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As America is embroiled in a long overdue conversation about race and equality, and coronavirus cases continue to rise in the U.S., concerns about climate change have largely been pushed to the back burner.
There were jarring reminders recently that, even amid the many other problems that demand our attention, we can’t ignore the warming of our planet.
On Friday, temperatures soared to 96 degrees in Caribou. The Aroostook County city recorded the warmest temperature on the East Coast that day. It also tied the hottest temperature ever recorded in Caribou.
The next day, a temperature of 100.4 degrees was recorded in Verkhoyansk, a Siberian town north of the Arctic Circle. If verified, it will be the northernmost 100 degree temperature ever recorded.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
The coronavirus pandemic, in a sad twist, offers an opportunity. With hundreds of millions of people limiting their activity and travel, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped in recent months. Carbon dioxide emissions dropped more than 17 percent in April, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Climate Change. The authors warned that the reductions are likely to be temporary as restrictions put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus are lifted.
The challenge is finding ways to make these types of significant reductions permanent to slow the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
As Rep. Chellie Pingree and other leaders of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition said in a letter Monday, this is a rare opportunity to remake America’s economy in a more energy-efficient way.
“As our work in Congress evolves, we must continue to address the immediate needs of individuals, workers, and communities across the country, especially those most in need,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to House leaders. “Any subsequent legislative package must continue to protect people and public health, and we urge you to prioritize opportunities that can also move our country towards a cleaner, healthier, and more just nation as we aim for recovery.”
The group listed numerous bills and administrative actions that should be taken as the country responds to, and ultimately emerges from, the coronavirus pandemic. These include dedicated support for the clean energy sector — and its more than 3 million employees — in any future relief packages that are passed by Congress. They also suggest changes to tax incentives, loan programs and federal funding for renewable energy, water treatment, transportation infrastructure, land conservation and others.
They also highlight how federal investments, clean energy and environmental protection are intertwined with concerns about racial and economic inequality and justice.
“As leaders, it is our responsibility to protect communities from COVID-19, especially low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal and indigenous communities impacted disproportionately by the virus; support working Americans; and make sure we are making plans to build back better, more sustainably and more equitably — all at the same time,” they wrote. “Relief and recovery legislation will shape our society for years to come. We must use these bills to build in a climate-smart way with the future in mind.”
There is an urgency to this work. World leaders have a short time — perhaps only six months — to capitalize on the carbon dioxide emission reductions that have accompanied the pandemic, an international energy expert told the Guardian newspaper.
“This year is the last time we have, if we are not to see a carbon rebound,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization that includes the U.S.
“The next three years will determine the course of the next 30 years and beyond,” Birol added. “If we do not [take action] we will surely see a rebound in emissions. If emissions rebound, it is very difficult to see how they will be brought down in future. This is why we are urging governments to have sustainable recovery packages.”
Sadly, we can’t expect much from the Trump administration on climate change, but Congress can and should ensure that efforts to mitigate climate change, which can also help improve equality and public health, are part of work to rebuild our economy.