By Mark Hertsgaard
“The Hill We Climb” offers both inspiration and warning in the face of the climate emergency.
For there is always light
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Those are the closing words of “The Hill We Climb,” the stunning poem Amanda Gorman, the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, delivered yesterday at the inauguration of now-president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris. For those worried about climate change, the ever-shining light referenced in Gorman’s poem was perhaps difficult to make out during Donald Trump’s presidency. Now, a new day has dawned that brings great possibilities and equally great challenges.
Biden ran on the strongest climate platform of any major presidential candidate in US history. He was pushed to that stance by his erstwhile rival Senator Bernie Sanders and pressure from a younger generation of activists who insist on centering economic, racial, and gender justice in climate policy. And to Biden’s credit, he agreed to be pushed. Now, Biden has named a team of Cabinet officials and aides who are experienced, diverse, and more committed to climate progress than their counterparts in any previous administration.
Biden and Harris have repeatedly described climate change as one of four intertwined crises—along with the covid pandemic, the collapsed economy, and racial justice—that will be addressed by every part of the federal government. For example, Janet Yellin, Biden’s nominee for Treasury Secretary—who has supported taxing carbon polluters and returning the proceeds to all Americans—said during her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that climate change is “an existential threat” to the US economy, and she pledged to appoint a “very senior” official to oversee Treasury’s handling of the problem.
The 180-degree reversal in US climate policy was also clear from the executive orders president Biden signed on the afternoon of his inauguration. The US will rejoin the Paris Agreement. The Keystone XL pipeline, a landmark climate battle during the Obama years, will be cancelled once and for all. And the Trump administration’s weakening of regulations covering vehicle fuel efficiency, emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases, and other climate-related policies will be reviewed and likely overturned. (The day before Biden’s inauguration, a federal court separately struck down Trump’s attempt to weaken Obama’s Clean Power Plan that would have slashed emissions from electricity generation.)
Now, attention turns to Capitol Hill. Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway says there is little chance of passing transformative climate legislation. After all, Democrats have only a one-vote majority in the Senate, with vice-president Harris casting tie-breaking votes, while Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia has long been hostile to restricting coal and other fossil fuels. Nor do Republicans give any sign of abandoning their lockstep resistance to serious climate action.
Politics is too full of surprises, though, to treat such predictions as prophecy. Upwards of 70 percent of US voters, including majorities among both Democrats and Republicans, now favour increased government spending on solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy. If forced to take an up or down vote, how many members of Congress will oppose such broadly popular policies, especially if such clean energy provisions are included in a larger infrastructure bill, as Biden’s “Build Back Better” strategy envisions?
If Republicans do remain united behind a fossil fuel agenda, the possibilities for passing meaningful climate legislation—even significant portions of a Green New Deal—still might be greater than commonly assumed, as Geoff Dembicki reported in a must-read VICE News article. Experts Dembicki interviewed said that “many Green New Deal-style actions are still possible—making low carbon industries a key part of the pandemic stimulus, creating millions of green jobs, employing vast numbers of laid-off oil and gas workers, and moving much faster than before to clean electricity.” These reforms will not come in “single, sweeping piece of legislation” the way some Green New Deal advocates imagine, said one expert. But sufficient bipartisan support is plausible for an array of measures that “when you add them up are really big,” said another.
Overseas, Biden has a freer hand. Returning to the Paris Agreement is an essential first step, and Biden’s commitment to climate action at home can dissolve some of the international skepticism fostered by previous US administrations. One often overlooked issue to watch: will the Biden administration discourage international development banks and its own lending agencies, such as the US Export-Import Bank, from financing fossil fuel projects in developing economies in Asia, Africa and South America? Another looming question: Will the US under Biden join the European Union, Japan, Great Britain, Canada, and other leading greenhouse gas emitters in formally declaring that humanity faces a “climate emergency”?
For journalists, one thing is clear: climate change will be a major story in Joe Biden’s first year as president. Biden and his aides have ambitious plans that will provide news peg after news peg. The need for well-informed and high visibility coverage, told as often as possible through a human lens, could not be plainer. And there’s nothing partisan in news outlets meeting that need; it’s about human survival. Going forward, journalists, as well as fellow citizens and elected leaders, might well be guided by another passage in Gorman’s fierce, beautiful poem:
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation
Because we know our inaction and inertia
Will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burden
This article originally appeared in AGU’s EOS Magazine and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.