Climate change is a crisis of global magnitude, threatening nations regardless of size, location, and power. The year 2020, the warmest on record, was particularly ominous for our climate. Arctic sea ice levels sunk to record lows and greenhouse gasses peaked to record highs. Natural disasters proliferated, impacting lives and economies for decades to come. A growing body of literature suggests that the threat is exacerbating violence: a Red Cross report found that 12 of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change are mired in conflict. The consequences of climate change cannot be overstated, leaving the international community with an opportunity to coordinate a global response.
In December 2015, representatives from 195 countries came together in Paris, France to strike a historic international climate accord. The 31-page pact, known as the Paris Climate Agreement, acknowledges the dangers of climate change and provides a framework for signatory countries to respond. The agreement is the result of decades of negotiation and sets a clear goal: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” To accomplish this, each country set its own emissions reduction target and is responsible for achieving it. Parties to Paris set their first round of targets in 2015 and are now working to update them.
While governments are responsible for setting climate targets, progress on climate sustainability is not limited to government efforts and requires the private sector to make significant contributions. Despite the global economic downturn associated with COVID-19, renewable energy has shown strong resilience in the global market. Individual firms are also addressing climate in bold new ways. In January 2021, General Motors, the largest U.S. automaker, announced that it would become carbon neutral by 2040.
Citizens across the globe are overwhelmingly concerned with the existential threat posed by climate change and are playing an increasingly influential role in climate action. On September 20, 2019, an estimated four million people in more than 150 countries took to their streets demanding climate action. Led by hundreds of thousands of young people, including then-16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, the global climate strike was likely the largest climate rally in history. The unprecedented turnout was part of a week-long coordinated movement, coinciding with the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and climate summit taking place alongside it.
I believe climate change is real. I also believe that we as Americans have the ability to come up with climate change solutions that can benefit our economy and our way of life.— Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) Hear this quote in context
Days after the climate strike, the U.N. Climate Action Summit convened at the UNGA in New York. Ahead of the gathering, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on world leaders to bring with them “concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.” Ultimately, however, few meaningful commitments were made. Although 65 countries announced efforts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, climate experts, advocates, and members of the diplomatic community expressed their disappointment at the lack of real action from larger nations. Major corporations also announced their own targets to curtail climate change, though they too were criticized by climate experts for their overall lack of ambition.
Two days after the summit, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a new report warning of the dire threat from climate change to the world’s oceans and ice sheets. The sweeping report, written by more than 100 authors from 36 countries, referenced approximately 7,000 scientific publications. Upon the report’s release, Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, emphasized the range of consequences resulting from changes in the ocean and cryosphere: “The open sea, the Arctic, the Antarctic and the high mountains may seem far away to many people, but we depend on them and are influenced by them directly and indirectly in many ways – for weather and climate, for food and water, for energy, trade, transport, recreation and tourism, for health and wellbeing, for culture and identity.”
The United States is not immune from the terrible impacts of climate change. In 2020, record-breaking wildfires blazed across California and Colorado, burning nearly four million acres in the former state (the previous record being two million acres in 2018). Meteorologists were forced to move beyond the alphabet and into Greek letter names due to the 30 tropical storms that ravaged coastal communities. By September, the damage wrought by climate-induced natural disasters had hit annual records. The estimated cost of each natural disaster in the U.S. was over one billion dollars, for a total of $95 billion. As then-Secretary of State John Kerry stated in 2014, “The costs of [climate] inaction are catastrophic.”
The Biden-Harris administration has responded by making the response to climate change a priority. Immediately upon being inaugurated, President Biden signed executive orders rejoining the Paris Agreement, revoking the federal permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and initiating a plan to review the Trump administration’s rollbacks of high-emissions industry regulations. President Biden’s climate plan further commits to net-zero emissions by 2050, investments in climate-resistant infrastructure, and commits the U.S. to global climate leadership. Leaders around the world have already warmly received the Biden-Harris administration’s return to climate action, reaffirming President Biden’s strong message to allies that America is back.
The science is clear: only concerted and cooperative international action can adequately respond to this global challenge. That’s why we’re asking Members of Congress to publicly support the Biden-Harris administration’s climate policies, the Paris Agreement, and bold U.S. global leadership on climate change through robust national climate policy, federal scientific research, and foreign assistance.
Here’s what you can do to help:
Scientific American, December 2020When Rain Turns to Dust
International Committee of the Red Cross, July 2020A Security Threat Assessment of Climate Change
The Center for Climate & Security, February 2020Why Women are Central to Addressing Climate Change
The Japan Times, July 2019The Climate Crisis, Migration, and Refugees
Brookings Institution, July 2019The Emissions Gap Report 2017
A UN Environment Synthesis Report, November 2017Climate Change and Global Warming
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)10 Ways the Biden Administration Can Tackle Climate Change
World Resources InstitutePlan for Climate Change and Environmental Justice