Monday, August 7, 2023

Biden pushing federal employees back to the office: Does the commercial real estate crisis outweigh the climate crisis?

President Joe Biden will make a more aggressive push for federal workers to return to their offices this fall, Axios reported Friday. It's only the latest decision by the Biden administration that ignores the climate crisis that the President at other times acknowledges is "the existential threat to humanity." The driving force behind demanding that great numbers of federal employees return to in-person work isn't for the public good, but to prop up the falling profits of wealthy private development firms and their Wall Street financial backers. One must ask the question, "Does the commercial real estate crisis outweigh the climate crisis?"

The reduction in downtown leasing and activity is hardly limited to Washington, D.C. But developers here have an advantage office tower owners in other cities don't: The federal government can order all 141,367 of its D.C.-based employees back to in-person work. Yet that singular power is precisely why the Biden administration shouldn't.

A great opportunity to make unprecedented strides toward reducing carbon emissions, pollution and global temperatures emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Government and private employers alike were forced to find out who could do their jobs from home, and who couldn't. But Biden declined to seize the low-hanging fruits of this opportunity. 

Imagine if everyone who successfully performed their job from home during the lockdown just kept doing that. The short-lived environmental and highway capacity benefits would have become permanent. Air quality would have improved, and expensive transportation projects could have been canceled. And while it would have been a hard-fought battle for the federal government to mandate private companies continue to allow their employees to work from home, Uncle Sam would have had no barrier or obstacle to mandate that all federal workers working from home continue doing so indefinitely.

Ordering most federal workers to return to the office would put swarms of cars that currently spend most of their time in driveways of homes back onto area roads. Workers returning by transit will have a significant negative impact on the environment, as well. WMATA only anticipates half of its buses will be zero-emission by 2033, and predicts its entire fleet will be zero-emission by 2045. The vast majority of buses still run on diesel and natural gas. This does not even take into account the coal-fired and natural gas electricity plant emissions needed to operate the Metro subway system.

The world just passed through the hottest month on record in July. Scientists and climate activists began using the term "global boiling" to describe what lies ahead for Planet Earth. The D.C. area is intimately aware of the pollution impacts of wildfires, and the extensive damage wreaked by increasingly-powerful storms. On the present course, global temperatures will likely pass the 1.5C global warming threshold sometime in the next four years.

It was only four years ago that the United Nations informed us that we had "only 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change." Yet Biden eagerly approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline, recently endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court. His Russia-related energy sanctions and policies restarted coal plants in Europe, and will boost American natural gas output for export to Europe for at least the duration of the war, if not for decades to come. Politicians who had called for higher gas prices for decades to reduce driving fell silent when they finally arrived in 2022. Biden has sold 206 million barrels of oil from the country's reserves to date, to artificially lower the price of gasoline since.

These are not the expected actions of a President who recently said, at a press conference with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, that he has witnessed "the highest sea-level rise in more than a century. I’ve seen wildfire devastation across the West, burning more acres to the ground than are square miles in the state of Maryland. That’s how much got burned to the ground and all the — just flying over, just devastating. There’s been historic tornadoes and flooding in the Midwest and the Southeast. And just last week, across the East Coast and Midwest, we saw what you’ve already seen here in California: millions of Americans sheltered indoors, the air not safe to breathe, orange haze covering the sky. It’s incredible."

One cannot take these actions, and then turn around another day and claim we are in an existential climate crisis that threatens American lives and property. If you had found a way for tens of thousands of federal workers to get their job done without hitting the road twice a day, and you were serious about the climate, you wouldn't consider for a minute ordering those employees back to the office.

Developers are being hit in the pocketbook. Wall Street and the bankers who hold the loans on office towers are taking a WFH hit, too. Downtown traffic to businesses isn't what it was prior to March 2020. None of that warrants yet another federal government bailout to the rich, at the expense of all humanity and nature around the globe. President Biden should resist the pressure he's receiving from wealthy interests to force federal workers back to the office. The President who said "the impacts we’re seeing in climate change are only going to get more frequent and more ferocious and more costly" shouldn't add any more to that cost and ferocity.

Photo courtesy U.S. State Department


  1. Stale, repetitive, whinny, commentary from the far right, myopic view. Nothing of merit to offer.

    1. The far right is concerned about climate change? That's news to me!

    2. Only when the "concern" is to attack President Biden, and that is exactly what your purpose is here. Gotcha!

    3. There are many on the left who disagree with President Biden on any number of issues, from immigration policies to healthcare to pipeline and drilling approvals. Your position that no one may criticize an elected official, no matter what, doesn't sound very Democratic or productive for the nation.

  2. Didn’t you critique the County at length for restricting new natural gas hook ups? Your climate argument here seems shallow and selective/self-serving. If you like remote work, just say that. For Rockville’s selfish wellbeing, it’s good for the feds to go back to in-person work.

    1. 3:39: I did criticize the gas ban because the County just a few years before was calling natural gas "green" and "clean energy."

      It would actually be to Rockville's benefit for workers to stay home, as they are buying their coffees and lunches here, rather than in downtown DC.