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Climate action: How Biden can save our children

Climate action: How Biden can save our children
© Mark Makela/Getty Images

The incoming Biden administration has a momentous opportunity to change the trajectory of the climate crisis before it is past the point of no return, and in doing so keep the door open to a livable, sustainable and just future for our children. 

What the new administration does about our national energy system and greenhouse gas pollution on Jan. 21 and beyond matters immensely to our ability to preserve a livable climate for our posterity.

Over the last half-century, the federal government has turned the climate crisis into political ping-pong — denialism under the Trump administration and incrementalism by Democrats — and those in the nation’s seats of power have acted as if their decisions do not determine the fate of children today and innumerable future generations.

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It’s obvious to every school child that science should be key in deciding energy policy. Yet no president or Congress in the nation’s history has made scientific evidence around the protection of public health and safety the deciding factor in setting energy policies, and today the cumulative emissions from fossil fuel consumption that the federal government has authorized, permitted and subsidized exceed those of any other nation.

And although it appears to be a positive move, reentering the Paris Agreement is no panacea. Other countries serious about climate action know that U.S. participation in global climate talks ultimately led to a watered down, non-binding pact. The hard truth is that this country has obstructed meaningful climate action and is today, under bipartisan leadership, the top oil and gas producer in the world. They're not based on science, but even if the Paris targets of keeping our planet from heating no more than 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above the natural climate system are met, our children will live in a more dangerous world than today’s — one in which we will not stop our ice sheets from melting, seas from destroying coastal cities, storms and wildfires from worsening and children from becoming increasingly threatened with physical and mental health problems.

Paris may be good diplomacy, but it is no cure, for we urgently need the cooler climate in which human civilization developed, not the hotter one Paris allows. 

We all know COVID-19 is no ordinary flu, but an emergency pandemic requiring Operation Warp Speed to develop 300 million doses of safe, effective vaccines in order to save the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans. There is no question that this public health crisis has received more sustained presidential attention — whether sufficient or not — than the climate crisis has received since Lyndon B. Johnson first issued a White House report about the threat in 1965.

The changing climate promises to be far more harmful than even COVID-19 to the health of people — particularly children — in causing illness and death, creating food shortages, destroying property and livelihoods and tanking our economy.

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For young people, especially, the reality is terrifying. They are on the frontlines of climate disasters and represent many of the marginalized communities that will be most severely and quickly impacted by the climate collapse. They have asked our federal courts to protect their constitutional rights from the harms created by their government’s energy policies.

The Biden administration could assume the same approach as its predecessors and view the climate crisis as a mere regulatory challenge requiring slow steps forward instead of the national emergency that it is. Or the new administration can recognize how the government’s energy policies are causing ongoing violations of children’s rights and it can acknowledge the judiciary as a vital democratic check on government conduct — especially when so much is at stake. Government policy can transform the U.S. energy system from one powered by fossil fuels to one powered by clean energy.

With no time to waste, the Biden administration should immediately create an “Operation Warp Speed” plan for the climate crisis by declaring a national climate emergency, giving a continual public pulpit to climate scientists, embracing the role of courts to declare the constitutional violations suffered by victims of climate change, and immediately preparing and implementing a science-based climate recovery plan.

Julia Olson is executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm that litigates on behalf of young victims of climate change. Olson founded the firm in 2010 and is the recipient of awards that include the Rose-Walters Prize for Global Environmental Activism and the Kerry Rydberg Award for Environmental Activism. Follow the organization on Twitter: @youthvgov.