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Blair Horner: Earth Week 2021

April 22nd was Earth Day.  For over five decades, the world has marked Earth Day as a time to reflect on the state of the environment and to debate how best to improve the only habitat we have.

This year’s Earth Day took place under the shadow of a worldwide pandemic that continues to rage.  Last year was the first year that the world began its struggle with COVID-19, but that struggle obscured the efforts of the Trump Administration to roll back environmental protections.

The Biden Administration has taken a very different tack.  Like its approach to the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden Administration has relied on science to drive its policymaking when it comes to the existential threat posed by climate change.

There is no longer a credible debate over whether human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels to create energy, is warming the planet.  According to the world’s climate experts: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic [human-caused] emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.  Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

Relying on the science to drive its approach to combating global warming, last week the Biden Administration rolled out its plan – calling for the United States to cut by at least 50% its planet-warming emissions by the year 2030. 

That goal is in line with what the world’s experts have said is necessary to curb the worst impacts of global warming.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world would have to curb its carbon emissions by at least 49% by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts from global warming.

For the United States to achieve the President’s goal, the nation would have to drastically reduce its reliance on oil, gas, and coal as fuel.  Instead, among other measures, it would have to ensure that

  • By 2030, half the country’s electricity would need to come from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydropower, up from 20% today.
  • Electric power plants would have to cut their emissions sharply by 2030 and to net zero by 2035.  It will have to do so by relying on non-fossil fuel power.
  • Two-thirds of new cars would have to be battery-powered up from roughly 2% today.
  • All new buildings would be heated by electricity rather than natural gas.

The President’s emissions target requires action by the Congress.  The plan’s success hinges on the President’s proposal to spend trillions of dollars to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.
Of course, the Biden Plan is not relying on the federal government to act alone.  States like New York, California, Massachusetts, and others have aggressive goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  Like New York City, cities across the country are enacting stricter building codes and installing electric vehicle charging stations.  Large companies like General Motors and Google have made specific promises to shift to electric vehicles and cleaner energy.

For those leaders, the science behind the looming climate catastrophe has resulted in actions for change.

But like the Trump Administration, many Republican lawmakers – protective of (and too often beholden to) the fossil fuel industry – are doing all they can to undermine the science and throw roadblocks in front of efforts to deal with climate change.

It is clear from historical records that for the better half of the late 20th Century, oil companies funded industry and university collaborations, broadly in line with the developing public scientific approach.  According to corporate documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, for example, a leading Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991 that greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels.  Nobody disputes this fact.”  The senior Exxon researcher went on to add that there was no doubt those levels would double by the middle of the 21st century.  He may well be right.

Nevertheless, starting in the 1980s, the industry championed climate change denial on multiple fronts and opposed regulations to curtail global warming.  The industry funded organizations critical of climate change treaties, undermining public opinion about the science that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.  Their successes in bamboozling the public have pushed the planet to the brink.

Actions such as those advanced by the Biden Administration are based on science and responsive to the incredible challenges facing the nation and the world.  For the future of our planet, let’s hope that next Earth Day is celebrating a dramatic positive change in the health of the earth.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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