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Climate Chaos Amidst the Pandemic: 5 Years After Paris

ColumnDecember 17, 2020
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By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan

It’s been five years since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed, defining the entirely voluntary, unenforceable plan to avert global climate chaos. “We are still not going in the right direction,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said this week, addressing a forum marking the anniversary, held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Paris promised to limit temperature rise to as close as to 1.5 degrees [Celsius] as possible,” he continued, “but the commitments made in Paris were far from enough to get there, and even those commitments are not being met…I call on all leaders worldwide to declare a state of climate emergency.”

World leaders, though, are primarily focused on a different state of emergency. With over 1.6 million people worldwide dead from COVID-19 and over 74 million cases reported, the suffering and economic devastation that the pandemic has caused, disproportionately to poor people and people of color, is inestimable. With President Donald Trump still at the helm, largely ignoring the crisis, the United States is faring worse than any other nation, with more than 300,000 deaths so far. Daily deaths are now topping 3,600, shattering global records. The CDC is projecting 83,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 in the next 3 weeks.

Both catastrophes of the pandemic and the climate need to be dealt with immediately. A coalition of over 380 groups under the banner “Build Back Fossil Free” is demanding urgent, action from President-elect Biden as soon as he takes office. Kassie Siegel from the Center for Biological Diversity said, “Our house is ablaze with a fire fanned by Trump for four years. There’s no time to lose. Biden must take bold action the moment he steps into the Oval Office, without punting to a dysfunctional Congress,” The group is demanding a flurry of executive actions to overturn Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, as well as a green recovery.

A genuine green recovery could spur investment towards a zero-carbon economy, renewable energy infrastructure, efficiency and conservation, while simultaneously addressing structural racism and inequality that cause poor people and people of color, on the frontlines and the fencelines of the climate crisis, to bear the brunt of our addiction to fossil fuels. The United States, as the greatest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for 25% of the carbon dioxide emitted globally since 1751, has a moral responsibility to enact an aggressive green recovery, and to support developing nations to do the same. With President-elect Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump, climate activists are hopeful.

Biden has announced several nominations to positions central to pursuing his climate strategy, including New Mexico Congressmember Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo. If confirmed, Haaland will be the first Native American in history to hold a U.S. Cabinet position. Haaland responded to the nomination, “Climate change is the challenge of our lifetime, and it’s imperative that we invest in an equitable, renewable energy economy.”

Former Secretary of State John Kerry has been named Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, handling climate diplomacy, with a seat on the National Security Council, and former Environmental Protection Administrator Gina McCarthy will be the White House Climate Coordinator, charged with enacting domestic climate policies. Assisting McCarthy will be climate policy expert and Obama White House alum Ali Zaidi.

Days before her appointment, McCarthy tweeted, “Every department in the Biden administration should be centering climate action and clean energy in their federal policies and investments… to advance labor interests and environmental justice in communities across the country.”

Biden has also nominated Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and former Democratic presidential candidate, as Secretary of Transportation, responsible for regulating the most polluting sector of our economy. Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, considered a strong advocate for renewable energy, has been nominated to head the Energy Department, and career environmental attorney Brenda Mallory will head the Council on Environmental Quality, which has a major role confronting environmental racism.

“This is a big victory for our movement,” Varshini Prakash, Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement, which mobilizes youth climate action, said in a statement. “However, the true measure of Biden’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis through an all-government, all-society mobilization is whether they’ll be given the tools, power, and resources to be effective and push boldly…towards 100% clean energy that raises the bar on environmental justice, job quality, wages, and benefits for workers.”

Human-caused climate disruption is impacting the planet on an unprecedented scale, with one catastrophe after another, from extreme drought and wildfires, back-to-back hurricanes and typhoons, habitat loss and extinctions, all leaving death and destruction in their wake. Global heating also drives the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, virtually guaranteeing more pandemics like the one we’re in now. These twin crises demand a global, collective coordinated response, with equitable, free distribution of coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics, and a vigorous, just green recovery.

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