new economic models

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) should conduct a joint evaluation of new economic models and case studies to identify where new models have been proven to be more accurate for modeling decarbonization transitions and where there are remaining gaps. They should then issue a report with recommendations on opportunities for funding further research on positive tipping points and new economic models and advise sub agenciessubagencies responsible for modeling and projections, such as the Energy Information Administration within the Department of Energy (DOE), on how to adopt these new economic models.

Recommendation 2. Integrate positive tipping points into the research agenda of federally funded research centers and programs.

There is a growing body of research coming primarily from Europe, led by the Global Systems Institute and the Economics of Energy Innovation and Systems Transition at the University of Exeter and Systemiq, that is investigating global progress towards positive tipping points and different potential policy interventions. The federal government should foster the growth of this research area within the United States in order to study positive tipping points and develop models and forecasts for the U.S. context.

There are several existing government-funded research programs and centers that align well with positive tipping points and would benefit synergistically from adding this to their research agenda:

Recommendation 3. Use insights from positive tipping points research to develop and implement policies to accelerate progress towards positive tipping points

Researchers have already identified three super-leverage points around which the federal government should consider developing and implementing policies. As future research is published, the PCAST should make further recommendations on actions that the federal government can take in leveraging positive tipping points.

Super-Leverage Point #1: Mandating Zero-Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) 

ZEV mandates require car manufacturers to sell a rising proportion of ZEVs within their light duty vehicles sales. Ensuring a growing supply of ZEVs results in falling costs and rising demand. Evidence of the effect of such policies in U.S. states, Canadian provinces, and China and future projections suggest that ZEV mandates are a crucial policy lever for ensuring a full EV transition. Such policies rely on the reallocation of private capital rather than government spending, making it particularly cost-effective. Combined with the investments in EV manufacturing and public charging infrastructure in the IRA and IIJA, a national ZEV mandate could radically boost the EV transition. 

A national ZEV mandate is unlikely to pass Congress anytime soon. However, the recently proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) greenhouse gas emissions standards for passenger cars and trucks would effectively require 67% of car sales to be ZEVs by 2032 in order for car manufacturers to comply with the regulations. The proposed standards would provide regulatory strength behind the Biden Administration’s goal of 50% of new cars sold by 2030 to be ZEVs. The EPA should finalize these standards as soon as possible at or above the currently proposed stringency. 

The proposed EPA standards are projected to result in a 50% reduction in the price of EV batteries by 2035. This will have knock-on effects on the cost of batteries for renewable energy storage and battery electric trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles, which would likely bring forward the cost parity tipping point for these technologies by a number of years.

Super-Leverage Point #2: Mandating Green Ammonia Use in Fertilizer Production 

Ammonia is the primary ingredient for producing nitrogen-based fertilizer and requires hydrogen as an input. Traditionally, this hydrogen is produced from natural gas, and the production of hydrogen for ammonia accounts for 1% of global CO2 emissions. Green hydrogen produced from water and powered by renewable energy would enable the production of green ammonia for nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Based on a DOE tipping point analysis, green ammonia production is one of the most promising areas for initial large-scale deployment of green hydrogen, thanks to its ability to use established ammonia supply chains and economies of scale. Green ammonia production also has one of the lowest green premia in the hydrogen economy. Green ammonia production will enable infrastructure development and cost reductions for green hydrogen to decarbonize other sectors, including shipping, aviation, and heavy industries like steel. 

The Biden Administration should set a target for green ammonia production for domestic fertilizer in the Federal Sustainability Plan similar to India’s draft hydrogen strategy requiring 20% green ammonia production by 2027–2028. The EPA should then propose Clean Air Act carbon emission limits and guidelines for nitrogen-based fertilizer production plants, similar to the recently proposed standards for coal and natural gas power plants, to provide regulatory strength behind that target. These limits would effectively require fertilizer plants to blend a growing percentage of green ammonia into their production line in order to meet emission limits. According to the DOE, the clean hydrogen production tax credit in the IRA has enabled cost parity between green ammonia and fossil-based ammonia, so the EPA should be able to set such limits without increasing food production costs.

Super-Leverage Point #3: Public Procurement to Promote Plant and Alternative Proteins

Shifting protein consumption from meat to plant and alternative proteins can reduce emissions from livestock farming and reduce land use change for meat production. Plant proteins refer to protein-rich plants, such as nuts and legumes, and traditional products made from those plants, such as tofu and tempeh. Alternative proteins currently on the market include plant- and fermentation-based protein products intended to mimic the taste and texture of meat. Studies show that if plant and alternative proteins are able to reach a tipping point of 20% market share, this would ease up 7–15% of land currently used for agriculture to conservation and the restoration of its ability to serve as a carbon sink. 

Public procurement of alternative proteins for federal food programs leverages government spending power to support this nascent market and introduce new consumers to alternative proteins, thus increasing its accessibility and social traction. Last year, the National Defense Authorization Act established a three-year pilot program for the U.S. Navy to offer alternative protein options. The California state legislature also invested $700 million to support schools in procuring more plant-based foods and training staff on how to prepare plant-based meals.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a major procurer of food through collaboration between the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and distributes the majority of procured food through the Child Nutrition Programs (CNPs), especially the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Currently, AMS does not procure any traditional or alternative protein products made from plant protein, but USDA guidelines do allow traditional and alternative protein products to fulfill meat/meat alternate requirements for CNPs. The AMS should develop product specifications and requirements for procuring these types of products and assist traditional and alternative protein companies to become USDA food vendors. The FNS should then launch a pilot program spending, for example, 1% of their procurement budget on traditional and alternative protein products. This should be supported by education and training of food service workers at schools that participate in the NSLP on how to prepare meals using traditional and alternative proteins.


The sooner that positive tipping points that accelerate desired transitions are triggered, the sooner that decarbonization transitions will be realized and net-zero goals will be met. Early intervention is crucial for supporting the growth and adoption of new zero-emission technologies. The recommendations above present the foundations of a strategy for leveraging positive tipping points and accelerating climate action.


I’d like to acknowledge Erica Goldman for her generous feedback and advice on this piece and for her thought leadership on this topic at FAS.

FAQs about Leveraging Positive Tipping Points to Accelerate Decarbonization
What are the necessary conditions for a positive tipping point?

The key conditions for triggering a positive tipping point are affordability, attractiveness, and accessibility of new zero-emission technologies compared to incumbents. Affordability is often the most crucial condition: achieving price parity with incumbent technologies (with and then without the support of taxes and subsidies) can unlock rapid growth and adoption. Attractiveness refers to consumer preferences about a new technology’s performance, complementary features, or ability to signal social values. Accessibility refers to whether supporting infrastructure or knowledge, such as charging stations for EVs or recipes for cooking alternative proteins, is commonly available to support adoption. Due to the relative nature of these conditions, policymakers can influence them either by making the new technology more affordable, attractive, and accessible or by making the incumbent technology less affordable, attractive, and accessible. Often, a combination of both approaches is required to achieve the optimal effect.

Are federal policymakers the only actors that can trigger positive tipping points? What about state policymakers?

States can cooperate to identify and coordinate policies that activate upward-scaling tipping cascades into other states and eventually the federal government. A promising example of this is the growing adoption of California’s Advanced Clean Cars II EV sales mandate by Vermont, New York, Washington, Oregon, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and soon Colorado, Massachusetts, and Delaware.

What about individuals and social movements?

Social contagion, mentioned above, is a powerful type of feedback loop that can drive the spread of not just technology adoption but also new behaviors, opinions, knowledge, and social norms. Through social contagion, social movement can be formed, capable of wielding greater influence than the sum of individuals. That influence can then translate into demands for government and industry action to decarbonize. A prime example is Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future student movement. Another example is the Social Tipping Point Coalition that in 2021 rallied a coalition of over 100 scientists, universities, nongovernmental and grassroots organizations, and other individuals to petition the new Dutch parliament to implement new climate policies.

What about industry stakeholders?

Industry has a direct hand in creating the conditions for a positive tipping point through their business models, technological development, and production. Industries are more likely to invest in adopting and improving low- and zero-carbon technologies and practices if the government clearly signals that it will back the transition, resulting in positive, reinforcing “ambition loops” between government climate policy and industry climate action. Industry coordination is also key to ensuring that new technologies are complementary and that infrastructure supporting a technology is developed alongside the technology itself. For example, coordination between EV companies is necessary to develop compatible charging mechanisms across manufacturers. Coordination between charging companies and EV companies can help charging companies identify which geographies have greatest demand for chargers.

What about international coordination?

International coordination strengthens positive feedback loops and accelerates cost reductions for green technologies. For example, a recent study suggests that if the three largest car markets—the United States, Europe, and China—implement zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) sales mandates (i.e., requirements that an increasing percentage of each car manufacturer’s sales must be EVs), EVs will be able to reach cost parity with gas vehicles five years sooner than in the scenario without those ZEV mandates.

What has the federal government done to identify or accelerate positive tipping points so far?

The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2022–2031 Strategic Plan includes tipping points and nonlinear changes in complex systems as two of its research priorities. Specifically, the Strategic Plan highlights the need to investigate “the potential for beneficial tipping points” and incorporate research on nonlinearity in economics-based models to evaluate societal decisions in future National Climate Assessments. However, it will take another four to five years to produce the next National Climate Assessment under this strategic plan. (The fifth National Climate Assessment, which is expected to be published this fall, was drafted before the new strategic plan was published.) Thus, additional executive and agency action is necessary to operationalize positive tipping points in the federal government before the next National Climate Assessment is released.

How can we track progress towards positive tipping points?

The federal government currently collects some data on the sales and adoption rates of the relatively more mature clean energy technologies, such as electric vehicles. A 2022 Bloomberg report attempted to identify “early-stage tipping points” at around 5% adoption for 10 clean energy technologies that reflect when their adoption becomes measurably exponential and compare their adoption curves across countries globally. Beyond adoption rates, a number of additional factors indicate progress towards positive tipping points, such as the number of companies investing in a zero-emission technology or the number of states adopting regulations or incentives that support zero-emission technologies in a sector. Tracking these indicators can help policymakers sense when a system is approaching a positive tipping point. The nonprofit Systems Change Lab currently tracks the adoption of decarbonization technologies and factors that affect decarbonization transitions on a global scale. Philanthropic funding or a public-private partnership with the Systems Change Lab could leverage their existing infrastructure to track tipping point indicators on a national scale for the United States.

What are the risks or potential unintended consequences to consider when crossing a positive tipping point?

Approaching a positive tipping point first requires a system to become destabilized in order to make change possible. Once a positive tipping point is crossed, the system then accelerates towards a new state and begins to restabilize. However, the destabilization during the transition can have unintended consequences due to the rapid shift in how social, economic, and technological systems are organized and how resources are distributed within those systems. Potential risks include economic precarity for people employed in rapidly declining industries and resulting social instability and backlash. This can potentially exacerbate inequality and undesirable social division. As such, policies ensuring a just transition must be implemented alongside policies to accelerate positive tipping points. Research on the interaction between these policies is currently ongoing. It is essential that decisions to develop policies that accelerate movement towards positive tipping points always consider and evaluate the potential for unintended consequences.

FAS Unveils 23 Actionable Recommendations for Improving Wildland Fire Policy

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federation of American Scientists unveiled 23 actionable policy proposals developed by expert contributors. These recommendations were developed with the aim of contributing to a holistic, evidence-based approach to managing wildland fire in the United States and in response to the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission’s request for stakeholder input in its work to develop a report for Congress . 

In partnership with COMPASS, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), and Conservation X Labs, FAS hosted a Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator to collect, refine, and amplify actionable, evidence-based ideas to improve how we live with fire. 

The recommendations cover issues across the wildland fire policy spectrum, falling into four categories: Landscapes and Communities, Public Health and Infrastructure, Science, Data, and Technology, and Workforce. Contributors come from academia, the private sector, and nonprofits and have expertise in public health, fire intelligence, forestry, cultural burning, and more. 

“The ideas we are presenting showcase how the development of evidence-based policy can be inclusive of more diverse expert input and lead to better results. We are eager to see the final recommendations the Commission ultimately relays to Congress, and how they respond” says FAS Director of Science Policy Erica Goldman.

“These are urgent issues that can only be solved through cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary collaborations. We’re grateful to be at the table and excited to see how these bold ideas can evolve and inform public policy across local and state governments,” says CCST Senior Science Officer Teresa Feo.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is a nonprofit policy research and advocacy organization founded in 1945 to meet national security challenges with evidence-based, scientifically-driven, and nonpartisan policy, analysis, and research. The organization works to advance progress on a broad suite of contemporary issues where science, technology, and innovation policy can deliver dramatic progress, and seeks to ensure that scientific and technical expertise have a seat at the policymaking table.

Assessing Agency-Reported Progress on the Justice40 Initiative

Question: What do family game nights and federal government initiatives have in common?

Answer: They’re both much easier to successfully start than to successfully finish.

Coordinating multiple stakeholders—each with their unique interests and perspectives—around a common goal is simply difficult. At FAS, we have yet to figure out how to best tackle family game nights. But we have found that for complex federal initiatives involving many agencies, taking the time to step back and assess progress to date often paves the way for continued future success. We also recognize that unless specifically tasked and resourced, Executive Branch agencies and offices generally lack capacity to do this on their own.

That’s why today, FAS is releasing an independent assessment of agency-reported progress on the Administration’s Justice40 Initiative—a landmark whole-of-government effort to ensure that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.

The complete assessment is freely available here. A supplemental spreadsheet to the assessment is available here.

The assessment focuses on the 175 Justice40 recommendations issued by the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) in May 2021. Key takeaways include:

Additional background and insights from the assessment are provided below. 

The WHEJAC and the Justice40 Initiative

President Biden launched the Justice40 Initiative within days of taking office in January 2021. Executive Order (E.O.) 14008, which created the Initiative, also established the first-ever White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC). The WHEJAC comprises two dozen experts in environmental justice, climate change, disaster preparedness, racial inequity, and related fields. 

The WHEJAC’s mission is to provide advice and recommendations to the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC) “on how to increase the Federal Government’s efforts to address current and historic environmental injustice.” The WHEJAC’s first suite of recommendations, released in May 2021, included 175 specifically focused on the Justice40 Initiative. In May 2022, CEQ delivered a required report to Congress that included responses from the federal agencies named in each of these.

Assessing agency-reported progress on Justice40

To inform the WHEJAC’s future efforts, and to support ongoing implementation of the Justice40 Initiative, we at FAS conducted an independent assessment of the WHEJAC’s Justice40 recommendations and CEQ’s corresponding report. We emphasize that this assessment was scoped to elucidate key insights and trends from agency-reported progress on Justice40, and did not include independent verification of agency responses. The assessment includes five sections:

Read the full assessment:

Countering Climate Change With Renewable Energy Technologies

Renewable energy technologies, such as advanced biofuels for transportation, are key for U.S. efforts to mitigate climate change

Climate change is bringing about rising temperatures, which have significant negative impacts on humans and the environment, and transitioning to renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, can help meet this challenge. One consequence of higher global temperatures is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events that cause massive amounts of harm and damage. As depicted in Figure 1, six of the 10 costliest extreme weather events in the U.S. have occurred in the last 10 years, amounting to over $411 billion in damages (in 2020 dollars and adjusted for inflation). The other four occurred between 2004 and 2008, and the costs of future extreme weather events are expected to keep climbing.

Figure 1

U.S. extreme weather events from 2000 to 2020 resulting in at least $1 billion in damages. Figure adapted from an interactive Center for Climate and Energy Solutions tool.

Moreover, the World Health Organization estimates that, globally, climate change is responsible for over 150,000 deaths per year. This is because in addition to extreme weather events, climate change contributes to the spread of diseases, reduced food production, and many other problems.

Transitioning to renewable energy, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, is one way to help slow down the effects of climate change. While renewables used to be a more expensive option, new clean energy technologies are lowering costs and helping to move economies away from fossil fuels. For example, solar panel prices decreased 75 to 80 percent between 2009 and 2015. Due to similar trends in other renewables like wind and hydropower, renewable energy generation technology accounts for over half of all new power generation capacity brought online worldwide every year since 2011.

More must be done to ensure that renewable energy technologies are key contributors to the mitigation of climate change. As of 2018, solar and wind accounted for less than 4% of all the energy used in the U.S. (Figure 2). The amount of energy generated by solar panels has increased almost 46-fold since 2008, but still only amounts to about 1% of the total energy generated in the country. Unfortunately, renewables currently provide only a small fraction of the total energy produced, and to counter climate change, this contribution must drastically increase.

Figure 2

Sources of energy used in the U.S. during the year 2000 and the year 2018. Figure reproduced from DeSilver 2020, Pew Research Center.

Nonrenewable sources are still frequently used because they are very dense in energy. In the transportation sector, for example, gas or diesel fuels have about 40 times more energy, pound for pound, than the leading electric battery technologies. In order for an electric car to travel 360 miles, which is the average distance traveled on a full 12.4 gallon tank of gas, the car would need a battery weighing over 1,300 pounds.

To reduce reliance on petroleum-based fuels, particularly for heavy-duty vehicles and airplanes, one potential solution is biofuels. Biofuels are produced by breaking down plant material and converting it into usable fuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel. Corn ethanol is already added to gas to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. However, creating ethanol is not a zero-carbon process, and supplementing with corn ethanol averages just under 40 percent lower carbon emissions than using only gasoline. Corn ethanol also relies on land which could be used for growing other food crops. Researchers are currently studying how to use invasive plants, as well as plants that require little water, fertilizer, or land to grow, to create the next generation of biofuels. Some promising plant feedstock options include hemp, switchgrass, carrizo cane, jatropha shrubs, and algae. New biotechnologies are also being studied to develop more efficient ways to break down biomass into sugars, which microbes then convert into biofuels. There is also ongoing research to create microbes that can directly convert plants to biofuels, and to enable microbes to produce long-chain, energy-dense hydrocarbons that could be used to fuel heavy-duty vehicles and airplanes.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation developed several recommendations which could bolster the implementation of biofuels. These recommendations include:

By improving the efficiency of renewable energy technologies like biofuels, wind, and solar, and further innovating in the renewables space, the U.S. science and technology community can help ensure that renewables are leveraged in the effort to counter the climate crisis.

This CSPI Science and Technology Policy Deep Dive expands upon a scientific exchange between Congressman Bill Foster (D, IL-11) and his new FAS-organized Science Council.

Eliminate Billion-Dollar Disasters: Equitable Science-Based Disaster Policy for a Resilient Future


Every year, Americans lose billions of dollars to natural hazards. Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and droughts affect millions of Americans and are particularly devastating for low-income communities and communities of color. The number of ‘billion-dollar disasters’—those that cause over a billion dollars in damage—is rising as a result of climate change, urbanization, high risk developments, communities in vulnerable areas, aging infrastructure, and federal policy that rewards risk-prone behavior rather than incentivizing risk reduction. An overhaul of U.S. federal disaster policy will reverse the trend and eliminate billion-dollar disasters. This goal requires action at all levels of government, coordination across agencies, and leadership from the highest levels.

The Biden-Harris Administration should implement a multi-phase plan beginning with an executive order instructing federal agencies to define federal roles in disaster response, coordinate agency efforts, and integrate social justice and climate change into decision-making. Agency-level mandates will develop and implement best practices, incentivize state and local measures, and create an evidentiary basis for funding allocations. Finally, legislative reform of disaster laws will enable flexible responses to the continuing effects of climate change. A coordinated overhaul of federal laws and policies will inspire change at state and local levels, leading to a U.S. disaster policy that is climate-ready, addresses social inequities, reduces taxpayer liability and disaster damage, and saves lives.

Challenge and Opportunity

Disaster effects continue to worsen. Climate change is exacerbating hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and wildfires. Development and population growth in at-risk areas have placed more people, infrastructure, and economic activity in harm’s way. Serious disasters are more frequent and more costly (Figure 1). In 2019 alone, the U.S. experienced fourteen different billion-dollar disasters. In a five-month period that year, flooding affected eleven states: Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Federal aid is designed to be a last resort in disasters: the backstop when local and state resources have been overwhelmed. Current disaster policy and practice, however, results in disincentives for local governments to engage in proactive risk reduction. The more damage a county experiences, for example, the more money the county receives from the Federal Government, providing little incentive to adopt better building codes or limit development in risk-prone areas. The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that updating and refining building codes alone could save $4 for every $1 spent—as well as save 600 lives, avoid 4,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and create 87,000 new jobs (NIBS 2019). Despite this alternative approach, U.S. disaster policy emphasizes recovery rather than prevention. Only a fraction of disaster funding—just 15%—is spent on reducing future losses.

Figure 1.

Relief decisions use wealth and assets as measures of need, rather than people. The result is that disaster funding increases wealth inequality. There is also little evidence that the billions in disaster recovery paid by U.S. taxpayers each year has increased community resilience. According to the Government Accountability Office, nearly 45,000 new homes experienced repeat flood losses over the last decade, while less than half that number had their flood risk reduced through elevation, acquisition, or floodproofing.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a key organizer for federal response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. In the long tail of recovery, though, other agencies— including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Federal Transit Authority (FTA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and Small Business Administration (SBA)— become involved. These agencies have significant and increasing spending authority and autonomy, but the risk reduction projects they prioritize and the reasons for their selection are often unclear or unavailable to researchers or the public. Projects are also not required to complement or support one another; each agency has its own mission, and there is little overarching coordination. At times, their actions may even work at cross-purposes.

Overhauling U.S. disaster policy will require a major effort across multiple levels and branches of government. This effort will not only limit but also potentially reverse the trend of increasing disaster costs. Disaster policy can create incentives for risk-smart development, promote climateproof investments in infrastructure, and protect society’s most vulnerable populations.

Plan of Action

A complete overhaul of U.S. disaster policy will require many actions across government branches. The following roadmap is a starting point: an initial set of steps to establish leadership, coordination, and a structure within which numerous actors can engage in a collaborative effort to build a disaster-resilient nation.

The plan is guided by the following principles:

Executive Branch

An executive order from the President or memorandum from the Office of Science and Technology Policy should direct agencies to address climate change and social equity in all federal actions. The order should provide a new mandate for inter-agency task forces such as the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG) to take, at minimum, the following actions:

Legislative Branch

Following the executive action, Congress should legislate reform both the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 (NFIP) and the Stafford Act of 1988. Congress should adopt the guidelines made by inter-agency task forces and recommendations made by the hazard science community. Congress must deliberate on:

University and Government Research

New science is needed to create a more robust foundation of evidentiary knowledge. Through National Science Foundation calls and inter-agency task force member agencies commissioning National Academies Studies, funding should be allocated toward:

Frequently Asked Questions
How does this proposal fit into existing disaster resilience efforts?

Existing efforts at achieving disaster resilience need coordination and high-level direction to become priorities. Existing task forces (such as MitFLG) should be leveraged and given expanded membership and mandates to promote a more widely coordinated approach to disaster reduction and response. Executive Order 13653, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change” should be reinstated and additional guidance should be provided to state agencies on how to assess climate risk, how to promote incentives for resilience, and how to include equity in decision-making processes.

If hazards are expected to intensify and become more frequent due to climate change, do we have ways to reduce losses from disasters?
Yes! As Gilbert White said, “floods are ‘acts of god,’ but flood losses are largely acts of man.” The same logic can be applied to nearly all hazards. Decades of scientific research and empirical data have identified simple principles that are known to reduce disaster losses. These principles are: (1) avoid building in areas known to be hazardous, (2) protect and/or insure infrastructure in hazardous areas, (3) reduce carbon emissions, (4) protect the most vulnerable. The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that updated building codes alone could save $4 for every $1 spent—as well as save 600 lives, avoid 4,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and create 87,000 new jobs.
Why are agencies other than FEMA included? Does the problem not primarily lie with FEMA?
FEMA’s role is to coordinate emergency management following disasters that are beyond the ability of states to respond. FEMA also provides grants that support disaster mitigation, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Furthermore, the majority of the rules laid out by the Stafford Act apply to FEMA activities. However, in recent decades, numerous agencies have been allocated money by Congress in disaster relief authorizations. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is now a primary disaster response funder, through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) takes primary responsibility for levees, dredging, and beach nourishment, and their decisions have important implications for disaster risk reduction policy. A wide range of other agencies—i.e., the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), etc.—disperse disaster funds. The Department of Education, for example, disperses funds for school recovery. While FEMA plays a central role in disaster management, the coordination between all of these agencies is a major area where improvement is needed.
Why should Congress reconsider elements of the Stafford Act?

The Stafford Act is supposed to position the Federal Government as the intervener of last resort. It allows the President to declare disaster, and then it generally reimburses state and local governments—and other public organizations—a minimum of 75% of the cost of damage to public infrastructure. FEMA makes disaster recommendations to the President based upon a uniformly-applied and highly-prescribed loss threshold. The process is known to be wrought with politicization and assumes that every location experiences disasters in the same way. We know that each community has unique resources and advantages and disadvantages; a political decision about disbursement runs contrary to the Federal Government as the intervener of last resort.

To truly establish the Federal Government as the intervener of last resort, Congress must reconsider the disaster threshold by taking into account local capacity and ability to recover. Congress must also reconsider the cost-share and whether different incentive models are better equipped to induce better local hazard-reduction decisions and improve long-term resilience. Finally, Congress must formally address the role of each agency—as opposed to FEMA alone— to ensure government efficiency and that actions are not at cross-purposes.

FEMA recommended significant changes to the Public Assistance Program in 2016 that may not require congressional approval. Are those changes sufficient?

No. FEMA recommended adopting a state-wide deductible which must be met before Public Assistance is made available. While a positive step, it only addressed one of scores of disaster relief programs, albeit the largest. Furthermore, the recommendation did not include an evaluation of whether the proposed structure would incentivize local change. It does not explicitly reward individual hazard-reducing behaviors, but rather evaluates hazard reduction at a state level.

However, this proposed rule makes a step in the right direction by stating that the deductible level should be influenced by local hazard exposure and ability to recover.

Is your position anti-growth?

No. In face of the climate crisis, the only way to ensure consistent long-term growth is to put policies and incentives in place that protect people and infrastructure. In the same way that smart growth urban planning guides development based on economic and social priorities, we encourage growth that aligns with hazard risk reduction goals.

Has a federal ‘push’ worked to change state and local approaches in other issue areas?

Seatbelts. The Federal Government passed the first seatbelt law, which required lap and shoulder belts in all vehicles beginning in 1968. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, however, the effort to require states to implement seatbelt laws had limited success. But in 1985, Secretary Dole issued a rule requiring automakers to install driver side airbags in all vehicles, unless two-thirds of the states had passed a mandatory seatbelt law. This set off intense lobbying by automakers for bill passage in state legislatures. In 1998, an Executive Order (13043) mandated that all federal employees use seatbelts. As of 2020, only one state (New Hampshire) does not require seatbelts.

Clean Air. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) promulgated new air quality standards for acceptable levels of carbon monoxide, ground level ozone, and fine particulates. The 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act coordinated with CAAA by including directions on how cities and metropolitan areas were to demonstrate achievement of and progress toward air quality goals. These guidelines stated that transportation planning should emphasize system efficiency, and that in cities with severe air pollution, transportation projects must contribute to cleaner air. Urban areas were given flexibility to focus on local priorities and problems, with strict federal sanctions as incentives for compliance with both laws. The result has been a significant and continuing drop in criteria air pollutants.

Similarly, financial incentives for resilience (either carrots or sticks) could encourage state and local governments to use their authority to reduce risk exposure in their jurisdictions. This is the rationale behind the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) Community Rating System (CRS), which rewards communities who engage in resilience behaviors with lower insurance rates. The CRS could be improved by requiring local governments to take stronger actions to qualify for reduced rates and by increasing transparency about how community ratings are calculated. Additional incentives could be used to encourage state and local governments to take actions such as: adopt internationally recognized building codes, enforce building codes, zone hazardous lands for no or low-density development, charge externality fees for developers, and invest in stormwater management upgrades.

This was also the rationale behind FEMA recommendations in 2016 that would have required states to contribute a set amount towards disaster recovery (a ‘disaster deductible’) before Public Assistance would be made available. The amount of the deductible could be reduced if the state demonstrated that it had taken actions to reduce risk exposure. We recommend that this and similar programs be revisited and strengthened.

Solutions for mitigating climate change, advances in nuclear energy, and US leadership in high-performance computing discussed in two key House Science Committee hearings

Climate solutions and nuclear energy

The full House Science, Space, and Technology Committee discussed climate hurdles and solutions in a January 15 hearing titled, “An update on the climate crisis: From science to solutions.” Interestingly, the main point of debate during this hearing was not whether climate change was occurring, but rather the economic impacts of climate change mitigation. As predicted, the debate was split down party lines.

While the Democrats emphasized the negative consequences of climate change and the need to act, several Republican members insisted that China and India rein in their greenhouse gas emissions first.

Congressman Mo Brooks (R, AL-05) asked the most heated series of questions during the hearing, related to India and China’s carbon emissions. He asked if there was a way to force both to reduce their emissions, which, according to a report by the European Union, have seen increases of 305% and 354%, respectively, between 1990 and 2017.

Democrats focused their questions to highlight the science behind climate change. Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D, TX-30) asked each witness about the biggest hurdles in their fields. Richard Murray, Deputy Director and Vice President for Research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said that more investments in large-scale ocean observations and data are needed. Pamela McElwee, Associate Professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers, said that a lot of advances in land conservation can be made with existing technology, but that investments in genetic modification of crops to restore nutrients to the soil, for example, could be developed. Heidi Steltzer, Professor of Environment and Sustainability at Fort Lewis College, encouraged the inclusion of diverse perspectives in climate research to develop the most creative solutions. Congressman Paul Tonko (D, NY-20) summed up the Democrats’ views on climate change by stating that the climate science performed by researchers like the witnesses should inform federal action and that inaction on this issue is costly.

While committee Republicans expressed concerns over the impact of climate regulations on business, members of the committee did emphasize the importance of renewing U.S. leadership in nuclear power, pointing to competition from Russia and China. Nuclear power continues to be the largest source of carbon free electricity in the country.

One of the witnesses, Michael Shellenberger, Founder and President of Environmental Progress noted that the US’ ability to compete internationally in nuclear energy was declining as Russia and China rush to complete new power plants. Losing ground in this area, he added, negatively impacts the U.S.’ reputation as a developer of cutting edge energy technology and dissuades developing countries interested in building nuclear power plants from contracting with the U.S.

As the impacts of climate change take their toll in California, the Caribbean, Australia, and elsewhere, the U.S. Congress remains divided on how to address it.

We thank our community of experts for helping us create an informative resource and questions for the committee.

Supercomputing a high priority for DOE Office of Science

While last week’s House Science Subcommittee on Energy hearing about research supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science touched on a range of issues, competition with China on high-performance computing took center stage.

The big milestone that world powers are competing to reach in the high-performance computing field is the development of the first-ever exascale computer. An exascale computer would greatly enhance research areas like materials development for next-generation batteries, seismic analysis, weather and climate modeling, and even clinical health studies like “identifying risk factors for suicide and best practices for intervention.” It would be about a million times faster than a consumer desktop computer, operating at a quintillion calculations per second. The U.S., China, Japan, and European Union are all working to complete the first exascale system.

In the competition to develop faster and faster supercomputers, China has made rapid progress. In 2001, none of the 500 fastest supercomputers were made in China. As of June 2019, 219 of the 500 fastest supercomputers had been developed by China, and the US had 116. Notably, when the computational power of all these systems is totaled up for each country, China controls 30 percent of the world’s high-performance computing resources, while the U.S. controls 38 percent. In the past, China had asserted that it would complete an exascale computing system this year; however, it is unclear if the country will meet its goal.

A U.S. exascale system due in 2021 – Aurora – is being built at Argonne National Lab in Illinois, and hopes are high that it will be the world’s first completed exascale computer. During the hearing, Representatives Dan Lipinski (D, IL-03) and Bill Foster (D, IL-11) both raised the issue of progress on the project. According to DOE Office of Science director Dr. Christopher Fall, the Aurora project is meeting its benchmarks, with headway being made not only on the hardware, but also on a “once-in-a-generation” reworking and modernization of the software stack that will run on the system, as well as developing high-speed internet for linking generated data with the computation of that data. DOE believes that the U.S. is in a strong position to complete the first-ever exascale computing system, and that our holistic approach to high-performance computing is something that is missing from competitors’ strategies, giving the U.S. even more of an edge.

In addition to the Aurora project, two more exascale computing projects are underway at U.S. National Labs. Frontier, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is also projected to deploy in 2021, while El Capitan, based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, should launch in 2022. El Capitan will only be used by individuals in the national security field.

In addition to research in high-performance computing, the diverse and impactful science supported by the DOE Office of Science is truly something to protect and promote. To review the full hearing, click here.

Extreme Weather Threatens Military Facilities

Extreme weather events and rising sea levels are causing damage to U.S. military facilities and could threaten U.S. military infrastructure around the world.

“Is the military ready for climate change?,” asked Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA). “It is not.”

“In the last 12 months, severe storms have devastated Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Offutt Air Force Base,” he said during the House debate on the FY2020 defense authorization bill on July 10.

The defense bill that was passed by the House therefore included several provisions to require the Department of Defense “to plan for and respond to the threat that climate change poses to military installations and military operations.”

Similar requirements to incorporate weather projections in defense facility planning were included in the Senate version of the pending defense authorization bill.

On a political plane, there are still ideologically-driven disparities in perception of the threat of climate change. But those disparate perceptions may soon be overtaken by the reality of climate-induced damage, including damage to defense infrastructure.

“The Department of Defense (DOD) manages more than 1,700 military installations in worldwide coastal areas that may be affected by sea-level rise,” the Congressional Research Service observed in a new brief. See Military Installations and Sea-Level Rise, CRS In Focus, July 26, 2019.

“Hurricane Michael damaged every building on Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base (repair estimate $4.7 billion),” CRS noted. “Hurricane Florence dropped 36 inches of rain, flooding three North Carolina Marine Corps installations (repair estimate $3.6 billion).”

Failure to act will incur increased costs, the Government Accountability Office warned in June.

“Not assessing risks or using climate projections in installation planning may expose DOD facilities to greater-than-anticipated damage or degradation as a result of extreme weather or climate-related effects,” GAO said. See Climate Resilience: DOD Needs to Assess Risk and Provide Guidance on Use of Climate Projections in Installation Master Plans and Facilities Designs, GAO-19-453, June 12, 2019.

“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,” the Pentagon acknowledged in a January 2019 report to Congress (with a March supplement).

“Damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life,” warned outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in January.

“Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond,” he told Congress.

Trump Admin Would Curtail Carbon Capture Research

The Trump Administration budget request for FY 2018 would “severely reduce” Energy Department funding for development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies intended to combat the climate change effects of burning fossil fuels.

The United States has “more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal,” President Trump said last month, implying that remedial measures to diminish the environmental impact of coal power generation are unnecessary.

Research on the carbon capture technology that could make coal use cleaner by removing carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust would be cut by 73% if the Trump Administration has its way.

“The Trump Administration’s approach would be a reversal of Obama Administration and George W. Bush Administration DOE policies, which supported large carbon-capture demonstration projects and large injection and sequestration demonstration projects,” the Congressional Research Service said this week in a new report.

“We have finally ended the war on coal,” President Trump declared.

However, congressional approval of the Administration’s proposal to slash carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) development is not a foregone conclusion.

“The House Appropriations Committee’s FY2018 bill funding DOE disagrees with the Administration budget request and would fund CCS activities at roughly FY2017 levels,” the CRS report said.

“This report provides a summary and analysis of the current state of CCS in the United States.” It also includes a primer on how CCS could work, and a profile of previous funding in this area. See Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) in the United States, July 24, 2017.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Methane and Other Air Pollution Issues in Natural Gas Systems, updated July 27, 2017

The U.S. Export Control System and the Export Control Reform Initiative, updated July 24, 2017

Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS): OECD Tax Proposals, July 24, 2017

Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated July 25, 2017

Lebanon, updated July 25, 2017

Aviation Bills Take Flight, but Legislative Path Remains Unclear, CRS Insight, July 25, 2017

Military Officers, CRS In Focus, July 3, 2017

Military Enlisted Personnel, CRS In Focus, July 3, 2017

Transgender Servicemembers: Policy Shifts and Considerations for Congress, CRS Insight, July 26, 2017

Systematic, authorized publication of CRS reports on a government website came a step closer to reality yesterday when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to approve “a provision that will make non-confidential CRS reports available to the public via the Government Publishing Office’s website.”

“Climate Change” Enters the DoD Lexicon

The term “climate change” was included for the first time in the latest revision of the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Joint Publication 1-02), published last week.

Climate change is officially defined by DoD as “Variations in average weather conditions that persist over multiple decades or longer that encompass increases and decreases in temperature, shifts in precipitation, and changing risk of certain types of severe weather events.”

The new entry in the DoD Dictionary reflects a growing awareness of the actual and potential impacts of climate change on military operations.

The definition was originally proposed in the January 2016 DoD Directive 4715.21 on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience.

“The DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military,” the January directive stated.

Department of Defense Confronts Climate Change

The Department of Defense is organizing itself to address the effects of climate change on the U.S. military, some of which are already being felt.

“The DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military,” according to a Pentagon directive that was issued last week. See Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, DoD Directive 4715.21, January 14, 2016.

Among other things, the new directive requires the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate on “risks, potential impacts, considerations, vulnerabilities, and effects [on defense intelligence programs] of altered operating environments related to climate change and environmental monitoring.”

“The Department of Defense sees climate change as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk,” DoD said last year in a report to Congress.

“We are already observing the impacts of climate change in shocks and stressors to vulnerable nations and communities, including in the United States, and in the Arctic, Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America…. Although DoD and the Combatant Commands cannot prepare for every risk and situation, the Department is beginning to include the implications of a changing climate in its frameworks for managing operational and strategic risks prudently.” See National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate, DoD report to Congress, July 2015.

“We are almost done with a baseline survey to assess the vulnerability of our military’s more than 7,000 bases, installations, and other facilities,” wrote then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. “In places like the Hampton Roads region in Virginia, which houses the largest concentration of US military sites in the world, we see recurrent flooding today, and we are beginning work to address a projected sea-level rise of 1.5 feet over the next 20 to 50 years.”

“Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning,” Secretary Hagel wrote.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” said Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump in a 2012 tweet that has been retweeted more than 24,000 times. (h/t Ed Husain)


What to Expect from Paris Climate Talks, and More from CRS

The possible outcomes of the ongoing Paris climate change conference, and the challenges remaining to be overcome, are considered in a new report from the Congressional Research Service. See International Climate Change Negotiations: What to Expect in Paris, December 2015, November 27, 2015.

The shifting numbers of U.S. troops and contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past eight years were compiled in another newly updated CRS report. “As of June 2015, there were almost 29,000 DOD contractor personnel in Afghanistan, compared to 9,060 U.S. troops,” the report said. “As of September 2015, there were 1,349 DOD contractor personnel in Iraq, compared with up to 3,550 U.S. troops.” See Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Iraq and Afghanistan: 2007-2015, December 1, 2015.

Another CRS report notes that there are currently 53 judicial vacancies in the nation’s 91 judicial districts, and that 25 of those vacancies are considered to be “judicial emergencies.” The situation is described in U.S. District and Circuit Court Vacancies: Overview and Comparative Analysis, CRS Insight, December 3, 2015.

“The federal executive branch controls an extensive real property portfolio that includes more than a quarter of a million owned and leased buildings,” according to another new CRS report. “The cost of operating and maintaining these diverse properties, which total more than 2.8 billion square feet, exceeded $21 billion in FY2014.” See Federal Real Property Data: Limitations and Implications for Oversight, November 25, 2015.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that Congress has declined to make publicly available online include the following.

Tying Up Loose Ends… Supreme Court To Evaluate Federal Firearm Provision Again, CRS Legal Sidebar, December 3, 2015

College and University Endowments: Overview and Tax Policy Options, December 2, 2015

State Management of Federal Lands: Frequently Asked Questions, November 12, 2015

The Enactment of Appropriations Measures During Lame Duck Sessions, updated December 2, 2015

Courts Grapple with States’ Efforts to Bar Medicaid Funds from Providers that Also Perform Abortions, CRS Legal Sidebar, December 2, 2015

Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): Final Rule for 2014, 2015, and 2016, CRS Insight, December 2, 2015

Doubling Research and Development for Clean Energy: “Mission Innovation”, CRS Insight, December 1, 2015

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE): Authorizations of Appropriations Proposed by the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 (S. 2012), November 25, 2015

Multilateral Development Banks: Overview and Issues for Congress, updated December 2, 2015

President Obama’s $1 Billion Foreign Aid Request for Central America, CRS Insight, November 25, 2015

Venezuela’s December 2015 Legislative Elections, CRS Insight, December 2, 2015

Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) and Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC): Background and Issues for Congress, updated December 3, 2015

Corporate Expatriation, Inversions, and Mergers: Tax Issues, updated November 30, 2015

The Lobbying Disclosure Act at 20: Analysis and Issues for Congress, December 1, 2015

Federal Reserve: Oversight and Disclosure Issues, updated December 1, 2015