This fall, for the first time in a decade, our government has a real chance to take action and address the climate crisis. But our chance is a narrow one. To understand the nature of this moment, it could be helpful to trace how we have learned about this crisis over the past 30 years and think about what that means for our actions now.
In the early 1990s, I was a high school student in Wisconsin, and climate change was a concept for the distant future. Then, we called it “the greenhouse effect,” and although most respected scientists accepted the fact that carbon dioxide was causing the planet to warm, they disagreed on how quickly that warming would occur. To the rest of us, it definitely did not seem an imminent threat. Of course, to a teenager, any danger that is more than five years away seems unfathomable, but most adults at that time also didn’t recognize the importance of the issue.
In the 2000s, I was a young adult, working as a high school teacher and administrator. Scientists had focused their evidence to indicate that climate change — now referred to as “global warming” — would have a major impact on our planet in the coming decades. Like many people, I saw the film An Inconvenient Truth and my concern started to grow. What would rising temperatures, melting ice caps, and changing weather mean for me, and especially for my children or grandchildren, if I had them? Unfortunately, many other people still didn’t recognize the concern. Global warming was something to ignore, or a problem for future generations to figure out.
By the 2010s, we called this problem climate change. Congress made an attempt to address carbon dioxide emissions through legislation known as cap and trade, but after the Tea Party rose and Congress created Obamacare, there was little chance that any climate legislation would be passed. I became a parent, and my theoretical concern for my child turned into real, physical alarm. As more people became concerned, governments from around the world joined in the non-binding Paris Climate Agreement, but it was always going to be a challenge for the American government to keep the commitments it had made. And with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, any possible progress was put on hold.
Now, it is 2021. Joe Biden is President. More media coverage connects climate change and weather disasters. More people understand that climate change is caused by humans and that it is increasing risks for people around the globe. But as far as we have come, we seem just as far as ever from a solution. In a recent radio story I heard, the reporter claimed, “We’re no longer trying to prevent climate change. It’s here, so let’s adapt.” Some people are proposing adding aerosol gases to the atmosphere to reflect sunlight or dumping minerals into the ocean to grow algae which could capture carbon dioxide.
On climate change, we have gone from ignoring it, to avoiding it, to hoping we could prevent it in the future, to now abandoning prevention in favor of adaptation and wild technological schemes. But I can think of few bigger mistakes than walking away from prevention. It is true: at this point, we cannot avoid the effects of climate change. We are already feeling them. But until we stop pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, those effects will get worse and worse.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a series of reports that have called attention to the climate crisis over the past few years. In 2018, they issued a report that indicated that we are running out of time to address climate change — we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 45% by 2030 to prevent 1.5 degrees of warming. Just this year, they issued another report that indicates that the world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees, and that we are nowhere close to cutting carbon emissions as much as we need to stave off warming of 1.5 degrees — in fact, on the current trajectory, we are headed toward 3 or more degrees of warming, which would result in catastrophic impacts. As a result of these reports and the steady drumbeat of environmental disasters this year, more than half of Americans are now alarmed or concerned about climate change, with this rate having risen dramatically over the last decade.
And just as support for action is growing, Democrats have taken control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency. And Congress can pass climate action through the budget reconciliation process. For them to do so, all 50 Senate Democrats and nearly all House Democrats must vote to include climate provisions in this package.
Some may argue for radical action, and I believe in such action. But I believe even more strongly in what is feasible in this moment, when the balance of power is so tight in Congress. One significant action that has a chance of passing through budget reconciliation is a price on carbon emissions. This would involve charging corporations for each ton of greenhouse gases that they emit, or that their products emit, and increasing the cost to corporations over time. This rising price would push corporations to develop carbon-free alternatives. Then, the government could redistribute the collected funds through a carbon dividend, or cashback, to American households to defray any increased costs for any goods or service. Research has shown that this policy will push us toward a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030. It does not do everything we need, but it puts us on the right track.
We are at a decisive moment. Our world needs us to take some action to quickly reduce, and then eliminate, our carbon emissions. Political action, however challenging, is possible. But Congress will not adopt this or any climate policy unless we force the issue. It is on each of us to contact our Senators and Representatives to tell them that we want to see climate provisions in the budget reconciliation package. Please, reach out and let them know that they must act — that we must act. Action is more feasible now than at any time in the past thirty years. This is our time.
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