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The Biden administration needs to act quickly to reduce carbon emissions. Andrew Merry / Getty Images

By Jeff Goodell

The Earth's climate has always been a work in progress. In the 4.5 billion years the planet has been spinning around the sun, ice ages have come and gone, interrupted by epochs of intense heat. The highest mountain range in Texas was once an underwater reef. Camels wandered in evergreen forests in the Arctic. Then a few million years later, 400 feet of ice formed over what is now New York City. But amid this geologic mayhem, humans have gotten lucky. For the past 10,000 years, virtually the entire stretch of human civilization, people have lived in what scientists call "a Goldilocks climate" — not too hot, not too cold, just right.

By Jeff Goodell

The Earth’s climate has always been a work in progress. In the 4.5 billion years the planet has been spinning around the sun, ice ages have come and gone, interrupted by epochs of intense heat. The highest mountain range in Texas was once an underwater reef. Camels wandered in evergreen forests in the Arctic. Then a few million years later, 400 feet of ice formed over what is now New York City. But amid this geologic mayhem, humans have gotten lucky. For the past 10,000 years, virtually the entire stretch of human civilization, people have lived in what scientists call “a Goldilocks climate” — not too hot, not too cold, just right.


Now, our luck is running out. The industrialized nations of the world are dumping 34 billion tons or so of carbon into the atmosphere every year, which is roughly 10 times faster than Mother Nature ever did on her own, even during past mass extinction events. As a result, global temperatures have risen 1.2 C since we began burning coal, and the past seven years have been the warmest seven years on record. The Earth’s temperature is rising faster today than at any time since the end of the last ice age, 11,300 years ago. We are pushing ourselves out of a Goldilocks climate and into something entirely different — quite literally, a different world than humans have ever lived in before.

How hot will the summers get in India and Pakistan, and how will tens of thousands of deaths from extreme heat impact the stability of the region (both nations have nuclear weapons)? How close is the West Antarctic ice sheet to collapse, and what does the risk of five or six feet of sea-level rise mean for people living in mobile homes on the Gulf Coast? The truth is, no one knows for sure. We are in uncharted terrain. “We’re now in a world where the past is no longer a good guide to the future,” said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University. “We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”

By all indications, President Biden and his team understand all this. And it’s hard not to feel that after 30 years of dithering and denial and hypocrisy, the fight to save the climate has finally begun in earnest. In the 2020 election, nearly 70 percent of Biden’s voters said climate change was a top issue for them. Biden has staffed his administration with the climate A-team, from Gina McCarthy as domestic climate czar to John Kerry as international climate envoy. He has made racial and environmental justice a top priority. And perhaps most important of all, he sees the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent the U.S. economy and create millions of new jobs.

“I think in Obama’s mind, it was always about tackling the climate challenge, not making the climate challenge the central element of your economic policy,” says John Podesta, a Democratic power broker and special adviser to President Obama who played a key role in negotiating the Paris Agreement. “Biden’s team is different. It is really the core of their economic strategy to make transformation of the energy systems the driver of innovation, growth, and job creation, justice and equity.”

Of course, there have been hopeful moments before: the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, when the nations of the world first came together to limit CO2 emissions; the success of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006; the election of Obama in 2008 (“This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” Obama said in his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination that year); the Paris Agreement in 2015, when China finally engaged in climate talks. But all of these moments, in the end, led to nothing. If you look at the only metric that really matters — a graph of the percentage of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere — it has been on a long, steady upward climb. More CO2 equals more heat. To put it bluntly, all our scientific knowledge, all the political speeches, all the activism and protest marches have done zero to stop the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

But hope rises again. The economic winds are lifting Biden’s sails: The cost of wind and solar power has plummeted by 90 percent or so over the past decade, and in many parts of the world it’s the cheapest way to generate electricity. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel dinosaurs are tottering: Big Coal is collapsing in real time and may disappear from American life in the next decade or so. ExxonMobil lost billion last year and in August was delisted from the S&P 500. GM, long the staunch fossil-fuel loyalist of the U.S. auto industry, has pledged to go all-electric by 2035.

Globally, the signs of change are equally inspiring. Eight of the 10 largest economies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. China, by far the world’s largest carbon polluter in terms of raw tonnage (on a per capita basis, the U.S. and several other countries pollute far more), has promised to become carbon neutral by 2060. Some 400 companies, including Microsoft, Unilever, Facebook, Ford, Nestlé, and Pepsi, have committed to reduce carbon pollution consistent with the United Nations’ 1.5 C target, which scientists have determined is the threshold of dangerous climate change. Many of these same companies are now calling on the Biden administration to cut overall U.S. carbon pollution by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a goal consistent with the 1.5 C target.

Big Money is also waking up to the risks and benefits of climate action. In his annual letter to investors, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, which manages .8 trillion in assets, challenged companies “to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net-zero economy.” In her confirmation hearing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called climate change “an existential threat” and promised to create a team to examine the risks and integrate them into financial policy-making.

Still, these are only baby steps in a very long journey. And the clock is ticking. “When it comes to the climate crisis,” says futurist Alex Steffen, “speed is everything.” Every molecule of carbon we dump into the atmosphere is another molecule of carbon that will warm the climate for centuries to come, and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, reshape the world we live in. The changes we are making are not reversible. If we magically stopped all carbon pollution tomorrow, the Earth’s temperature would level off, but warm seas would continue melting the ice sheets and seas would keep rising for decades, if not centuries (last time carbon levels were as high as they are today, sea levels were 70 feet higher). Ocean acidification, caused by high CO2 levels, is already dissolving coral reefs and is having a major impact on the ocean food chain. Even after emissions stop, it will take the ocean thousands of years to recover.

Cutting carbon fast would slow these changes and reduce the risk of other climate catastrophes. But despite the world’s newfound ambition, political leaders are not moving anywhere near fast enough. Even the goal of holding future warming to 2 C, which is a centerpiece of the Paris Agreement and considered the outer limits of a Goldilocks climate for much of the planet, is nearly out of reach. As a recent paper in Nature pointed out: “On current trends, the probability of staying below 2 C of warming is only five percent.” If all countries meet the commitment they made in the 2015 Paris Agreement and continue to reduce emissions at the same rate after 2030, the paper argued, the probability of remaining below 2 C of warming rises to 26 percent (“As if a 26 percent chance was good,” Swedish climate wunderkind Greta Thunberg pointed out in a tweet).

The great danger is not climate denial. The great danger is climate delay. Instead of pushing for changes tomorrow, world leaders and CEOs like to make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2050. And then in 2050, they will make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2070. Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather calls this the “empty radicalism” of long-term goals.

What’s needed is action now. As climate envoy John Kerry put it at the World Sustainable Development Summit in February: “We have to now phase out coal five times faster than we have been. We have to increase tree cover five times faster than we have been. We have to ramp up renewable energy six times faster than we are. We have to transition to [electric vehicles] 22 times faster.”

As an example of the seriousness of Biden’s near-term ambition, he has proposed transitioning to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, which means goodbye natural-gas plants, goodbye coal plants, and hello electric cars and battery storage. It’s an astonishingly ambitious proposal, one that would require a remaking of the digital backbone of America at a breakneck speed. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but if Biden is serious about getting it done, it will require retooling permitting laws and the environmental-review process that often stalls big infrastructure projects.

Demanding action now will also require shutting down the international financing schemes that support fossil fuels. China, Japan, and South Korea all claim to be doing their part in making carbon reductions at home, while at the same time they are financing 70,000 megawatts of coal power in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In addition, state-run oil companies in places like China, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia are on course to spend more than 0 billion over the next decade to expand oil infrastructure and exploration.

The goal of net-zero emissions is also problematic. “Net zero” is not the same thing as zero. It means that carbon pollution is either eliminated or offset by other processes that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as forests or machines that capture CO2. Some of these offsets and technologies are more legit than others, opening the door to scams that claim to eliminate more carbon than they do.

In a way, the economic chaos caused by the pandemic has created a historic opportunity for the Biden administration. As one White House adviser tells me, “If you are going to pump billions of dollars into the economy, why not use those dollars to help us transition away from fossil fuels?” This is one of the central ideas behind Biden’s trillion infrastructure bill, which is now being negotiated in Congress. The bill includes a wide variety of climate-related initiatives, shaped around the twin pillars of Biden-era policy: clean-energy jobs and climate justice.

Already the pushback is fierce, especially in states that have benefited from the fracking boom. “The climate fight going forward is really about natural gas,” says Leah Stokes, author of Short Circuiting Policy, an analysis of how special interests have derailed clean-energy policy for 30 years. Shortly after Biden issued his first round of executive orders aimed at the climate crisis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference in the middle of the gas fields “to make clear that Texas is going to protect the oil-and-gas industry from any type of hostile attack launched from Washington, D.C.” In Florida, two bills were introduced that would preempt local governments from implementing plans to lower carbon pollution. In California and New York, residents are fighting transmission lines for offshore wind farms. Republicans, along with stalwart fossil-fuel allies like the Heritage Foundation, recently convened a private retreat in Utah to plot ways to “reclaim the narrative” on climate, while Republican Senators like Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn continue to recycle tired old rants about how the Paris Agreement is destroying American jobs.

None of this is surprising. And the fight will only get bigger and more ruthless as the clean-energy transition accelerates. Fossil fuels are emblematic of a culture, a way of life, a political hierarchy, and an empire of wealth that will not go quietly into the night.

Even among climate activists and progressives, there is wide disagreement about the best path forward. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat who supports Biden’s climate goals, sees natural gas as indispensable. “You can’t turn off natural gas in our society, at least in the Northeast of the United States at this time,” Lamb tells me. “You just can’t do it.” Lamb advocates investments in expensive and unproven technology like carbon capture that could extend the life of fossil fuels. Then there are the eternal battles over nuclear power as a source of clean energy, which Lamb also supports. Others, like UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen, remain skeptical: “If low-cost, reliable, entirely safe nuclear can prove itself out, this is wonderful. . . . But there’s a lot of big ifs.”

More important, the fight for a stable climate is increasingly inseparable from a fight for justice and equity. Catherine Coleman Flowers, who was on a task force that helped shape Biden’s climate policy during his campaign, grew up and works in Lowndes County, Alabama. “I see a lot of poverty here,” Flowers says. “And I see a lot of people who suffer from the impacts of climate change — whether it is heat, or disease, or poor sanitation and polluted drinking water. You can’t separate one from the other. They put sewage lagoons next to the houses of poor people, not rich people. They put oil pipelines through poor neighborhoods, not rich ones.”

Internationally, rich nations of the world pledged to “mobilize” 0 billion by 2020 through the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But only about billion materialized. The U.S. was among the worst actors: Of the billion President Obama promised, he funded only billion before Trump canceled further payments (Biden has promised to make good on the commitment, and then some).

Whatever happens with Biden’s climate and energy initiatives, we’re living in a new world now. The faster we cut carbon, the more manageable the changes will be. But change is coming. The biggest fights of the future are less likely to be about natural gas and nuclear power than about sea walls and migration policies. “Adaptation is not sexy,” says Alice Hill, who was an adviser to the Obama administration. “But it is inevitable.” As climate impacts escalate, dangerous techno-fixes, such as solar geoengineering, which involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the planet, will likely become more tempting and more divisive, perhaps further diluting the will to quickly cut carbon pollution.

For more than 30 years now, scientists and politicians have been aware that our hellbent consumption of fossil fuels could push us out of the Goldilocks zone and force humans to live in a world we have never inhabited before. As Biden’s push for climate action gets real, we will learn a lot about how serious human beings are about living on this planet, and how far the powerful and privileged are willing to go to reduce the suffering of the poor and vulnerable. If political leaders don’t take the climate crisis seriously now, with all they know, with all they have been through already, will they ever? “Climate advocates keep saying, ‘This is it, this is it, this is it,'” warns Podesta. “But this really is it. If we don’t amp up and accelerate the energy transformation in this decade, we’re goners — really goners.”

This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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President Donald Trump holds up a pen after signing a Presidential Proclamation shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, December 4, 2017. Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

By Hannah Murphy

When he talks about the Trump administration, David Doniger likes to say: "Imagine where we'd be if they knew what they were doing." The climate lawyer and senior advisor to the NRDC Action Fund spends his days defending the environment from the U.S. government, and for the past three and a half years, that's meant a front-row seat to the Trump administration's relentless attacks on any regulation that's meant to slow the climate crisis.

By Hannah Murphy

When he talks about the Trump administration, David Doniger likes to say: “Imagine where we’d be if they knew what they were doing.” The climate lawyer and senior advisor to the NRDC Action Fund spends his days defending the environment from the U.S. government, and for the past three and a half years, that’s meant a front-row seat to the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on any regulation that’s meant to slow the climate crisis.


But it’s also been a window into the hasty, sloppy, and legally dubious ways that they’ve gone about it. “One of the hallmarks of this administration is how incompetently they’re doing this,” says Doniger. “It shows up in how slowly they’ve been able to work, and how flimsy their legal rationales are.” Almost all of Trump’s attempts at deregulation — some 100 rules that he’s tried to eliminate or weaken — are being challenged in court, and environmentalists are steadily winning. According to the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, the Trump administration has lost 69 of the 83 legal challenges it’s faced in its deregulatory blitz.

“We were saved by their incompetence,” says Andrew Wetzler, from the NRDC Action Fund, mainly by their failure to follow basic rule-making procedures. They rushed through the process, often shortening or entirely skipping over the required 60 days for public comment, which provided a clear opening for their rule changes to be challenged in court. The administration’s ineptitude has given environmentalists hope that if Trump loses the election, the policy impact of his unrelenting pro-fossil fuel agenda could ultimately be short-lived. “If he’s a one-term wonder,” says Doniger, “the biggest consequence of the Trump administration may just turn out to be lost time.”

But time, at this hour of the climate fight, might be our most precious resource. As we stumble ever closer to the collapse of ice sheets, oceans and forests, the range of meaningful action we could take narrows. There is now believed to be more carbon dioxide in the air than any time in the last 3 million years. Our oceans are on track by the end of this century to become more acidic than they’ve been in some 15 million years — when they were enduring a major extinction event. Those oceans are also rising steadily enough to threaten the homes of 150 million people in the next three decades. “We lost years at a critical time,” says Wetzler. “We’re on the precipice of a number of climate and biological tipping points.” And, he says, we won’t fully understand the impact of that loss for years.

If Biden wins in November, environmentalists say, his administration would have a slim window of opportunity to get our agencies back on track to meet the enormity of the climate crisis. “It means being aggressive from day one,” says Brett Hartl from the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. “And not futzing around — knowing what you’re going to do and implementing it immediately.”

Making up for the lost time won’t be easy. Despite his slap-dash approach, Trump still managed to scramble the trajectory of American climate policy, creating a tangle of legal fights that will have to be cleared up for U.S. climate policy to move forward. And he left almost no part of our environmental regulatory structure untouched — greenlighting fossil fuel infrastructure like the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines, setting us back on emission-reduction goals by reversing the Clean Power Plan and higher fuel-efficiency standards, and gutting the federal agencies that should be at the helm of our climate response.

So how difficult will it be to unscramble this mess? It would have to happen in three parts, environmentalists say, and all three would have to start on day one. First, Biden would have a powerful arsenal of executive tools available to him — if he chooses to use them. A coalition of over 500 environmental groups has already assembled a plan for how he could effectively jumpstart our fight against the climate crisis using executive powers, which would avoid both going through Congress and the lengthy federal rule-making process.

Using executive power, Biden could declare a national climate emergency. It wouldn’t just send an important message to Americans — and the rest of the world — that we’re taking the climate crisis seriously; it would give the administration the power to mobilize the government on a massive scale, like ordering the Secretary of Defense to redirect military spending toward the rapid development of clean energy.

Biden could also immediately order federal agencies to reverse the climate rollbacks Trump introduced through executive order — like allowing oil and gas companies to side-step state approval — and start issuing his own. Most urgently, Biden would have the power to keep more fossil fuels in the ground: He could direct the Secretary of the Interior to halt oil-and-gas leasing and fracking on federal lands, reinstitute the ban on exporting crude oil, and order all federal agencies to deny permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure, like pipelines, storage facilities, and refineries.

He’d also be able to change the ways that money moves through the energy sector. He could prohibit the U.S. government from financing fossil fuel programs overseas and end all Department of Energy loans for fossil fuels stateside, while also requiring the Federal Reserve to manage climate risks — forcing it to acknowledge the current and future impact of climate change on our economy.

Many of these tools were already available in the Obama era, but the administration chose not to use them. For example, “the Clean Air Act is actually quite clear that you have the authority to set national ambient air quality standards,” says Hartl. “It would have been incredibly bold, and it actually wouldn’t have had the problems that the Clean Power Plan had. They could have really moved the needle on greenhouse gases in a very, very powerful way.” But, Hartl says, the Obama administration shied away from these kinds of actions for fear of political consequences.

Biden would face a very different national landscape. At the beginning of this year, two thirds of American adults said that protecting the environment should be a top priority of the federal government, up from only 30 percent at the beginning of Obama’s first term. In a poll last week, likely Democratic voters ranked climate change as the most important issue to them in this election, and Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, has found that talking about climate change could actually help persuade voters who are on the fence to vote for a Democrat. All of this is to say, a Biden administration could have an unprecedented political mandate to take action on the climate crisis.

In addition to issuing executive orders, beginning on day one Biden would also need to start the process of unwinding the deregulation efforts that Trump carried out through the federal rule-making process — like rollbacks on the Endangered Species Act and fuel-emissions standards — and writing new ones to take their place. Environmentalists are confident that a new administration could systematically undo each rollback, but that process could take two years, according to Hartl.

And the Biden administration would need to learn from Trump’s mistakes. Legal challenges from the industries that these regulations impact — the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association — are inevitable, “so you have to go in and be prepared to defend it the first time,” says Hartl. That means following the process to the letter: establishing rules with legal backing from legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts; opening the rule up to public comment; and then presenting a final rule that can stand up in court. Unlike Trump’s deregulation efforts, which were fighting against decades of environmental legislation, the law would be on Biden’s side. “The reality is that when Congress passed these laws,” says Hartl, “they were designed to make the environment better.”

Finally, Biden would have to start hiring like mad. Over the past four years, Trump’s EPA and Interior Department have hemorrhaged talent. The Bureau of Land Management moved the majority of its staff out of Washington, D.C., leading some 70 percent of that staff to resign, and the EPA is nearly as small as it was during the Nixon era, when the EPA was founded. “That pattern, in the most extreme way, is mirrored throughout the environmental agencies,” says Wetzler. “There’s been a real brain drain of people who can’t stand in an agency and support the agenda under the Trump administration, and we’ll have to put back the pieces of very demoralized, and in some cases broken agencies.”

But from those ashes, Biden could build a coalition of climate advocates across his Cabinet. His transition team, and the 4,000 people they appoint, are arguably more influential than any campaign promises he could make. “Personnel is policy,” says Jamal Raad, co-founder and campaign director for Evergreen Action, founded by former staffers of Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign. “We need to choose regulators that have a climate lens,” and that lens doesn’t end at the EPA — it can reach the Department of Agriculture, where we have to reimagine our food production to work with our changing climate, or the Treasury, where regulators could interpret the Dodd-Frank consumer protection act to include climate risks. And within the White House, Raad says, Biden could create a National Climate Council that’s equivalent to the National Economic Council. “There needs to be a plan to reorient the federal government so that climate is a lens in all decision making.”

Heading into the general election, pressure from the left wing of the party shaped Biden’s trillion climate plan, which is “a green new deal in all but name,” wrote activist and journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat. “It’s the most progressive, forward-leaning environmental plan that any candidate for president has ever released,” says Wetzler of the NRDC Action Fund. “It would represent incredible progress.” And while the Biden campaign hasn’t laid out a timetable for the plan, “the Biden team has been signaling their prioritization of climate by making it central to their economic recovery plans,” says Raad. “I think that folks should be cautiously optimistic — but vigilant — on the prospect of climate being a priority early in the first term.”

Of course, this all hinges on what happens in November. And if Trump is re-elected, his administration would have the chance to establish a legacy of more than just incompetence and squandered time. Four more years of Donald Trump being in charge of the environment could permanently alter the American landscape.

In some cases, it would give the Trump administration time to fight back against the legal challenges they face, leaning on courts that they’ve stacked with anti-environmental judges. And damage could be done that will be near impossible to undo — rules can be changed, but mines can’t be unmined. The Trump administration has pursued the largest rollback of federally protected land in U.S. history. Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, for example, which Trump shrunk by 85 percent in 2017, is in the crosshairs of uranium developers. Trump’s move has been mired in lawsuits, but a second term could give them the time to untangle them, and hand the land over to the uranium lobbyists.

Likewise, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was just approved in August, leaving little time for leasing, let alone actual development, before Inauguration Day. But if Trump wins, those leases are likely to move forward, as will the roads, pipelines, and oil rigs that come with them, doing permanent damage to a vital and fragile ecosystem. “Over time you’re looking at millions and millions of acres of fossil fuel leasing,” says Hartl from the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. “And eventually, once you get to the point where they’re actually putting drills in the ground, it’s very hard to undo that. You’re locking in a tremendous amount of fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Trump’s influence on the Supreme Court looms heavily for the environment as well. With Trump already raring to appoint a new justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a second term is likely to offer him a fourth Supreme Court appointment, which would mean the highest court would house seven Republican-appointed justices. When you’re suing over environmental issues, the court’s make-up can be the difference between having your day in court, and not. “For example, there’s a general judicial doctrine called ‘standing,’ or your ability to go to court to pursue your aggrieved interests,” explains Hartl. “Conservative judges want to narrow who has standing as much as possible, because that limits access to the courts. When you’re fighting for the environment, and your interest is protecting an endangered species or the atmosphere or the water, they’ve already made it hard for us to go to court, to have standing. And they can narrow it even further so that we don’t even have recourse. Our ability to just fight for the environment is at stake.”

The climate movement has never been more clear on what it is fighting for and what it needs to do, and finally has a presidential candidate who is signaling some willingness to do it. The prescription is fairly simple: Stop burning fossil fuels so we can begin drawing down the carbon in the atmosphere that’s overheating our planet and disrupting the systems that have supported life on Earth as we know it. The president has a lot of power to take that action, and we have no time to lose. “It’s true that we have 30 years [before an irreversible climate collapse], but when you act on that 30-year scale really affects how radically you have to act,” says Wetzler. “If you think about where the United States was at the beginning of the Trump administration — and where the world was, in terms of taking climate change seriously — it’s a huge, squandered opportunity.” This November, we can choose to act, and set ourselves back on course. “If this is a one-time, Black Swan event, we’re probably going to recover as a nation,” says Doniger. “This is the project of the century.”

This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington comforts Marsha Maus, 75, whose home was destroyed during California's deadly 2018 wildfires, on March 11, 2019 in Agoura Hills, California. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

By Governor Jay Inslee

Climate Week this year coincides with clear skies in Washington state for the first time in almost two weeks.

By Governor Jay Inslee

Climate Week this year coincides with clear skies in Washington state for the first time in almost two weeks.

In just a few days in early September, Washington state saw enough acres burned – more than 600,000 – to reach our second-worst fire season on record. Our worst fire season came only five years ago. Wildfires aren’t new to the west, but their scope and danger today is unlike anything firefighters have seen. People up and down the West Coast – young and old, in rural areas and in cities – were choking on smoke for days on end, trapped in their homes.

Fires like these are becoming the norm, not the exception.


That’s because as the climate changes, our fires change. Climate scientists tell us that if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current path, later this century the average year in Washington will eventually be warmer than the single hottest year of the 20th century. The heat leaves our land and vegetation dry and primed for ignition, with blazes for which our landscapes are not evolved to cope. We’re seeing more acres burned, and more days with our state swathed in hazardous smoke and ash.

Rain, cooler weather, and heroic firefighting efforts have finally tamped down the fires and poor air quality; but the burn scars remain, and they are most acutely felt by those who lost homes, businesses, and loved ones in fires this year.

I have seen the chaos firsthand in recent visits to burned areas both east and west of the Cascade Mountains. As communities in Malden, Bonney Lake, and Graham, Washington, recover from the damage done this month, it’s not enough for us as leaders to help our towns recover from one devastating event after another. We need a plan to stop these increasingly ferocious natural disasters from becoming uncontrollable. The situation demands that climate change be front and center in this plan – because it is the root and stem of the new challenges we face in disaster response.

While wildfires are the most recent, and some of the most visceral images of climate change, they are unfortunately just one manifestation of a climate crisis with far-reaching implications.

From the woods and prairies to the oceans, rivers and streams, we see the damaging effects of climate change. West Coast marine waters are acidifying at twice the global rate, our streams are becoming too warm to support salmon, and our agricultural productivity is falling as a result of record heat.

But we cannot give in to defeat and pessimism. This is not a lost cause.

There is broad consensus on what we need to do to slow and turn back the effects of human-driven climate change: all hands on deck for a global decarbonization that grows jobs and protects communities.

Every year, Climate Week gives us the opportunity to highlight this urgent need. But we need every week to be Climate Week. Given the science, knowledge and tools at our disposal, it is unacceptable that more has not been done to address the terrifying implications of climate change in the 21st century. We have no more time to waste.

We face a powerful oil and gas industry that has sunk its claws into Congress and numerous state governments, and a presidential administration backed by a major political party dedicated to protecting polluters and spreading lies and confusion about the science. On the flip side is the urgent and painfully clear scientific consensus, coupled with the fact that the majority of Americans support action now on climate change.

This is a battle that we can – and must – win, beginning with our votes in November.

And winning the fight won’t just protect our communities from the dangerous effects of climate change. It will create enormous new economic opportunity.

The latest jobs report from E2, a national nonpartisan group of business leaders and investors focused on sustainable energy policies, shows there are already more than 3 million clean energy jobs in America today. If we can find the will to massively accelerate the development of renewable resources, we can create millions of more jobs.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that facts are stubborn things, and denial can be fatal. The federal government’s failure to accept the reality of the Covid-19 crisis once again demonstrated why aloofness is no replacement for proactive leadership.

While we know this administration would be wise to change its destructive path – by bringing our country back into the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, by putting in place strong clean car standards, or by restoring key environmental protections razed by Trump’s cronies – we know they won’t. However, public opinion is clear even after years of misinformation and downright lies. There is not enough oil money in the world to stop the American people from rising up for what’s right, and it’s time to hit back.

Let this Climate Week be a reminder not merely of the long road ahead, but of our own power to make that journey together. Start now, so that in Climate Week 2021 we’ll have a little less distance to cover.

This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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