America is hardly alone. Only a handful of the nearly 200 countries that signed on to the Paris Agreement have met their targets; among big emitters, the nations of the European Union come the closest. But even if every country does meet its targets, it will not be enough, not by a long shot — a scary truth that the Paris negotiators acknowledged at the time and that an alarming 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed. The report warned that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the world would have to hold increases in atmospheric temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. In practical terms, this means a carbon-emission-free world by 2050, which in turn requires a downward wrench in global emissions by 2030. Some experts believe that for the United States to carry its share of the load, it will have to cut emissions by 40 to 50 percent over the next decade.
On April 22, Earth Day, the United States will host a Climate Leaders Summit. The expectation is that Mr. Kerry will unveil a different set of targets. Those numbers have to be more than ambitious. They also have to be credible — meaning, as Robert Stavins, a longtime climate scholar at Harvard puts it, “truly achievable given existing and reasonably anticipated policy actions.”
Rolling back all of Mr. Trump’s rollbacks on fossil fuel emissions, however necessary that is, simply won’t cut it. What might cut it is major new climate legislation that encourages serious investment dollars — in millions of emissions-free vehicles, in hundreds of thousands of new charging stations to service those vehicles, in a reimagined electric grid carrying power from plants that rely not on fossil fuels but on rapidly growing renewable sources, in a cleaner public transportation system and in millions and millions of weatherized homes.
All that and more was envisioned in a $2 trillion climate plan presented by none other than Mr. Biden in a speech in his home state of Delaware last summer. His problem is therefore not lack of imagination. It is the political reality of a divided Senate that cannot bring itself to approve a plan to help ordinary people and local governments weather the economic storms of the pandemic. If America’s legislators cannot deal with a present emergency, how likely is it that they can be persuaded to address a more remote one?
The president’s pitch to Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is that a credible climate plan will create the jobs the pandemic has destroyed, and many more. Let’s hope it works.
In the meantime, it seems enough to celebrate what, as if in a fairy tale, has appeared in the White House: a president who cares about the climate and other environmental issues, who has gathered around him serious people, who has determined to follow science where it leads and who will try to do good and useful things.