What Will Drive Climate Action in 2021?

Dumping 2020 and moving on to hopefully better things

If 2020 isn’t the hottest year ever recorded on Earth or tied for the top spot, it sure as hell is going to be close. Though the final numbers have yet to be crunched, this year will be historically warm regardless of its ultimate ranking. Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather broke it down best on Twitter, noting that “in most datasets 2020 will be more or less tied with 2016 – at least within the margin of uncertainty in our global temperature reconstructions. That’s remarkable in a sense, given that 2020 is a La Nina year and 2016 was a super-El Nino event.” Yikes…

Welcome to the kickoff of The Climate Weekly, a *maybe* regular look at what’s driving the conversation and action on the climate crisis. I’m Brock Benefiel, co-host of The Climate Pod, a weekly in-depth discussion with leading activists, artists, academics, journalists, and many more, about how climate change affects…well, everything. Check it out if you get a chance.

But here’s the deal with the newsletter: we put up a Substack page not knowing if anyone would sign up. And then a good amount of people like you did, which is very cool. There are now enough of you to make this worthwhile. So if you like this newsletter is fairly god and it’s valuable to you, I’ll keep doing it. If not, we’ll reassess. Feel free to reply with your level of happiness and how you heard about it and we’ll go from there. Sound good?

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Moving on to 2021

At The Climate Pod, we’ve spent the last month and more contemplating the overall narrative of climate action in 2020 and looking forward to what might define the year in 2021. This year has taught us how hilarious these prediction games can be, but nevertheless, it’s interesting to think about the major players and stakes here in America and abroad that might decide whether or not we actually curtail emissions on par with the Paris Climate Accords. Here are some big questions that could give us a sense of how 2021 might go. I’ll be closely monitoring the answers…

How will Biden’s climate coalition hold together?

President-elect Joe Biden won the presidency with a broad coalition and a big boost from the climate community with a broadly appealing plan to earn the support. How will that coalition receive the newly elected president? A potential set of executive actions and some legislative limitations may create rising and falling levels of satisfaction for climate progress. I’ll be watching how activists receive and respond to the administration and its opponent’s efforts.

How will America be received by the international leaders on climate? Pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords and our previous bail on the Kyoto Protocol might make any USA alliance on international emissions goal seem tenuous. It will be interesting to see if President-elect Biden and new climate envoy John Kerry can overcome any pessimism from their international peers about America’s role in the climate fight.

How successful will Biden’s EPA be at reversing environmental rollbacks?

It might be odd to consider the Biden Administration learning much from the Trump’s EPA. The only upside amid the double-digit list of deregulations under the Trump Administration was so many failed in court. But we still went backward and there’s work to be done. In order to be successful on climate and environmental issues, the Biden Administration will need to effective reverse the damage done through its top environmental agency’s work.

What new environmental protections will be implemented?

President-elect Biden has already signaled his plan to sign a blitz of executive actions on January 20 to cut emissions, preserve more land and water, and implement stronger federal standards on climate goals. There’s great potential in the next four years for the administration to exercise the EPA’s ability to curb greenhouse gas emissions even further.

How will the Supreme Court handle new policy or EPA efforts? Not sure if you saw, but the 6-3 conservative majority may not be the friendliest bunch when it comes to major climate action attempts from the executive branch.

What will be the new details of the Paris Climate Accords? 2020 was supposed to be a big year for hammering out new details on Paris. Then COP26 was delayed due to COVID-19. We’ve just passed the fifth anniversary and almost all countries remain woefully behind on their commitments. New details and agreements are likely to emerge that will be influential on the future of climate standards.

How will states and cities react to the Biden presidency? States and cities have lead the way on developing new standards, delivering stronger investments in energy and transportation, and providing a greater focus on justice while a federal bill on climate has been lacking. That bill may not come in the next two or four years or might be insufficient to hit aggressive goals. Will states and cities continue to push in its absence?

How will Biden’s new cabinet act on climate?

If the Biden Administration is unable to pass a massive climate bill that matches the ambition of his $2 trillion dollar campaign plan, focus will shift from legislative power to executive action. That’s exactly what happened in the Obama Administration - when the failure of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill gave way to the Clean Power Plan

Climate activists can be a wonky bunch. And the lack of broader public attention on traditionally non-climate related cabinet positions is unlikely to stop progressive advocates from pushing for action across federal agencies. Evergreen Action has already been developing its Five to Mobilize: Action Steps for 21 Federal Agencies to Fight the Climate Crisis series to provide clear recommendations for its stated goal that “every federal agency must be a climate agency.”

We’ll see how many of Biden’s cabinet picks, with their own individual climate bonafides, we’ll attempt climate action at different agencies.

Will stimulus efforts address climate? A recent spending bill has done exactly this. Past stimulus efforts have catapulted clean energy into its modern iteration. As we start to build back, we stimulus efforts address decarbonization needs so we can help craft a better economy?

Will Biden attempt a climate-specific bill? I highly doubt it. Regardless of the Georgia senate runoff results, I can’t imagine the votes being there and climate action may be more likely tied to a different spending or stimulus bill. But, I could be very wrong. I hope so!

How will COVID-19 shape public opinion on climate? Science denial didn’t disappear in the face of a pandemic. But once we start to emerge from the current public health crisis, the climate crisis will still be here. The lessons learned from COVID-19 will likely influence how we approach climate in the coming years.

How will Republicans respond? Bipartisanship will be a likely need for any big spending efforts or climate-specific action. More voters and many young conservatives are looking for a federal response to ramp up on climate and clean energy. Will enough elected Republicans change course? Recent discourse would suggest we are far away from a major change. It’ll be interesting to see if a growing climate voter base across the political spectrum pushes conservative politicians on the issue.

I’m sure I’ll be wrong about all of these questions and 2021 will defined by many different considerations. But that’s my best shot as we look forward to a new year.

And now for a fictional contemplation of a potential apocalypse!

This week, Lydia Millet, author of "A Children's Bible", a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and one of the New York Times' Ten Best Books of the Year, joined The Climate Pod to talk to me about why she wanted to explore intergenerational responses to the climate crisis in her new novel. We discuss coping mechanisms, the role of religion in the face of crisis, what parenting actually means, and much more. “A Children’s Bible” is an exceptional novel and deserves all its accolades. I really enjoyed this conversation.

That’s it for our first ever edition of The Climate Weekly. As always, I look forward to your feedback. And I wish you good health and cheer as we enter the new year. Happy 2021!

-Brock

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