On Earth Day President Joe Biden is convening a historic two-day virtual climate summit that heralds the return of the United States to the forefront of the climate fight. On April 20-22, Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin will come together with 38 other world leaders to discuss global efforts to address climate change. The summit will include all 17 leaders of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate who together are responsible for about 80 percent of global emissions and GDP. It also includes the heads of countries that are especially vulnerable to climate impacts or are demonstrating strong climate leadership.
The fact that this event is taking place on Earth Day will add to a proud legacy of climate action. The Earth Day movement has contributed to a raft of climate-friendly actions including the planting of hundreds of millions of trees, global education efforts, $7 billion green school grants, 2.7 billion “Acts of Green,” 50 million citizen science data points, 36 million cleanup volunteers, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and billions of Earth Day participants from all around the world.
This is the 51st Earth Day and as stated on the Earth Day Network website, this is the year that “The World Turns to Climate Action”. As we look back over the history of Earth Day there have been triumphant moments like the signing of the Paris Agreement, but there have also been stunning defeats, like the election of Donald Trump and his dysfunctional governance.
Last year, the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and failed U.S. federal leadership made Earth Day 2020 unlike any that preceded it. One year ago we were struggling to hope that we would soon get back on track with our efforts to address climate change. As we approach the second half of 2021, we have reason to believe that we have learned something invaluable from 4 years of dismal U.S. leadership and a plague that has killed millions around the world.
This year Earth Day is taking place against the hopeful backdrop of a new American administration led by Joe Biden who has already begun to make good on his promise to prioritize climate action. This is a far cry from his disgraced predecessor who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, derided science-based climate action, and eviscerated environmental protection, all while advancing the interests of fossil fuels and undermining renewable energy.
This year the theme of Earth Day is “Restore Our Earth™” which is about focusing on reducing our environmental footprint and fixing the damage we have done. This includes natural processes like natural climate solutions (NCS), emerging green technologies like carbon dioxide removal (CDR), and a wide range of innovative thinking that can help restore the world’s ecosystems.
President Biden gives us reason to think that we will address climate change. He led the most climate-friendly presidential ticket in U.S. history. On day one his administration went to work, they then rolled out an ambitious climate plan that promises to create good-paying jobs. The plan includes an ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target, carbon neutrality in the energy sector by 2035, and economy-wide by 2050. Biden has curtailed domestic fossil fuel production and his forthcoming multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure package is expected to massively expedite the growth of the green economy. The White House has also indicated that they will encourage other nations to ratchet up their climate ambitions. It is not hyperbole to say that Biden’s decision to put climate action at the heart of his policy agenda represents the last best hope for the planet
Last year we struggled to find hope, but this year we celebrate Earth Day as the world begins a new chapter in the truly global effort to combat climate change. As hard as it has been the pain of recent years may have given birth to a paradigm-changing social tipping point. If nothing else, recent events have forced us to acknowledge both the perils and the possibilities. It showed us that we can reduce emissions, and it gave us insights into fault lines like systemic racism and our unsustainable preoccupation with growth.
In the coming year, vaccines are expected to address the community health threat from COVID-19, but it will take far longer to address climate change. The problem is that the window of opportunity to act is rapidly closing. We must act quickly if we are to avoid surpassing upper-temperature threshold limits that may trigger tipping points from which we may not be able to recover. We are at a crossroads, it is now or never.
This may prove to be the most important year in the history of modern civilization. A recent U.S. brokered climate deal with China buoys hopes that we will do what we must. The fact that the world’s largest economy and second-largest emitter of CO2 is once again leading the charge against climate change bodes well not only for the next UN COP meeting but for the future of life on Earth.