The Earth is, beyond reasonable doubt, careening toward climate catastrophe in a man-made crisis propelled by the technological advancements that enabled us to power homes, businesses and cities with fossil fuels, and then exacerbated by a dangerous level of political and economic myopia. Now the world is watching the results of global warming, and the impacts are undeniable — as is the hard reality that we have waited too long and done too little to fix it.
The advent of the Biden administration, while not some sudden flick of a switch to a better future, is nevertheless welcome. His announcement Wednesday of additional climate-focused policies — aimed at, among other things, ending carbon pollution from power plants by 2035, reaching a national net-zero economy by 2050 and bolstering communities that have been disproportionately affected by emissions — followed first-day executive actions that sought to undo many of the dangerous and ill-advised policies of the Trump administration.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but so far Biden has ordered that climate change be part of policy decisions across the federal government, rescinded a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Nebraska, halted new oil and gas developments in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ordered a freeze and review of Trump regulations promoting fossil fuels and rolling back vehicle emissions standards, and announced that the U.S. would rejoin the 2015 Paris agreement.
He also pledged Monday to replace the federal government’s fleet of about 650,000 motor vehicles with electric models, which would be a significant boon to the fledgling market for clean cars and trucks.
Good. Keep going, Mr. President.
One of the many lessons reinforced by the Trump administration, however, is that executive actions can be fleeting. Good policies by one administration can be undone by the next and then reversed again by a third. Combating climate change is too vital to our existence for such fickleness.
Congress needs to involve itself here to both stabilize how the nation approaches energy policy and to craft laws that will force the U.S. into a faster and more robust transition from fossil fuels to renewables while helping workers and communities adapt. We won’t get prescriptive about specifics (though here’s one: Congress ought to revoke its 2017 approval of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), but some broad contours are clear, and frameworks have already been floated by members of Congress.
We need the government to intervene in the energy system, from production to consumption, through laws and regulations that will hasten the build-out of electric charging stations and lower the price of electric vehicles, create disincentives for vehicles that burn fossil fuels (a carbon tax would be a good start), and offer incentives to consumers to scrap existing gas-guzzlers (the three top-selling motor vehicles in the U.S. last year were relatively low-mpg pickup trucks). We also need to get more aggressive and creative in designing green new buildings, retrofitting old structures and converting homes from heating with natural gas or oil to renewable electricity.
Yes, we can hear the sputtering. This is going to be insanely expensive. But it’s unavoidable. Remember, it was a technological leap — harnessing the energy of burned coal to run industrial machinery — that led us to this point, and we are entirely capable of fresh technological breakthroughs to lead us to a different future. There is no single solution. In fact, ending all carbon emissions tomorrow would still leave us the effects of past emissions, which will have to be mitigated through massive reforestation and carbon-removal techniques that do not yet exist. We need new ideas and fresh thinking, not just in how we create energy but in how machinery uses it.
Global leaders know this. It’s what led them to the Paris agreement in the first place. Biden has made the fight a key part of his administration, appointing as his international emissary John F. Kerry — who as President Obama’s secretary of State was a key figure behind the Paris deal — and creating a White House office to direct domestic climate policies. But the horizon is nearing at a faster pace than experts realized just a few short years ago.
It’s numbing, and depressing, to contemplate how little the U.S. and the world have done to combat global warming in the five years since the Paris agreement. Even as the world’s nations agreed to work together to try to keep the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, with a target of 1.5 degrees, scientists have warned that individual nations are not doing enough to achieve that goal.
The past brought us here. The present will determine our future. We are collectively the cause of, and the solution to, this problem. We must get to it.