This month, 41 years ago, those of us serving in the Carter administration were heading out the door, our work to address climate change begun but unfinished. In the ensuing four decades, the actions — and inaction — of our federal successors have proven to be increasingly tragic for our children’s future. Now, today, we have a climate crisis.
We’ve learned from these decades that good science and comfortable advocacy are not enough to move the federal establishment off its pro-fossil fuel inertia. As early the Carter administration, climate scientists and environmentalists have urgently issued warnings and presented proposals for dramatically ramping up federal action on renewables and energy efficiency. Yet, every administration has expanded or sustained our U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, typically with the full panoply of federal levers and authorities.
The Biden administration is the first U.S. administration to propose moving out of fossil fuels altogether; its goal of net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases from all sources by 2050 is admirable. However, even meager efforts to move this goal through congressional action are in doubt. Meanwhile, this administration continues to take contradictory actions like approving hundreds of drilling permits every month.
We’ve also learned from examining the long-term causes of this persistent federal failure that the climate issue is complicated and sometimes confusing, and its consequences often seem remote or uncertain. For decades, major media outlets did a poor job clarifying for the public the reality of what was going on and failed to link increasingly extreme weather and “natural” disasters to the climate crisis.
Simultaneously, our flawed democracy has been left vulnerable to the great political power and money of the fossil fuel industry and its allies. Following the tobacco industry playbook, fossil giants so successfully created climate doubters and deniers that they captured a major political party and a presidency.
We’ve also seen the growth of an ideology that, to paraphrase President Reagan, sees government action not as the solution to our problems but as the problem itself. This mindset — fusing nativist impulses with a Chamber of Commerce outlook — embraces a visceral pro-market, anti-regulation bias, resulting in deep distrust. Acknowledging the climate threat requires strong government action, and to this group, that is anathema.
However, the climate issue has grown too large and devastating to ignore and, over the last few years, we’ve seen a significant increase in media attention and climate activism, the latter led most effectively by youth, Indigenous peoples and vulnerable communities who are demanding a new climate politics. We need a massive civic mobilization, on an unprecedented scale, to join this new hard-nosed activism of groups like Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. We need the demand for action raised to the highest decibel our civil society can generate.
The climate movement also needs to join forces with those who are fighting to save our democracy, including human rights and voting rights in America. We need to leave the silo of traditional environmental advocacy and get into the thick of electoral politics, an area of historical neglect by environmentalists.
Over the past 40 years, our executive and legislative branches have failed us badly. Thus, we must also seek climate justice in the judicial branch. Around the world, courts are hearing climate rights claims from young people and others. The United States, a global leader in so many areas, still lags behind its judicial peers abroad when it comes to hearing these cases. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) still opposes the path to trial for Juliana v. United States, where 21 young Americans who have been harmed by their government’s actions causing the climate crisis are seeking constitutional protection. These young plaintiffs are acting under the Constitution’s Due Process Clause’s protection of life, liberty and property. They are seeking a constitutional protection that transcends administrations and politics. I hope President Biden’s DOJ will end its efforts to impede the progress of this case, and instead view Juliana as an opportunity to fulfill the administration’s expressed commitment to address the climate crisis on behalf of our youngest citizens and future generations.
The year 2021 was full of devastating climate disasters. It was also a year of fierce mobilization and citizen action. This year, 2022, must be the year in which we finally see the federal government, in all its branches, fulfilling its historical responsibility to provide for the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity by protecting the climate that has allowed civilization to flourish.
James Gustave Speth was chair of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter administration and author of “They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis.”