The Earth’s climate has always been a work in progress. In the 4.5bn years the planet has been spinning around the sun, ice ages have come and gone, interrupted by epochs of intense heat. The highest mountain range in Texas was once an underwater reef. Camels wandered in evergreen forests in the Arctic. Then a few million years later, 400 feet of ice formed over what is now New York City. But amid this geologic mayhem, humans have gotten lucky. For the past 10,000 years, virtually the entire stretch of human civilization, people have lived in what scientists call “a Goldilocks climate” – not too hot, not too cold, just right.
Now, our luck is running out. The industrialized nations of the world are dumping 34bn tons or so of carbon into the atmosphere every year, which is roughly 10 times faster than Mother Nature ever did on her own, even during past mass extinction events. As a result, global temperatures have risen 1.2C since we began burning coal, and the past seven years have been the warmest seven years on record. The Earth’s temperature is rising faster today than at any time since the end of the last ice age, 11,300 years ago. We are pushing ourselves out of a Goldilocks climate and into something entirely different.
How hot will the summers get in India and Pakistan, and how will tens of thousands of deaths from extreme heat impact the stability of the region? How close is the West Antarctic ice sheet to collapse, and what does the risk of five or six feet of sea-level rise mean for people living on the Gulf coast?
We are in uncharted terrain. “We’re now in a world where the past is no longer a good guide to the future,” said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University. “We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”
By all indications, President Biden and his team understand all this. In the 2020 election, nearly 70% of Biden’s voters said climate change was a top issue for them. Biden has staffed his administration with the climate A-team, from Gina McCarthy as domestic climate czar to John Kerry as international climate envoy. He has made racial and environmental justice a top priority. And perhaps most important of all, he sees the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent the US economy and create millions of new jobs.
“I think in Obama’s mind, it was always about tackling the climate challenge, not making the climate challenge the central element of your economic policy,” says John Podesta, a Democratic power broker and special adviser to President Obama who played a key role in negotiating the Paris agreement. “Biden’s team is different. It is really the core of their economic strategy to make transformation of the energy systems the driver of innovation, growth, and job creation, justice and equity.”