2021 Climate Inaction

ILLUSTRATION: JENNY SHARAF; GETTY IMAGES

Not fun, but a useful review:

2021 Was a Huge Missed Opportunity on Climate Action

The pandemic should have been a wake-up call—instead, emissions have climbed once more. Here’s how the US could have seized the opportunity

JUST LIKE THAT, a pandemic-fueled glimpse of a better world is growing hazy—or smoggy, to be more precise. As civilization locked down in early 2020—industries ground to a halt, more people worked from home, and almost no one traveled—global carbon dioxide emissions crashed by 6.4 percent, and in the United States by 13 percent. In turn, air quality greatly improved. Life transformed, sure enough, but that transformation was fleeting. Scientists warned that the drop would be temporary because economies would roar back stronger than ever to make up for lost revenue. Indeed, by the end of 2021, emissions have now returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“What we witnessed was more or less one year of emissions decline that would help put us on a reasonable trajectory,” says environmental economist Mark Paul of the New College of Florida. “But there was also tremendous pain for tens of millions who lost their jobs.”

There are lots of ways to fight climate change, but relying on a pandemic to force (temporary) reform ain’t it. Really, 2021 should have been a year of civilizational reassessment—instead, we’re pretty much back where we started. “People are still driving internal-combustion engines. People are still turning on their lights powered by coal and other fossil fuels. I really think nothing fundamentally changed,” Paul says. “It was a temporary blip that I think highlights how big the lift is.” The pandemic year did, however, offer some solid clues for how to tackle longer-term changes—if we’re willing to make that shift.

One place to start is, literally, with work. The US Congress and the White House have been floating the idea of a Civilian Climate Corps, a reimagining of the Civilian Conservation Corps that employed 3 million workers during the Great Depression. It would mobilize Americans to plant trees in cities, thus mitigating the urban heat island effect, and deploy them to prepare the landscape against catastrophic wildfires, floods, and other ravages of climate change. The government would provide people with income and stimulate the still-reeling economy, all in a larger quest to prepare the nation for a hotter future.

But nearly two years after the start of the pandemic, the Civilian Climate Corps has yet to materialize. Yes, Biden’s social bill, which is currently languishing in Congress, allocates $555 billion to climate programs. Of that, $30 billion would go to hire 300,000 people for the corps. But it’s not nearly enough, Paul says. He thinks the program should employ more like 9 million people over its lifetime, which he estimates will take hundreds of billions of dollars. Sure, concerned citizens could volunteer their time with any number of nonprofits that work on climate action. But the scale of the problem demands a solution only the government can provide. “The government provides people with opportunities to join the military and to go serve their country,” says Paul. “But for those who are less interested in international conflict and are more interested in preserving a safe and habitable planet for themselves and future generations, their government essentially says, Hey, you’re out of luck.”

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