Editor’s Note: Ban Ki-moon served as the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations and Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation, an international organization hosted by the Netherlands which works as a solutions broker to accelerate action and support for climate adaptation. Read more opinion at CNN.
Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election makes us hopeful for our collective future on Earth. We are confident that under his leadership public trust in facts, in science, and in international collaboration to solve global problems will be restored. In doing so, the President-elect will bring a short but aberrant period of US history to a close.
Nevertheless, Biden has his work cut out. He is inheriting multiple crises, and with so many competing priorities he must ensure that climate change remains at the top of the pile. Restoring environmental standards and safeguards and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord – that sees almost every other country in the world working together to help humanity avert disaster – are essential, but they won’t be enough. Our global climate emergency has intensified over the past four years. We now have less than a decade to stop irreversible climate change. To do so, we must cut our greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and net zero by 2050.
Time is running out. So are our options.
The Trump administration’s dismissal of climate change has cost America dearly at home and abroad. Outside the US, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement has encouraged other nations to ignore their own climate pledges. The Amazon is burning. Illegal logging has accelerated in Indonesia, according to conservation-news site Mongabay. Russia is mulling oil exploration in the Arctic. Over the past three years, climate-related disasters have cost the world $650 billion, according to Morgan Stanley.
Domestically, Trump’s decision to silence climate scientists and gut environmental protection agencies has left the country ill-equipped to deal with the destruction wrought by climate change. That is why it is imperative that President-elect Biden makes reversing this a priority from day one.
This is not just because the costs of ignoring climate change are becoming an intolerable burden on all the Americans who lose their homes and livelihoods to hurricanes, floods and wildfires. As Biden’s clean energy and environmental justice plan makes clear, acting on climate change could be the biggest economic and employment opportunity in history. Many of the strategies used to accomplish this will also simultaneously help tackle other pressing crises.
If the ongoing pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the health of humans, the economy and our planet are deeply intertwined. If we continue to slash and burn our forests, for example, deadly pathogens will continue to jump species and humans will remain vulnerable to future pandemics. Our overlapping health, economic and environmental crises are connected. They demand connected solutions.
Biden’s plan is ambitious, but we urge him to go further. On the campaign trail, the Democratic candidate was equivocal about the future of fossil fuels. We urge him to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry once and for all. According to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) study, the US spent $649 billion in fossil fuel subsidies in 2015 alone – more than the country’s defense budget and more than seven times the federal spending on education in that year. The US remains, along with China and Russia, one of the world’s top three subsidizers of dirty fuels, the IMF report noted. To remain so would make a nonsense of the President-elect’s own climate plan.
Some of those billions would be better spent on education and scientific research – so savagely neglected and sabotaged by President Trump. Innovation is an essential part of dealing with climate change. We will need a barrage of innovations to strengthen our food security, to improve how steel and cement are made, and to feed the hungry without destroying more of our natural habitats. Data is a resource, like seeds, water or money, and it can be used to help farmers make better decisions, such as when to sow crops. Timely health data can detect outbreaks of infectious diseases and stop their spread. But at present, the world dedicates as little as 4% of global research and development spending on green innovation, according to The Economist — more than $80 billion a year, or just twice the amount tech firm Amazon spends on R&D.
Lastly, we would urge President-elect Biden to invest in adapting to climate change as well as curbing it because millions of Americans are already living with the effects of global warming. Miami may be fighting for survival in the face of rising sea levels while Manhattan needs to be better prepared for the next Superstorm Sandy.
Under President Trump, America lost precious time in the race to limit climate change. The President-elect represents a fresh start. Investing in science, innovation and adaptation, and re-engaging with the international community on climate action, will rebuild a better nation. And hopefully a better world, too.