As CBS News reports, the Paris Agreement is so flexible and voluntary—and some would say “toothless”—because the previous attempt to create an environmental agreement that had strict limits was largely regarded as a failure. After five years of negotiations, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was ratified by only 36 nations, 28 of whom were the then members of the European Union. That did not include the United States. In the follow-up 2012 Doha round, the number dropped again as even Canada withdrew.
That earlier rounds were unable to secure a global commitment to hard limits on carbon emissions is a tragedy on multiple levels. Not least of all because every year we’ve lost to negotiations is not only a year in which the problem could be addressed, but a year in which addressing the situation got progressively harder.
Had the world really climbed on board Kyoto in 1997, the necessary changes to meet the goal would have been minimal. As a side benefit, early support for renewable energy would have put the world even further along the curve of expanding availability and reduced cost that has made wind and solar the cheapest sources of power within just the last few years.
Why does it take a massive program like the Green New Deal (GND) to address climate change at this point? Because nothing less will do. And, as Texas is still in the midst of demonstrating, because decades of neglect have created an electrical power grid that’s exquisitely fragile.
Now the U.S. has to move quickly to reduce emissions, do so in a way that convinces other nations we’re in this game to stay, and do so in a way that convinces the nation that this is a process we want to stick with, no matter who occupies the White House next. President Biden ran on a progressive energy plan that borrowed a lot of good ideas from the GND, and he has already moved with purposeful speed to issue a series of executive orders to reverse some—though not all—of the damage done by Trump.
Biden has also added another level to the massive challenge ahead. As Scientific American reports, there’s a commitment that “40% of overall benefits flow to disadvantaged communities." That goal is to be met by all investments in clean energy, improving energy, and public transit as well as commitments to affordable and sustainable housing.
It’s an important distinction that this is benefits, not investments. On the one hand, a goal to simply spend 40% of energy investments in these communities would be easier to calculate. However, if that ended up with building facilities that mainly benefited others, it really wouldn’t be doing a lot to help those in a local community, and in fact might end up either taking up properties or generating industrial pollution that damaged these communities.
So Biden’s team was given the much more challenging assignment of determining how to bring the benefits to disadvantaged communities—something that’s both harder to work out and more difficult to score. That challenge has been left to Cecilia Martinez, who is taking on the new role of senior director for environmental justice on the White House Council on Environmental Quality. And Martinez has a head start.
That head start is called A Vision for an Equitable and Just Climate Future, a program worked out in three years of cooperation between the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy and the Center for American Progress.
“This platform lays out a bold national climate policy agenda that advances the goals of economic, racial, climate, and environmental justice.”
It’s not unusual to invoke environmental justice when talking about climate change plans. The difference is that usually ideas for climate change are put in place, and then an effort is made to see how some of them might be squeezed into tribal areas or communities of color. This time, Biden is taking the opposite approach: Environmental justice is a cornerstone of the planning. The end goal is the same:
“By building a just, inclusive, and climate-sustainable economy, this agenda will create millions of high-quality, safe, and family-sustaining jobs while improving the health, physical environment, prosperity, and well-being of all U.S. communities.”
But the recognition here is that environmental justice can’t be an afterthought, because the truth is that a plan that fails to meet all these goals is planning to fail.