Has Congress forgotten the urgent importance of the climate crisis?
When he stepped into the White House, President Biden promised to combat the climate crisis. He insisted that global warming posed an existential threat to humanity and listed climate change as one of his top four priorities. Lawmakers in Congress eagerly beefed up their rhetoric, but since then, they have seemingly forgotten about the urgent importance of the climate crisis. Focusing on other issues may be smart politics, but it has detrimental ramifications for our fight against a rapidly heating planet.
For decades, I have dedicated myself to studying the deterioration of our Earth’s systems. I’ve co-authored various climate emergency reports with some of the world’s leading climate scientists to compile findings and offer recommendations that are comprehensive and effective. For decades, scientists have been waving the warning flag — urging governments and elected officials to do something about the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced. And for decades, those governments and elected officials have taken incremental steps or ignored the problem altogether.
Now, we find ourselves out of time.
As noted in our most recent scientific report, there has been a surge in climate-related disasters, including floods, heatwaves, wildfires and strong hurricanes. A growing body of evidence shows that we are getting close to or have already passed critical tipping points associated with the Earth system. Notably, 2020 was the second-hottest year in history, and the five hottest years on record all occurred since 2015. Ocean acidification is near an all-time record. The Brazilian Amazon rainforest reached a 12-year high of 1.1 million hectares deforested last year, representing a massive loss of carbon stocks. The list goes on.
Many were hopeful that the COVID-19 pandemic would provide the silver lining of blunting CO2 emissions, which did happen in 2020, but those declines are already a thing of the past. Projected estimates of 2021 for CO2 emissions show us blowing past a return to normal, with carbon dioxide concentration already reaching 416 parts per million in April. That marks one of the highest monthly global average concentrations ever recorded since record keeping began.
Notice how all of these findings are punctuated by “highest ever” or “ever recorded.” That’s not some coincidence. This is what happens when you conduct “business as usual” in the face of calamity. This is the natural outcome one should expect when society focuses on short-term gains over long-term solutions. For those who think that radical investments in climate mitigation are expensive now, just wait and see how much climate change will cost us in the long run if we keep trying to handle it on the backend.
For those who bemoan record-shattering heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest, get used to it — 2020 and 2021 will likely be among the coolest years of this century. For those in the American West who dread wildfires, be prepared for megafires likely to be an annual occurrence. For those in the South and on the East Coast who fear hurricane season, expect more Category 4 and Category 5 storms to be the new norm. These are the challenges that President Biden and America’s elected officials face. So, I have one simple question for those currently running our country: What about this moment doesn’t scream “urgent” to you?
Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill — a cornerstone of his climate agenda — is supposed to help ensure that America can tackle the climate crisis. Indeed, the bill includes investments in climate resilience, electric vehicle infrastructure, and electric grid modernization. Yet, it does alarmingly little to curb fossil fuel use, which is a major driver of climate change.
In fact, the bill removes important environmental permitting safeguards, potentially leading to increased fossil fuel production. The bill also includes large subsidies to the logging and timber industry despite the urgent need for strategic climate reserves, which preserve forests that sequester significant carbon. Worst of all, the bill allocates little or no investment in renewables such as solar energy, where China dominates. Instead, billions would be allocated to fossil fuel and other companies in support of unproven carbon capture technologies and a hydrogen-based energy system that would rely on fossil fuels.
Historically marginalized communities keep bearing the brunt of climate disasters, more and more people are becoming displaced, ecosystems are failing, lives are being lost — and by all appearances — our politicians are giving lip service to the defining crisis of our time. That is not acceptable. The climate emergency requires proportional solutions. Passing the more climate-friendly $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill should be the priority. But we also need to set a price on carbon, develop a tangible plan to completely phase out fossil fuels, reform agriculture, curb methane emissions and protect and restore carbon-rich ecosystems on a massive scale.
We must stop humanity’s overexploitation of the planet if we wish to save the world for our children. That’s what it will take to give ourselves a shot, and until politicians’ priorities reflect popular rhetoric, we’ll keep running in circles as our window to act closes.
William J. Ripple, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor at Oregon State University and is director of the Alliance of World Scientists, which has 25,000 member scientists from 180 countries.