This post was contributed by Frank F. Islam as part of our April spotlight series on sustainability and the environment. Frank is an entrepreneur, civic leader and thought leader based in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own.
On April 22, 2020, when most of the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the United States did not participate. On Earth Day this year, the U.S. will do more than participate.
President Joe Biden will host a Leaders’ Climate Summit on Earth Day. The Summit will commemorate the signing of the Paris Agreement five years ago, and to encourage leaders of major nations to increase their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The political climate in Washington, D.C. has changed regarding the devastating impact that climate change is having on our planet. In his first weeks in office, President Biden demonstrated his personal leadership and commitment on climate change by reentering the Paris Agreement, revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and directing the Interior Department to “pause” new oil and gas leases on federal lands.
The real test of the Biden administration’s leadership on climate change will come in what it does domestically and internationally in the climate change arenas. Several experts and think tanks have already provided recommendations on what the U.S. climate leadership should look like and can accomplish.
The Brookings Institution proposes the following: Embed climate action into U.S. society, advance subnational diplomacy, announce an ambitious yet credible U.S. Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), revisit U.S. domestic financial regulations and international climate finance, and support international efforts and national strategies.
Assessing those recommendations demands experienced and expert leadership. President Biden understood this, and that is why he named former Secretary of State John Kerry to a cabinet level position as his Special Presidential Envoy on Climate, and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to be the White House National Climate Advisor.
When he was Secretary of State, Kerry played a pivotal role in bringing nearly 200 nations together to sign the Paris Agreement. When McCarthy was EPA Administrator the agency launched numerous initiatives to decrease air pollution, reduce greenhouse gases and protect water resources, which transformed the nation’s environmental policies and practices.
Still, Kerry and McCarthy have a challenging task ahead of them. The upcoming Earth Day represents an opportunity to renew the U.S. commitment and to begin to restore its environmental leadership credibility. The starting line for accomplishing must be to present a meaningful NDC for the U.S. to those world leaders attending the Earth Day Summit.
Another important facet of getting the United States back on track as a leader in climate is getting some form of Congressional buy-in to the administration’s climate agenda and management process. This will be easier said than done.
As writer and environmentalist Elizabeth Kolbert noted in her recent New Yorker piece, “Congress hasn’t approved a major environmental bill since 1990.” Ms. Kolbert observed, however, “Still a critical threshold has been crossed. For decades, politicians have avoided not just acting on but talking about warming.”
With President Biden’s arrival in the White House, the times are indeed changing, and Congress may not act but will start talking. Brookings hypothesizes, “Given the current makeup of Congress, actions rooted in tax credits, investment and stimulus are likely to have some traction in the near term.”
The extent and nature of the progress that will be made in the U.S. and globally at this point is purely a matter of conjecture. The fact that the U.S. is back in the game as a collaborative player in strengthening the trajectory and velocity of the commitment to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement is not.
At the outset of Earth Day more than one-half century ago, cartoonist Walt Kelly published a comic strip that became an Earth Day poster showing his most famous creation, Pogo the possum, looking sadly into a decimated forest saying, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
On this Earth Day, there is an opportunity to renew the commitment to continue and to improve upon the Paris Agreement journey. While the enemy may be us, it is an enemy that we ourselves can defeat if we have the plans and tenacity to do so.
The ball is in our court this Earth Day. The game is on. If we score enough points, the world and its inhabitants will win. If we do not, there may no longer be a court to play on.