In just six weeks, we’ve seen three major climate proposals indicating that the factions of the Democratic Party are aligning on climate policy after a decade of disarray and disagreement. This policy platform on climate shows how much interest groups and politicians agree on and lays critical groundwork for enacting a transformative green recovery and a just transition to a clean energy future. It illuminates a path to finally passing big, bold climate policy solutions at the national level.
If you aren’t someone who spends time in the weeds of climate change news, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. With the pandemic raging, the economy destabilizing, and a rational racial justice/policing crisis, unification of the left on climate policy hardly made headlines. Yet if you are hoping that after the next election we will enact a green recovery and a just transition to a clean energy future, take a moment to celebrate, because such action just got a lot more likely.
Here’s a quick summary: On June 30th, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued its report . This included a detailed Climate Crisis Action Plan put together by House Democrats. On July 8, the Biden-Sanders unity task force on climate (chaired by John Kerry and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) issued its policy recommendations. Finally, on July 14, Joe Biden released his Build Back Better proposal on climate, a $2 trillion proposal for clean energy investments, economic stimulus, and a transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Here’s how journalist David Roberts summarized this in Vox: “For the first time in memory, there’s a broad alignment forming around a climate policy platform that is both ambitious enough to address the problem and politically potent enough to unite all the left’s various interest groups.”
These plans have a lot in common: they all set standards for net-zero emissions by 2050 (or sooner), they all focus on climate justice, and they all include large-scale public investment.
- Setting standards: Two-thirds of US emissions come from sectors where clean alternatives are already available–cars, electricity, and buildings. Details vary, but the plans agree on a common core of strong performance standards and incentives for these big three emitters to make rapid progress on emissions in the next ten years. Doing so can get us a long way toward meeting the 2030 emissions reduction goals the IPCC says are critical to prevent the worst, most catastrophic climate change impacts.
- Climate justice: Unions, fossil fuel workers, and frontline communities helped develop these plans. They include polices such as coal worker transition programs, equity mapping to identify vulnerable communities and send public investment there first, and incentives that favor union workers for clean energy jobs.
- Large public investment: Support for green industries, manufacturing, research, and job creation is in these proposals, as are a number of ideas for combining recovery from the COVID-10 economic crisis with transformative climate solutions.
Pre-pandemic, when I used to give in-person talks about climate solutions, I sometimes ended with this quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” This summer, the left’s new unity on climate policy makes transformative climate progress seep a little less impossible.
If you are interested in more details about these plans, see links below.
Carlie Clarcq, “Biden’s clean energy plan proposes economic recovery through green investments,” Climate Change, July 23, 2020.
David Roberts, “At last, a climate policy platform that can unite the left,” Vox, July 9, 2020.
I bet you could use some good news today. I’ve been following three climate progress stories this month that illustrate movement toward a safer climate and a better world. Below are quick summaries of each of them with links you can use to learn more. I hope these stories encourage and inspire you!
One: The fossil fuel sector is increasingly losing its social license to operate. This month, the Vatican urged the 1.2 billion Catholics on earth to divest from fossil fuel investments. This is the latest in a string of increasingly big wins for the fossil fuel divestment movement. Since January, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and others have pledged to stop investing in the dirtiest fossil fuels. Many faith groups, universities and pension funds have declared that it is unethical (and unwise) to invest in the destruction of the earth’s climate. If the financial sector stops financing fossil fuel extraction refining and transport, the chances of preventing a runaway climate catastrophe increase.
Two: More businesses with deep pockets and vast resources are announcing plans and beginning to act to decarbonize their energy systems and contribute to climate solutions. This month Lyft committed to transitioning to 100% EVs (electric vehicles) by 2030. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., as well as a huge contributor to local air pollution. Lyft’s commitment will help reduce these impacts, and it will also increase trust in EVs, which is a critical step for widespread adoption. Ford Motors announced plans for carbon neutrality by 2050, which will require a huge commitment to EVs and other climate-friendly changes. Other companies that have recently upped their commitments to climate action include Unilever, (one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world), Amazon, Microsoft, and Ikea.
Three: Renewable energy is taking over the U.S. electricity grid, even without help from the federal government. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this trend, and a grid that’s powered by clean energy is rapidly becoming both technically feasible and economically competitive. A new study shows that falling costs combined with breakthroughs in storage have made it feasible to get to 90% renewable electricity in the U.S. in just 15 years while lowering costs. This level of technological progress and economic viability for renewables was unimaginable ten or even five years ago, but today, we have the ability to quickly transition our electrical grid to renewables affordably.
Silvio Marcacci – Forbes, June 9, 2020
Renewable energy has been considered too expensive and too unreliable to power our grid, but new research has overturned that trope for good. Plummeting wind, solar, and storage prices have fallen so fast that the United States can reach 90% clean electricity by 2035 – without raising customer costs, and actually decreasing wholesale power costs 10%…
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As an organization that works for a healthy planet and a safer world, we recognize that health and safety are enjoyed unequally across racial lines in our country. We recognize that addressing these inequalities must be an integral part of our mission and daily work. We stand in solidarity with people calling for racial justice, and we urge our members and supporters to do the same.
We offer some links to educate yourself on the links between racism and the climate crisis, and urge you to learn more about what you can do:
Read up on the links between racism and the environment, Somini Sengupta, New York Times, June 5, 2020.
We don’t have to halt climate action to fight racism, Mary Annaise Heglar, HuffPost, June 12, 2020.
Climate change tied to pregnancy risk affecting black mothers most, Christopher Flavelle, New York Times, June 18, 2020.
Black, Hispanic, and Latino people care about climate change the most, Drew Costley, OneZero, May 6, 2020.
PM2.5 polluters disproportionately and systemically affect people of color in the United States,
Christopher W. Tessum et al., Science Advances, April 28, 2021.
Umair Irfan – Vox, 6/8/20
With clear roads, clear skies, oil prices plummeting, businesses needing bailouts, and political capital to spend, countries like South Korea, Italy, and France have decided that the pandemic response is an opportunity to rethink energy, infrastructure, industry, and government in ways to cut pollution and reduce emissions contributing to climate change…
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Working from home, I look out my window at the altered world. No cars pass for long stretches but walkers are always about, and I hear bird songs I’ve never noticed before. I drive so rarely that I haven’t charged my electric car since mid-March. Of all the changes (many of them painful) brought by the pandemic, road traffic decline might be the one I like most. This quieting down of our engines, it turns out, might also be providing us with a precious gift–a little bit more time to avert the full-scale climate catastrophe we are heading for.
As you’ve probably heard, COVID-19 restrictions have caused a worldwide decline in carbon emissions. According to an analysis by the scientists who track the annual Global Carbon Budget, at the peak of COVID-19 restrictions in early April, global CO2 emissions were down 17%. A whopping 43% of lowered emissions came from road traffic decline. Depending on the lifting of restrictions and our behavior in the coming months, this analysis predicts a 4-7% decline in overall greenhouse gas emissions for the entire year.
Many pundits have already weighed in on the meaning of this carbon drop—some framing the emissions decline as impressively large, others as surprisingly small. But what I see in this pause in greenhouse gas emissions growth is possibility. In all likelihood, this pandemic moment presents our very last real chance to preserve a livable climate.
As a climate advocate, I think a lot about how we might still bring greenhouse gas emissions down fast enough to prevent the full-scale climate catastrophe we are hurtling toward. According to the UN’s most recent scientific report, this requires us to begin steep emissions reductions by 2020 to get on a pathway to 50% emissions reductions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. Few people have really taken onboard what this means or what the stakes are. I believe many in the youth climate movement do understand the science and the stakes. That’s why they are so angry and so scared.
Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising 1% per year for the past decade. Now a terrible global event has had the side effect of reversing this upward trend for 2020. This has bought us a bit more time, offering us just one last golden opportunity.
I’m not advocating giving up our modern lifestyles, or living under COVID-19 restrictions any longer than necessary: in fact, just the opposite. I’m searching for a pathway we can take to cut emissions fast enough to have a chance of preventing massive human suffering, preserving modern civilization, and allowing our children a shot at a habitable world.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, tackling the climate crisis is within our technological, policy, and economic capabilities. Advances in clean energy and energy efficiency are continuing to make decarbonizing more feasible and ever cheaper. Capable experts are devising workable plans that combine economic recovery from COVID-19 with rapid decarbonization. Polls show a strong majority of Americans agree it’s time to tackle the climate crisis.
To help this moment become a turning point, we can each stick with those changes that have surprised us by making us happier (for me, this includes less driving, more walking, and giving up the gym). We can advocate for changes in our communities that speed decarbonization and increase well-being (for example, cities making more room for walkers permanent). We can block the bailing out of fossil fuel companies and support clean energy and energy efficiency projects instead. We can give our time, money and votes to elect climate champions in the next election, and each election that follows. Then we can advocate for passing bold policies for a climate-friendly recovery and a livable future.( Here’s one way to help).
This is not a rehearsal. The recovery we choose will determine the fate of our species, so let’s do this!
Ramez Naam – Blog, 5/14/20
Over the past decade, Ramez Naam has made forecasts about the future costs of clean energy technologies, including solar. In this post, he explains that Solar has plunged in price faster than anyone – including he – predicted…
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Jeff Tollefson – Nature, 9/18/19
Nature documents the scale of the climate challenge in an infographic that explores energy use, carbon dioxide pollutions and issues of climate justice. Although most countries have pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions sharply, the data show…
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Earth Sciences Communication Team – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, last updated 4/30/20
The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling: global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheet, glacial retreat, decreased snow cover, sea level rise, declining arctic sea ice, extreme events, ocean acidification…
READ NASA'S CLIMATE FACTS
E360 Digest – Yale Environment 360, 2/18/19
For visual learners: Two new videos visualize how drastically global temperatures have changed since 1900–and how they will likely continue to change up to 2100. The visualizations, created by Antti Lipponen of the Finish Meteorological Institute, depict 200 years of climate change in less than a minute…
SEE CLIMATE VIDEOS