Untapped Potential: Climate Crisis Mitigation via the Defense Production Act
August 4, 2023
During the early stages of the Korean War, Congress passed the Defense Production Act (DPA), which enabled the swift mobilization of industries for the impending war. As the name implies, the DPA conferred upon the President the broad authority to prioritize production and supply contracts for national defense purposes.
Today, the country is no longer actively at war but faces an even more pressing and existential threat — the climate crisis. Without action, the planet will continue to suffer irreversible damage, leaving future generations to bear the burden. Reports indicate that the U.S. “continues to fall behind” in its climate targets, suggesting that the private sector needs “aggressive regulation” for sufficient change.
Leveraging the Defense Production Act could prioritize producing renewable energy technologies and provide the crucial regulatory infrastructure required for an accelerated transition.
Some have questioned the legality of such a move, arguing that Congress passed the Defense Production Act to provide an emergency action route for imminent national defense shortages. However, by creatively interpreting the act’s broad authority and recognizing the existential threat posed by the climate crisis, it becomes evident that exercising the DPA for climate mitigation is sufficiently justified.
As with traditional warfare, proponents highlight the devastating consequences of inaction and emphasize the broad economic and national security benefits of prioritizing renewable energy production.
Legal scholars identify the mid-1990s as a pivotal moment for the invocation of the DPA by upcoming administrations. Congress revised the definition of national security to encompass “emergency preparedness” and granted the power to address “national emergencies” resulting from natural disasters and acts of terrorism.” This precedent paved the way for tackling non-conventional threats such as the climate crisis.
In June 2022, the President authorized the Department of Energy to use the DPA to expand American manufacturing of five clean energy technologies: solar panel parts like photovoltaic modules, building insulation, heat pumps, equipment for making clean electricity-generated fuels, and power grid infrastructure. This bold move demonstrated the Administration’s recognition of the urgency and scale of the climate crisis by leveraging the Defense Production Act to address the production gaps of critical renewable energy technologies.
The Administration’s move facilitates investment but falls short of enabling “nationwide economic mobilization” as is possible under the full force of the DPA. Comprehensive utilization of the Defense Production Act would entail a more expansive and ambitious approach on a scale not seen since World War II.
The recent executive action, albeit a modest invocation of the DPA, represents a significant paradigm shift in our perception of climate action. It signals a willingness to employ proactive measures instead of a reactive approach that relies on attempts to thwart industries from contributing to more adverse climate change.
The Administration should look to FEMA precedent on voluntary agreements under Title VII of the DPA to ensure effective collaboration between government agencies, private industries, and communities to coordinate resources, knowledge, and technology to expedite the transition to a renewable energy economy.
Voluntary agreements allow the federal government and private sector parties to share information beyond the scope of what is permitted under traditional antitrust laws. In particular, they could facilitate the exchange of valuable insights on supply chains, obstacles encountered, manufacturing capabilities, and pricing factors. Thus, the government and the private sector can optimize resource utilization and ensure efficient supply delivery.
A Department of Energy study details supply chain risks and vulnerabilities in 11 major industries: carbon capture materials, the electric grid, energy storage, fuel cells and electrolyzers, hydropower, neodymium magnets, nuclear energy, platinum group metals, semiconductors, solar photovoltaics, and wind. Evergreen Action, a prominent advocate for DPA deployment for climate change, believes that voluntary agreements can be especially valuable in finding supply chain bottlenecks, identifying insufficient distribution methods, and locating additional resources. By instituting a voluntary agreement that takes advantage of the strategic strength of public-private partnerships, the country is one step closer to achieving its climate goals and ensuring a better future for all.
Author: Abhi Patel, Summer Associate Consultant at WBD, is a rising junior at Harvard College concentrating in Economics and Government.