According to the most recent Climate Change in the American Mind report, the majority of Americans (59%) say they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends, while the remaining 41% say they do so “occasionally” or “often.” Regardless of which camp you currently fall into, with climate change on the agenda of so many Presidential candidates, it’s probably a good idea to steady yourself for some climate small talk. Whether or not you agree with their politics, prepare yourself to have a productive and respectful conversation with Uncle Ned over dinner, or with your coworker Jan in the elevator.
The good news is, given that most Americans are aware of climate change, you don’t need shocking data or a PhD to engage in the conversation. Instead, you just need a little refresher on where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re headed. Here, we take stock on relevant climate policy heading into 2020.
Where We’ve Been
Before we look ahead to climate change policies in 2020 and beyond, let’s take a moment to check-in on how we’re doing so far.
Let’s start with the Copenhagen Accord (2009). In some aspects, this was a success in bringing developed countries, such as the US and China, together for the first time to advance negotiations on climate change. The US pledged to reduce emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. At the time, the plan to achieve this goal was to follow through with emissions reduction targets for 2025 (30%), 2030 (42%), and 2050 (83%). Though a bold, symbolic step forward, the Accord was a bust overall. That’s because without legally binding language, there was no clear framework for implementation, enforcement, or accountability, and thus many countries fell short on achieving their pledges.
So where does this leave the US amidst emissions reduction deadlines that are right around the corner? Under the current policy projection for 2020, if nothing changes or improves this year, that puts us about 5% behind our pledge for a 17% emissions reduction.
You may be more familiar with or have at least heard of the Paris Agreement (2015), the successor to the Copenhagen Accord, which has been garnering attention after the Trump administration released a statement to withdraw the US. Initially set to reduce emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, the current policy projection is a 12.9% reduction. According to the most recent (2019) Emissions Gap report from the UNEP, even if all current pledged “are fully implemented, there is a 66 percent chance that warming will be limited to 3.2°C by the end of the century,” well beyond the 1.5-2°C goal limit. However, keep in mind that while the federal government has not met its goal, states, cities, businesses, and organizations throughout the country have taken America’s Pledge to contribute their time, resources, and dedication to meet those goals.
Unfortunately, the US isn’t alone. As a matter of fact, many countries haven’t achieved their goals under the Paris Agreement, so stricter targets will be necessary if we want to strive towards keeping global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.
Where we (may be) going
Last year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) introduced the Green New Deal (GND). The resolution aims to tackle climate change by curbing fossil fuels and transition the United States into clean energy by providing new, high paying jobs in renewable energy industries. The GND also comes with an “economic bill of rights,” which affords citizens universal healthcare, affordable housing, and free college education. The Sunrise Movement, a climate change youth activist group, helped popularize the GND when they organized a sit-in outside of Nancy Pelosi’s office after the 2018 midterm elections. During this sit-in, the youth activists demanded more radical climate actions from political leaders. In Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey’s proposed resolution, the GND is radical not only in that it resolves to drastically reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2030, but in that it proposes a solution to economic inequality and racial injustice.
Like with any seemingly radical bill, the GND was both enthusiastically embraced and lambasted by pundits and politicians from both sides of the political aisle. While Bernie Sanders co-sponsored the GND in the Senate and has referred to the GND multiple times as the kind of urgent climate action we need, Nancy Pelosi has refused to commit to voting for the resolution. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have called it an “unaffordable and unworkable” plan, and have argued that the way to fight climate change is technology and innovation through private companies.
Even with the GND helping to put climate on the political agenda, there is still little political action around mitigation or adaptation. The senate voted against the GND in March 2019. As for the 2020 presidential candidates, while most have committed to a subset of the policies proposed in the resolution, they do not support the entire GND approach. And while candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have pledged to decarbonize transportation systems and committed 3 million green jobs, respectively, they did not give climate change much air-time during the presidential debates. The American public also has the same attitude: worried, but not too worried. According to opinion polls, while the majority of Americans support climate change action, that public opinion has yet to translate to actual support for climate-related policies.
The largely hollow support for the GND and the lack of support for climate policies is distressing as we usher in the new decade. As the need for climate action and environmental justice becomes increasingly critical, talk of potential political commitments must become more centered in conversation – whether in presidential debates or just over dinner.
The Green New Decade
In this new decade, the political divide over climate policy isn’t likely to disappear. However, the slow rate of political change and the current trend of falling far behind emissions targets will hopefully become a thing of the past. As more world citizens wake up to the disproportionate and devastating environmental, economic, cultural, and social impacts of climate change, we as a board are hopeful that we will also wake up to the possible remedies available in our political toolkits. We are confident that collective awareness and climate action from all generations (okay, boomers?) will lead to positive change and a more equitable, green, new decade.