Within hours of taking office, President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, and began reinstating environmental protections, clearly signaling that climate action is a top priority for this administration.
Yesterday was a good one for the environment. Only hours after being sworn in, President Biden took demonstrable climate action, recognizing that climate change is the greatest challenge of our generation and the opportunity of a lifetime.
Biden recommitted the United States to the Paris Agreement, the international accord designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, commencing a 30-day process that will once again provide our nation with a seat at the table.
After backing away from two global climate agreements (the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris Agreement), the United States had almost been written off completely by global partners. But with his swift action, Biden showed that “we must not lead by the example of our power, but the power of our example”—words spoken by Biden himself earlier in the day during his inauguration speech.
Global leaders saluted the move, welcoming our country back into the treaty with open arms.
Biden also instructed federal agencies to begin the process of reviewing and reinstating over 100 environmental regulations that were rolled back over the past four years “that were harmful to public health, damaging to the environment, unsupported by the best available science, or otherwise not in the national interest,” including the National Environmental Policy Act, considered to be the bedrock of environmental protection and the “Magna Carta” of conservation law.
Additionally, the new President cancelled the permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline (which would have transported oil from the tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico) and put a temporary moratorium on all oil and natural gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (with more restrictions on drilling on federal lands expected soon).
These first steps are certainly laudable and undoubtedly made for a very busy afternoon for the new President. However, these actions must quickly be followed by a thorough and comprehensive plan for not just meeting the Paris Agreement goals, but also swiftly surpassing them with aggressive policies that reduce planet-warming emissions from transportation, buildings, industry, and power plants and deal with the social inequity of climate change.
Biden has set an ambitious goal of reducing emissions from the power sector by 2035 and the entire U.S. economy by 2050, but the success of this strategy will depend on how much headwind he faces from Congress.
And if there was ever a time to depoliticize an issue, it’s now: As Biden’s own Climate Envoy, John Kerry, pointed out, even if we hit the Paris Agreement objectives, we still won’t be able to reduce the “threat multiplier” of climate change—meaning that our environment will continue to get more unstable, unpredictable, and extreme.
The ugly truth is that we’re actually taking steps further away from our climate goals rather than towards them. A recent study by the United Nations (UN) emphasized that, while global fossil fuel production and greenhouse gas emissions have declined sharply this year because of the pandemic, we’re still on a trajectory to increase fossil fuel production on a global scale by 2 percent—a far cry from the 6 percent decrease required to stabilize the climate.
The World Meteorological Organization asserts that unless substantial steps are taken immediately to curb carbon emissions, the American Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could plunge 10 percent by 2100 (the equivalent of more than double the losses of the Great Recession), with an anticipated $141 billion in costs from heat-related deaths, $118 billion in losses from sea level rise, and $32 billion in expenses from infrastructure damage by the end of the century.
There is much work to do, and the United States will need to sprint as fast as we can to catch-up with our global counterparts: Countries including Britain, France, Germany, New Zealand, and many others have set ambitious carbon cutting goals. Even China announced a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2060.
There is no doubt that we have the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and technology to transition to an equitable, climate-safe future.
The silver bullet question: Do we have the political will to elevate climate action beyond partisanship, reach across the aisle, and act quickly, decisively, and comprehensively enough to ensure a vibrant future?