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On July 17, 1997, a day when thermometers in the nation’s capital broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers delivered a speech to the Senate about an issue of mounting concern.
“Although a great many scientists believe that global climate change is already underway, the more serious potential damages associated with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are not predicted to occur for decades,” said Janet Yellen, then a 51-year-old economist who’d previously served on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. “This means that the benefits of climate protection are very difficult to quantify.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, fires are scorching the American West, dozens of powerful storms have threatened coastal cities, and flooding regularly inundates once-dry neighborhoods in cities from Miami to Boston even on days when the sun is shining. And Yellen, now President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Treasury, will likely soon find herself tasked with quantifying and addressing just how dire that crisis has become.
Biden made climate a cornerstone of his campaign this year, and it was the issue on which voters perceived him to contrast most sharply with President Donald Trump. His campaign promised a “whole of government approach” to slashing planet-heating emissions and adapting to a hotter world, one where climate policy is not siloed off at the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Treasury post could prove one of the most active in that new approach. If the Senate confirms her nomination, Yellen, 74, would become the nation’s chief financial regulator amid a period of new upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic. And if Congress approves new stimulus funding, she would be in charge of distributing it.
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