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In a Time of Urgency and Hope, How Do We Move The Planet Forward?

With momentum finally heading in the right direction, we must seize this last, best opportunity to protect our future.

Public opinion supports rapid change. (Photo: Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP via Getty Images)

Public opinion supports rapid change. (Photo: Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP via Getty Images)

This story originally appeared in WNET's Peril & Promise and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Typically, we read about climate tipping points with dread. Melting ice. Rising seas. Burning forests. They are the planet's darkest and most frightening headlines, shouting that we are witnessing abrupt and irreversible damage. But another tipping point could be a harbinger for breakthrough, promise, and hope—just as abrupt and irreversible as the crisis that propels it. If it happens, it will be built on a new urgency, on scalable action and young voices, and on true commitment to environmental justice and inclusion.

We see the urgency expressed in new and growing ways. With the arrival of the Biden administration, the federal government has put a powerful and unprecedented focus on climate change. Federal departments and agencies—from Energy to Transportation, Agriculture to Interior—are now led by determined and dynamic climate advocates. They work for Joe Biden but recall Barack Obama's ticking-clock dictum: "We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it."

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I explored this shift with the new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Michael Regan, in a Planet Forward Summit conversation, part of a program I lead at the George Washington University. I ticked through data to illustrate how climate change is upon us and accelerating: Record-breaking temperatures, extreme weather, Arctic ice melts.

"It's not too late," Regan said. "We're a resilient country. We're good at this." Regan said he will bring science into every EPA decision and made clear that environmental justice is a centerpiece of his mission.

"For decades, Black, indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color have disproportionately borne the highest burden of pollution," Regan said.

Though still polarized on political ideology, clear majorities of Americans want action now.

He cited an environmental justice advisory council that will connect affected communities directly to the White House, environmental justice community grants, and targeted funds in the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue package to frame the administration's environmental blitz as a long-haul investment. "We are really focused on setting up the right infrastructure internally so that we know how to deliver the new resources that the president and congress are making available," Regan said.

Public opinion supports rapid change. Though still polarized on political ideology, clear majorities of Americans want action now. Young people, who have the most at stake in this warming world, have been especially effective at communicating their outrage and the urgency of this moment. But older generations seem to be getting the message, with nearly two-thirds of Americans saying they are very worried (43%) or worry "a fair amount" (22%) about climate change, according to an April Gallup poll.

Perhaps the most important driver of this more hopeful future is the potential for critical, scalable mass in tangible actions humanity can take. Technological breakthroughs and economic viability are lining up as allies in the battle to create a sustainable planet. The price of electricity from solar power plants has fallen nearly 90% in just the last decade and is now competitive with traditional fuels like coal and even natural gas. EV carmaker Tesla sales have soared; and General Motors says it's going all-EV by 2035. "Moving us closer to a world with zero emissions," one GM advertisement goes. Across industries, businesses are increasingly incorporating sustainable practices and packaging. And universities are increasingly divesting their portfolios of fossil fuels and limiting single-use plastics.

At the international level, the U.S. has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and is sending clear signals that it intends to lead on climate. (This month, U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry was the first high-level member of the administration to visit China. President Biden convened a virtual Climate Summit.)

At the local level, too, leaders are taking decisive action. Phoenix, the hottest big city in America, broke records last year with 145 days topping 100-degree temperatures. "We keep setting new records relating to heat," Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego told me when we sat down for another recent Planet Forward conversation.

Gallego is working to make Phoenix a "heat ready" city. That includes new projects to layer roadways with a "cool pavement" coating that reflects rather than magnifies heat; planting native species trees to grow the natural shade canopy; and installing solar covers that both generate electricity and cast cooling shade over parking lots and other open spaces.

"We are trying to develop a model and toolkit for how cities can respond to heat," Gallego told me. She's keenly aware that benefits must reach the poorest communities. "We're trying to put equity in the forefront," she said.

Of course, there's no assurance of success. But with momentum finally heading in the right direction, we must seize this last, best opportunity to protect our future: invest in breakthrough opportunities, listen to young voices, and incorporate environmental justice and inclusion in every aspect of climate action. We must ask ourselves: which tipping point do we want?

Frank Sesno

Frank Sesno is the director of the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. In 2009, he started Planet Forward, to launch a new generation of environmental storytellers, which now includes a television series in partnership with WNET’s Peril & Promise.

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