The impact of human-induced climate change is no longer something that is on the horizon. Floods, wildfires, droughts, and extreme heat now threaten people’s daily lives and the economy on a regular basis. In Maryland, during the first eight months of 2020, the economic cost of motorist and freight delays due to flooding on state- maintained roadways was nearly $15.1 million. In California, when counting insured losses, the 2020 wildfire season in the state is estimated to have produced between $5 billion and $9 billion in destruction. In states such as Arizona, the current multi-year drought is the most extensive and intense drought in 22 years. Temperatures in Arizona have risen 2.5°F since the beginning of the 20th century. Extreme weather events, if not slowed, will cause major parts of the globe to be devastated.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that global warming must stay below a 1.5°C increase in the near-term to substantially reduce projected disaster. Yet, warming is currently on pace to reach a 2°C increase instead of a 1.5°C. Entire sectors of our society, including buildings, agriculture, transportation, and power—must change. Major shifts in human behavior to accommodate truly sustainable lifestyles—must occur. Time is of the essence to move towards rapid transformation of the way we live.
At the same time, the changes and shifts needed to meet 1.5°C must happen in a way that considers justice and equity. The impacts of climate change are not borne equally or fairly, but instead place greater burden on those communities that are already marginalized in society. In addition, the transition away from fossil fuels is predicted to result in the loss of millions of jobs, which also disproportionately impacts those communities that cannot easily transition to new jobs. These justice and equity issues are even more magnified at the international level.
Global Problem, Global Action
Climate change cannot be mitigated without global action, and global action will not happen without strong leadership by the United States. Ill-informed commentators give various erroneous explanations for our nation’s recalcitrance: Why should we experience economic hardship when the real problem is China and India? Can’t we count on the next generation to develop a breakthrough technology like carbon capture that will solve the problem without pain? If our population can survive the worst because we worked hard and adapted, why should we sacrifice for nations that did not?
The best scientists in the world have already told us that no nation can evade such disastrous events as famine, millions of climate refugees, even wider drought, and sea level rise that will submerge large areas of coastal cities underwater. These events, they say, will occur well within our children’s lifetimes. Or, in other words, wildfires will not be confined to California and drought to Texas. Other people’s problems will become everybody’s problem.
With Congress gridlocked, the only alternative is for the Biden administration to use all of the relevant power of the executive branch today, without reservation and without worrying about what might come next. The Biden Administration should issue stricter rules to control greenhouse gases from power plants and motor vehicles, immediately.
The White House must double down on efforts to require federal procurement policies to go green by buying power from renewable sources. And, our strong support for the Ukrainian people should not become an excuse to lurch backward to greater use of fossil fuels here or among our European allies. Most important of all, the State Department must press for an international agreement that sets strict limits on emissions with enforceable penalties for noncompliance.
These recommendations may sound like a pipe dream given congressional gridlock, a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and a deeply polarized electorate. But can those who understand the problem push for any less given the catastrophic stakes of further inaction?
The Maryland Example
Like many other states, Maryland is on a path forward that should provide an example for the federal government. The Climate Solutions Now Act, passed by the Maryland state legislature in 2022, sets a target to reduce greenhouse gases in 2031 by 60% from 2006 levels, and for the state economy to reach net-zero emissions by 2045. Experts expect that the state will move towards shifts in the buildings sector since buildings are responsible for about 40% of Maryland’s carbon emissions.
Significant efforts are also expected to ramp up in the nuclear power sector and in electric vehicle charging. Moreover, the new state law dedicates major investment in projects to cut greenhouse gas emissions in low- and moderate-income communities and in training young people in climate-related jobs.
Numerous questions remain on how exactly the new law will work. There was strong opposition from utilities and construction companies, who are likely to be back when the law’s provisions are implemented through the state’s executive branch agencies. Yet, predictions that the Chesapeake Bay could rise an additional 2 feet by the end of the century, when it has risen only 3 feet since the 1600s, should be reason enough to move quickly.
We need to make all of these remedies work, not just for ourselves, but for our children. ■
Professor Seema Kakade teaches and directs the Environmental Law Clinic. She is the author of “Revitalizing Greenhouse Gas Permitting Inside a Biden EPA, in Environmental Law Reporter (with Matt Haber).
Professor Rena Steinzor teaches administrative law and food law and is the former director of the Environmental Law Clinic. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction, Cambridge University Press.