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Finally, some climate change momentum 

President-elect Joe Biden's climate envoy nominee former Secretary

President-elect Joe Biden's climate envoy nominee former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at The Queen theater on Nov. 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.  Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

The fight against climate change is about to get a much-needed boost.

That’s important. Because even as Americans this year have been focused understandably on the pandemic and the presidential election, climate change continues to threaten our existing world.

The boost begins with a change in attitude that should result in a change in policy. President-elect Joe Biden acknowledges reality. Rejection of science will give way to an acceptance of facts. And an understanding of the urgency of the battle will underscore the difficult but needed decisions that lie ahead.

The evidence from the natural world that humanity must change its ways continues to be compelling:

  • 2020 will be one of the three hottest years on record, topped by a 130-degree reading in Death Valley that was the highest on Earth in at least 80 years. Phoenix suffered 53 days of 110-degree heat; the previous record was 33.
  • The year has seen a record 30 named tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic, some of which brought tremendous amounts of destructive rainfall. Damages are estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. Central America was lashed by two hurricanes so devastating that hundreds of Hondurans who lost homes and/or livelihoods set off last week in a walking caravan trying to reach the United States.
  • Record wildfires scorched Australia, the United States and the world’s largest wetlands in Brazil, burning more than 9 million acres in the western United States alone.
  • The Arctic suffered a prolonged heat wave with triple-digit temperatures, fires ravaged Siberia, and record low amounts of Arctic sea ice were recorded, with disturbing implications for the rest of the world on issues like rising sea levels.

As the world marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate change agreement Saturday, about 10% of Earth has already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius compared to levels before the Industrial Revolution, the tipping point that nations in the Paris pact pledged to work to stay within.

Start of a good plan

So it’s good that Biden plans to return the United States to the Paris accord after President Donald Trump’s ill-advised withdrawal. Biden also showed his grasp of the moment by naming former Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped negotiate the Paris deal, as his climate envoy and giving him a seat on the National Security Council.

This is one area of policy in which Biden doesn’t lack ambitious ideas. He has proposed to spend $2 trillion over four years on clean energy and infrastructure, like incentivizing auto companies to produce low-emission vehicles, offering rebates to Americans to buy them, investing in electric vehicle charging stations, and creating more public transit.

It’s a strong blueprint that would move the economy toward Biden’s goal of net-zero emissions — when greenhouse gas missions are balanced by the removal of carbon from the atmosphere — by 2050 and, in the process, create millions of jobs. He intends to show that going green is good economics, too. But the plan might be difficult to get through Congress, especially if two runoffs next month in Georgia leave the Senate in Republican hands. A Senate bill with some GOP support to plant 1 trillion trees to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is promising, especially if it leads to more cooperation on climate. And while helpful, the bill is hardly sufficient.

But Biden’s plan rightly also includes steps that don’t need congressional approval — like executive action to reinstate an Obama-era mandate that planning for climate change be part of policy at every federal agency. Biden also will seek to undo Trump’s damaging rollbacks of climate change regulations, and he has an intriguing idea for a Civilian Climate Corps, which would employ young people on projects like planting trees and restoring wetlands.

Some encouraging steps

Biden will take office amid encouraging developments. The six largest American banks say they won’t finance oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Trump last month opened to drilling for the first time. New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said last week he would direct the state’s $226 billion pension fund to divest from fossil-fuel companies by 2040 to fight climate change, the latest and largest such fund to act. Companies increasingly are announcing green steps like setting net-zero emissions goals. Climate change risks are increasingly being incorporated into financial analyses. And more Americans are realizing the future is fraught, especially if they live in coastal areas or fire-prone regions and face possible eviction.

But momentum can be fragile, and while emissions have dropped temporarily during the pandemic, the trend of rising temperatures will continue unless there is fundamental change away from what UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently called humanity’s "suicidal" war on nature. "The state of the planet is broken," Guterres said. "Nature always strikes back, and it is already doing so with growing force and fury."

Making a hard pivot from Trump’s denialism is critical, and resuming America’s climate leadership will be important. Biden seems ready to embrace that role, and has spoken about climate change in congratulatory calls he’s received from foreign leaders.

Soon enough, however, action must supplant words or the war on climate change will be lost.

— The editorial board