Climate Education

Will Biden’s ‘restoration’ presidency restore the climate? | Opinion

This article was first published on Newsweek on February 5, 2021.

“Today is climate day at the White House,” President Joe Biden said last week as he signed a raft of new executive orders aimed at tackling climate change. But to prevent catastrophic global warming, Biden will have to preside over a whole climate administration—one that will build and implement a fundamentally new agenda for climate action, transcending conventional half measures and breaking through to a new standard of sufficiency to resolve the climate crisis. Climate policy is still far from meeting that standard, but judging by its actions so far, the Biden administration is signaling its intention to get us there.

In his first week in office, Biden rejoined the Paris agreement, froze oil and gas drilling on federal lands and revoked the Keystone XL pipeline permit. He ordered review of fossil fuel subsidies, emissions and fuel efficiency standards and a slew of Trump executive actions that impacted the environment and climate. He’s making climate change central to U.S. foreign policy and national security, elevating environmental justice and creating green jobs with the goal of a zero-carbon power sector by 2035 and a zero-carbon economy by 2050.

It’s a truly ambitious agenda and inexpressibly gratifying to longtime climate advocates. At the same time, Biden’s moves thus far aren’t even the most progressive or potentially impactful items on his proposed climate agenda. The most revolutionary ones have yet to be put into play.

Rejoining the Paris agreement, constraining fossil fuels and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, pursuing zero-carbon goals, jobs and justice are all mission critical and relatively easy to communicate to the public, so they’re all worthy of celebration. They’re also fairly conventional, falling into the familiar categories discussed for decades: climate mitigation (cutting emissions to mitigate the worst effects of climate change) and climate adaptation (learning to live with these effects by, for example, transitioning to climate-friendly jobs and building climate-resilient communities).

Real hope for the future resides in building up from those foundations and transcending conventional thinking about climate change. As President Biden said, the world can’t wait any longer to act. Climate mitigation and adaptation are beyond urgent. But the problem is, they are utterly insufficient by themselves. Alone, mitigation and adaptation cannot preserve a livable future for our planet.

This is because current GHG emissions represent only 5 percent of the carbon dioxide driving climate change. Ninety-five percent comes from climate pollution that is already in the atmosphere, known as “legacy emissions,” which has been steadily accumulating over 200 years.

This reality requires a third, much broader horizon for climate thinking and policy: climate restoration. It entails the safe and permanent removal and sequestration of the trillion tons of legacy CO2 emissions already in our atmosphere. It encompasses both natural solutions and deploying technologies that are scalable, financeable and permanent.

Whereas reducing current emissions alone won’t be enough to prevent runaway climate change, restoring our atmosphere by removing legacy emissions really could. In fact, restorative efforts could return atmospheric carbon to their pre-industrial levels.

This is the revolutionary, leading edge of climate thinking. Biden, his team and some members of Congress are showing signs of embracing it. On the campaign trail, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called for major investment in carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies.

The December 2020 pandemic-relief package contained $6 billion for research and development of climate restorative technologies like direct carbon capture and storage, including $2 billion to fund real world pilot projects that demonstrate the viability and scalability of these technologies. Climate restoration involves more than just carbon removal, but CDR is one key pathway to it.

The private sector is also climbing the climate restoration curve rapidly. The world’s largest direct carbon capture plant is now under construction in Texas’ Permian Basin, and direct air capture is being rolled out in 54 countries.

It is also getting combined with a mineralization process that fixes the captured carbon dioxide to mineral deposits, essentially putting it back into the ground as rock. Replicating the natural process that kept atmospheric carbon low during the Ice Age (like stimulating the growth of ocean kelp forests) can rapidly capture and send atmospheric CO2 to the bottom of the ocean. These are all viable paths to the permanent removal and sequestration of legacy carbon.

Together, they have the potential to remove and sequester on the order of 50 gigatons of CO2 a year, enough to roll atmospheric carbon levels back to preindustrial levels by mid-century. This would restore the climate to the conditions under which biodiversity flourished and human civilization developed and thrived. It would effectively end disproportionate impacts on coastal communities, drylands, poor people and it would prevent resource conflicts that many predict will worsen dramatically in this century.

This may sound impossibly optimistic or futuristic, but it’s not. There are climate restoration technologies ready to be implemented and scaled now, some of which are already being commercialized. The cost of climate restoration does not appear to be prohibitive, estimated somewhere between $50 billion and $250 billion a year for the next 30 years or so. That would be sound investment and a small price to pay to restore the climate within the lifetimes of most adults alive today.

The technologies and financing needed are either already in place or within reach. The main missing ingredient needed now is evolution in our thinking and policy discourse.

The $6 billion allocation for climate restoration research and development in the last stimulus package drew fire from some environmental groups who fear cleaning up atmospheric carbon will only give fossil fuel companies a license to pollute more. But that’s old thinking, born of 50 years of fighting to hold polluters accountable. No one is proposing a stop to that. Clearly a different approach is needed: do everything possible to cut and prevent current and future GHG emissions, while also working vigorously to remove legacy emissions at a pace that will restore the climate to livable conditions by mid-century.

Fortunately, new thinking, like leadership, is a renewable resource, and the Biden administration has a chance to provide both. It recently announced it will hold a global Earth Day Climate Summit on April 22, the fifth anniversary of the U.S. signing the Paris accords. That would be an auspicious occasion to add climate restoration to the existing goals of mitigation and adaptation.

Biden came to Washington amid high hopes he could restore regular order and direct the government to address the multiple crises humanity faces. There’s also reason to believe his administration can put us on a path to restoring the climate.

Photo credit for image at top: Gage Skidmore/Flickr