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'Words Are Not Enough': Biden Pushed to Take Bold Climate Action as US Returns to Paris Agreement

"The livelihoods and dignity of billions of people who didn't create the climate crisis require that the Biden administration takes immediate and far-reaching climate action driven by justice, equity, and science."

Activists demanding climate and racial justice marched in New York City on September 20, 2020. (Photo: Steve Sanchez/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Activists demanding climate and racial justice marched in New York City on September 20, 2020. (Photo: Steve Sanchez/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While Democrats and scientists across the United States applauded the Biden administration for officially rejoining the Paris climate agreement on Friday and figures from around the world said "welcome back America," climate campaigners and experts emphasized that the nation now needs to take bold, immediate action.

As the advocacy group Public Citizen put it: "We have a tremendous amount of catching up to do."

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden delivered on his campaign promise to begin the process of returning to the deal—ditched by his predecessor the day after the November presidential election—which aims to limit global temperature rise this century to "well below" 2°C, and preferably 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

"We can no longer delay or do the bare minimum to address climate change. This is a global, existential crisis, and we'll all suffer—we'll all suffer the consequences if we fail," Biden declared Friday, addressing the virtual Munich Security Conference. "We have to rapidly accelerate our commitments to aggressively curb our emissions and to hold one another accountable for meeting our goals and increasing our ambitions."

Similar messages came from key members of the Biden administration. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that "addressing the real threats from climate change and listening to our scientists is at the center of our domestic and foreign policy priorities. It is vital in our discussions of national security, migration, international health efforts, and in our economic diplomacy and trade talks."

Climate Envoy John Kerry—who, as the country's top diplomat during the Obama administration, played a key role of making the Paris agreement a reality—called climate change "among the most complex security issues we've ever faced." Pointing to the compounding crises in Texas this week, he added that "what these extreme weather events translate to on the ground should concern every single one of us."

Advocates of ambitious climate action welcomed the comments from the president and his allies, but they also made clear that "words are not enough."

"In a climate emergency, the only thing that will do is decisive action to dismantle the weapons of mass destruction that are #FossilFuels," tweeted Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. "Now is the time to really act."

While thanking Biden for keeping his promise, Andrea McGimsey, senior director for Environment America's Global Warming Solutions campaign, said Friday that "as pleased as we are with our return to the Paris agreement, it must only be a start."

"From getting more electric buses on the road to installing more charging stations in our national parks, so much can and must be done," she continued. "We'll also need to electrify our buildings and all of our appliances, and power them with clean renewable energy. And it's time to stop subsidizing fossil fuels with Americans' tax dollars."

"Extreme weather continues to hammer communities across the country," added McGimsey, as Texans endured power, food, and water problems due to a winter storm. "It's clear that to protect our families' health and well-being today—and to achieve a stable climate for our children and grandchildren—we need to lean in now to meet the commitments of the Paris agreement and go far further."

Leading up to Friday, tens of thousands of people and scores of advocacy organizations backed a demand that the Biden administration commit the United States to doing its "fair share" to combat the climate crisis—both in terms of reducing emissions at home and helping developing countries reach their goals.

That call and the U.S. return to the agreement follow a study released last week which warned that countries' Paris pledges to cut emissions—called nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—should increase by 80% to meet even the deal's dangerously inadequate 2°C target.

As Rachel Cleetus, policy director and lead economist for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote Thursday:

On April 22, Earth Day, President Biden will host a Leaders' Climate Summit, aiming to catalyze greater ambition ahead of COP26. The major emitters will be urged to raise their emissions reductions pledges for 2030 and add more detail on the domestic policies they will implement to achieve them. Developing countries—members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum—will also be there to remind the world of their dire plight and the moral imperative for richer countries to act quickly and boldly to help stave off existential threats to people and the planet.

The U.S. is expected to announce its updated NDC ahead of that summit. An ambitious U.S. NDC is the strongest signal the nation can send to show the global community that we are not just back in the Paris agreement, but in it to do our fair share. It is the single most important thing we can do to reestablish our credibility, foster trust, and catalyze greater action from other nations.

In an opinion piece for CNN on Friday, Alok Sharma, president of COP26—which was delayed until this November because of the coronavirus pandemic—celebrated the U.S. return to the Paris agreement and said, "I have been extremely encouraged by the conversations I have had with Kerry and White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy—both formidable allies in the fight against climate change."

Sharma also emphasized that at the summit in Scotland, world leaders must contend with the fact that "developing nations, particularly those most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, need financial support from developed countries to tackle its causes and effects—especially smaller island states like in the Pacific."

"Tackling climate change is a shared endeavor. And the clock is ticking ever closer to the point of no return," he wrote. "And so, I look forward to working as a matter of urgency with President Biden's administration and governments around the world, to deliver decisive climate action on the road to and at Glasgow. We owe that to current and future generations."

Organizers worldwide echoed that call for the Biden administration to approach the climate crisis on a global scale.

Meena Raman of Friends of the Earth Malaysia asserted that "the U.S. must not repeat its earlier bullying stance of blocking and undermining developing countries on issues such as equity between countries and the transfer of finance and technology, including for loss and damage."

"To be taken seriously, President Biden must go far beyond just rejoining the Paris agreement—he must listen and work cooperatively with developing countries in addressing the challenges they face in implementing more climate action in the face of the pandemic and growing indebtedness," said Raman. "The U.S. must be seen as a cooperative player, taking responsibility for its historical emissions and doing its fair share of action to phase out fossil fuels and increase its financial contributions."

Dipti Bhatnagar, international program coordinator for climate justice and energy with Friends of the Earth International, noted that "the United States' refusal to accept and address the high level of responsibility it bears for the climate crisis and encouragement of high-carbon lifestyles has resulted in untold suffering for women, men, and children throughout the developing world."

"Droughts are destroying crops, cyclones are leveling homes, and whole nations are literally disappearing," added Bhatnagar, who is from Mozambique. "The livelihoods and dignity of billions of people who didn't create the climate crisis require that the Biden administration takes immediate and far-reaching climate action driven by justice, equity, and science."

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