Working towards peace and sustainability

Looking Forward, Hopefully, on Climate Action

The following piece was written by Peaceworks Director Mark Haim and was published as an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune on Nov. 24, 2020.

In many ways the past four years have been a disaster, and none is more profound in terms of the implications for future generations than the willful denial of the reality of human-caused climate change. The Trump administration has done everything in its power to promote increased production, use and export of climate altering fossil fuels, while relaxing regulations that protect not just our climate, but also our air and water and ultimately our health.

The election of Joe Biden, who in the past has been no climate hero, at least presents the possibility of a sorely needed shift in course. Biden upped his game during the primaries and presented voters with what he calls the Biden Plan. It’s relatively ambitious, although some climate advocates would argue that even more urgency is necessary. That said, many aspects of the Biden Plan would be very helpful, but require legislation that passes both houses of Congress. And, even if both Georgia Democrats prevail in the January runoff, it will likely be difficult to pass much of the necessary enabling legislation.

Climate advocates across the country, therefore, are focusing on what President Biden can do on his own through executive orders and directions to executive branch agencies. While what might come to mind immediately is rejoining the Paris Agreement, and this should be pursued, it is largely symbolic.

We do need a public declaration of urgency, and this will be best accomplished, with maximum impact, through the declaration of a National Emergency. This declaration would both signal to the American people the priority of climate action and also unlock certain powers that the Biden administration can use to hasten the deployment of clean, renewable energy—wind, solar, hydro-kinetic and more—facilitating a more rapid phaseout of dirty energy.

Lined up behind the effort to get Team Biden to join Team Climate is a loose coalition of nearly 500 organizations, including well known national groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, 350.org and the Center for Biological Diversity, as well as many state or local organizations, including, in our area, Mid-Missouri Peaceworks. Their Climate President Action Plan (CPAP) includes ten steps that can be taken within the first ten days of the new administration.

The plan has, at its foundation, the recognition that we need to do a 180-degree turn on fossil fuels. Rather than further exploration, drilling or the construction of pipelines, terminals and other fossil fuel infrastructure, we need, instead, to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency that will allow a rapid fossil fuel phaseout.

Key first steps include a halt to the sale of fossil fuel leases on public lands, and a ban on fracking on these lands. The incoming administration also has the power to reinstate the ban crude oil exports and to limit other fossil fuel exports.

Further, the EPA has significant power under the Clean Air Act to regulate pollution which the courts have agreed includes greenhouse gases as well as toxic emissions that pollute the air, water and soil. President Biden can, through an executive order, have the EPA designate greenhouse pollutants as “criteria air pollutants.” They can then set a “science-based national pollution cap” (National Ambient Air Quality Standard).

Another crucial step that can be done by executive order once a national emergency is declared is the redirection of funds from the Pentagon to the construction of renewable energy infrastructure. Given that fact that the U.S. military budget is greater than the next ten biggest spenders combined, a significant amount of money can be reallocated to meet this very real threat to our security while maintaining a budget that is far greater than that of any potential adversary or combination of adversaries.

The CPAP is rooted in climate justice and a recognition of the urgency of the climate crisis. One can learn the details at https://climatepresident.org. Locally, for the past four years activists have focused largely at the municipal level, working for incremental change through efforts like Columbia’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. This important work must continue. That said, we now recognize the possibility to generate a paradigm shift, with our federal government ramping up to scale efforts to address climate change effectively.

We don’t, however, have the luxury of time we once did. And we are unsure how ready Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are to take on the powerful fossil fuel industry. We need to press them, which is why I’d like to urge all who are concerned to speak out on this, using social media to promote the CPAP, and to contact the incoming administration via https://go.joebiden.com/page/s/contact-us to let them know your concerns.

The die is not yet cast and much depends upon what the American people do over the next few months. That said, for the first time in years, there is reason on the climate front to be hopeful. Let’s make the most of this.