Thursday was Earth Day, but if you ask many advocates for the environment and climate action, we just closed out Earth Week. This expansive approach to raising awareness about human-caused climate change and how to mitigate it is certainly appropriate, given the stakes.
Don’t take our word for it — ask Scientific American and several other science-centric journals that have decided to trade the phrase “climate change” for a more frank appraisal: “climate emergency.” Their decision was based on a data-driven report published earlier this year that was signed by thousands of scientists seeking to underscore the crises facing our world due to rapidly rising global temperatures: food supply shortages, migration pressures, ecological impacts, severe weather events.
“Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is,’” reads the introduction of the report. “[W]e declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”
No more fitting time, then, for a virtual White House summit to gather U.S. and world leaders in one place to discuss the pressing need for action — and what actions our leaders are actually looking to take. During the summit’s second day, President Joe Biden on Friday pledged that the U.S. will cut fossil fuel emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030.
Of the summit’s attendees, China is the elephant in the room; it’s the only nation that pollutes more than the U.S. This reality is often reduced to a wedge by some to make climate change a political issue rather than an existential one in America. Cynical Republicans — many of whom conveniently line their campaign coffers with fossil fuel industry cash — argue that China’s existence as a major polluter means that the U.S. should simply do nothing to address climate change.
China, the world’s No. 1 polluter, certainly is not doing nearly enough to limit its emissions, but that doesn’t mean that the U.S. should resign itself to harmful emission rates and plunge the entire planet in a race to the bottom. It still matters significantly if America, the world’s No. 2 polluter, curbs emissions and forges a more sustainable energy future — especially if we do so in a way that shows climate leadership on the global stage, as the White House summit seeks to do.
Along with President Biden, other leaders announced national initiatives this week. Japan said it is eyeing a new 46 percent emissions reduction target. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his nation would boost its fossil fuel pollution cuts to at least 40 percent. South Korea promised to end public funding for new coal-burning power plants, which could play a key part in persuading other nations — like China — to curb coal reliance. Moving the elephant in the room will require some muscle in the form of international coalition-building. Conservatives often desire to position America as a world leader, particularly in foreign policy. There’s no reason that shouldn’t extend to climate leadership efforts, whether it’s emissions reductions or investment in clean energy technology.
Those committed to holding America back from this leadership role argue the effort poses too much economic risk, but this reasoning is not only motivated, but shortsighted. Transforming our energy sector to meet these emissions restrictions is indeed a considerable undertaking, but it could be a major economic driver for a country desperately seeking large-scale recovery in the post-COVID era. While congressional Republicans might balk at the price tag of President Biden’s $2 trillion sustainable infrastructure proposal, one can’t deny the importance of its goals: defend our population from a changing climate, give our power grid a badly needed update and spur job growth for an economy floored by COVID. To forgo these net positives because of China’s inaction would amount to cutting off our nose to spite our face.
“For too long this climate conversation has been viewed as a zero-sum game: one of trade offs — the climate, or the economy. No longer,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Friday during her summit speech, adding that upping our sustainable energy game could also, “build new businesses and put millions and millions of people to work.” And it’s not just the Biden administration that believes this. Earlier this week, the nation’s largest coal miners’ union said it would accept the president’s ambitious plan on the condition that it’s a “true energy transition,” whereby thousands of Americans with jobs producing dirty energy would get decent jobs producing renewable energy.
A “true energy transition” is precisely what we need. The crossroads at which America currently stands is not deciding whether to transform our energy systems or do nothing and remain the same. The choice is transform or face the massive costs of kicking the climate can down the road: climate refugee migration crises, agricultural and ecological collapse, meteorological calamity. Yes, transformation comes with costs — but that price pales in comparison to the one that complacency would leave for our children and grandchildren to pay.
The climate emergency can’t be fully addressed with summits and green rhetoric — it demands meaningful action. Hopefully, though, the door is open for that action. There is certainly a world of difference in America’s posture, transitioning from a presidential administration that maintained climate change was a hoax to one that not only acknowledges the issue but appears willing to do something about it. President Biden’s emissions pledge is among the most ambitious U.S. climate efforts in the nation’s history. We urge his administration to follow through, Republicans to realize the grave costs of inaction and environmentalists to keep our leaders honest as their decisions shape our very world for generations to come.
When thousands of scientists signed on to the aforementioned study, they did so in service to a moral obligation to “tell it like it is.” The data and the science have spoken — anthropogenic climate change is real, and the dangers it poses are legion. Citizens and politicians alike are also morally bound to tell it like it is. We have a choice that we can’t ignore: Invest in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put Americans to work building a more sustainable future, or allow malaise and political inertia to poison the Earth we will leave for our children’s children.
Energy Secretary Granholm calls this opportunity “our generation’s moonshot,” but it’s really more like “humanity’s Earth-shot.” The future of human civilization depends on us being better stewards for the one planet we have.