The US is failing to do what is necessary for climate action

Chuck Schumer, Martin Heinrich, Angus King, Ed Markey and a representative from Mom’s Clean Air Force hold a press conference on April 28, 2021.

By now, many of you will have heard that the “Build Back Better Plan” is on its way to being passed after a serious stripping of its most impactful and progressive tenets. Much focus has been placed on West Virginia’s coal-compromised senator Joe Manchin refusing to back President Joe Biden’s keystone climate plan: a plan which would have required energy companies in the U.S. to take on renewable energy projects, phasing out fossil fuel incrementally. Even now, there is talk that Manchin will still refuse to sign off on the updated climate plan. Indeed, this is a huge blow to climate policy, and a critical wound in the U.S.’s standing at worldwide climate conferences. With the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference currently in progress, we can be assured that many eyes around the globe are fixed on this bill, waiting to see what progress the U.S. will make toward a carbonless future. After all, as Amy Westervelt of the climate change podcast "Hot Take" points out, how can the U.S. tell other countries to reduce their emissions when our entire climate plan has been kneecapped by a single senator, a senator who is a member of the same party that has promoted it?

But let’s be absolutely clear: President Biden’s climate plan was never going to be enough. Its claim was that it would bring a “50-52 percent reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution in 2030” (1), is an almost laughably out-of-touch and un-scientific goal. The IPCC report states that “avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal…can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (high confidence)” (2). That’s global emissions, not just U.S. emissions—and well before 2030. If the U.S. can only cut its global heating activities in half by the end of 2030, then how is the entire world supposed to reach below 20-25 gigatons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per year before 2030, the requirement stated by the most recent COP26’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report? (2)

The facts bear this out: current pledges of member countries do not meet the Paris Climate Commitment, according to the UN (3), and, even if they did, global carbon emissions are still increasing (4), when they need to be actively dropping—and truly, free falling. In fact, the Biden administration, in direct contradiction to its campaign promises, is set to open up “an area larger than the UK” in the Gulf of Mexico to fossil fuel drilling operations. The announcement comes just as Biden is sitting in Glasgow, talking about decreasing fossil fuel use significantly in under a decade. Why are we expanding fossil fuel extraction while claiming to be on the right side of the climate crisis? How does this possibly match up with our rhetoric?

Additionally, the talk of “net greenhouse gas pollution” continues us down a dangerous path. When we talk about “net” anything, such as “net-zero emissions,” we open the door for continued use of fossil fuels (6), when what we really need is to end fossil fuel use completely. Even the progressive Green New Deal has a focus on “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” by 2030 (7). While it is currently one of the best official plans for climate action, taking into account racial and socio-economic equity—something which most other plans, unfortunately, do not involve themselves in—it still fails to realize this fact: that greenhouse gasses need to be leaving the atmosphere if we are going to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

What we can glean from this situation is that all the media attention on Joe Manchin is disingenuous. While the West Virginia senator is certainly a major foil for any climate action policymaking, the real issue lies with the U.S. government and its policymakers in general. Without climate obstructionists like Manchin, or any current Republican senator for that matter, the U.S. would still not be doing enough to stop the pollution of the atmosphere that will begin cooking us alive if temperatures rise above a further 1.5 degrees Celsius. Governments around the world have already failed to prevent the destruction and human strife that is already beginning to occur: why should we trust them to do what’s necessary to prevent an even worse fate now?

Things may seem grim, but there is hope—just not in our governments alone. Many are pointing to “unexpected pledges” coming out of COP26 as proof of progress. I don’t take much stock in them. Governments have pledged and pledged yet, as Greta Thunberg says, it’s all just “blah, blah, blah,” as these promises have still not been met. The U.S. is no exception to this lack of action, and so what hope there is lies with the people—and we college students must be at the forefront of the fight against climate inaction. Most of us fall between Millennial and Generation Z, meaning that we will bear the brunt of the coming climate breakdown. Older students will also find their lives affected and must also grapple with the knowledge that their children, nephews, nieces or grandchildren will suffer under the effects of an oven-like world. Everybody at UMass Boston, a campus supposedly dedicated to anti-racism and equity, should be extremely concerned about the suffering that will be inflicted upon disadvantaged people and developing countries, especially near the equator, in arid areas or along coastal waters.

We must make it loud and clear that we say no more. No more fossil fuel funding. No more funding from fossil fuel companies to the campaigns of government officials. No more empty promises, no more distractions and no more media scapegoats. No more excuses, and no more stalling. We cannot take “no” or “it’s impossible” for an answer, and we can hold our politicians to the highest standard. We can push for institutional divestment from the fossil fuel industry (8), we can push for Citizens’ Assemblies on climate change (9), and we can make it clear that we will not lie down and be silent while insufficient policies are put forward just because they are “politically realistic”. We can join organizations like Citizens Climate Lobby, Extinction Rebellion, and the Environmental Voter Project. We can protest and stage walk-outs on campus. And we can refuse to cave into the doom and gloom view of our future—that ever-present “realism” argument—in favor of joy and hope.

College students have historically been at the spearpoint of such change. UMass Boston itself has seen regular protests and strikes from the very beginning, as can be seen from an exhibit kept on the fifth floor of Healey Library. We need only to keep this trend going, continuing to put pressure on our leaders to do what is necessary. Incremental steps are fine, but real change must happen now.

It is hard to posit exactly how change can happen from the ground up. Politics can seem impenetrable, and the “realism” argument can be persuasive. But we can—and must—force our politicians to do what is necessary. We cannot accept their soft-pedaling. If we believe that we can end all racism and ethnonationalism, we will end up with a much kinder and more equitable world than if we believe that some racism is inevitable. The same goes for climate change, and the two issues are intertwined. But at the end of the day, the ultimate point is this: we must hold every powerful figure accountable, and we must demand that every powerful figure do what must be done to stop the global heating and biodiversity genocide now. And we at UMass Boston have a responsibility to make those demands loud and clear and must be prepared to put real consequences on the table should they not be met.

Our future does not depend on Joe Manchin seeing the light. That will never happen. Our future depends on all those in power doing enough—and we can make that happen.

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