Fossil Fuels Can Be Replaced -- and Must Be
(Rachel Ellis/The Denver Post via AP)
Fossil Fuels Can Be Replaced -- and Must Be
(Rachel Ellis/The Denver Post via AP)
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Across Oregon and Washington state this summer, some 200 people have died amid wave after wave of blistering heat. Nearly half the spawning salmon in the Columbia River are dying in waters too warm for the fish to survive, part of more than a billion sea animals estimated to have died from the region’s epic heat. 

The Bootleg fire in Oregon is burning a thousand acres an hour, in an inferno so powerful it produces its own weather inside towering smoke columns up to six miles high that can generate dry lightning, hail and fire tornadoes blasting hot and ember-laden winds in their path.

Baby hawks too young to fly are jumping out of their nests to escape the heat.

The summer hell-scape across the Pacific Northwest, of course, is just one snapshot from the frontlines of a global climate crisis that seems to bring more disaster daily, whether it’s flooding that takes lives by the hundreds in Western Europe or the loss of water and arable farmland putting millions on the move in China.

All of this, though, is but a preview, the science tells us, of even worse things to come unless we cut the dangerous carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels in half by 2030, and stop adding it to the atmosphere altogether by 2050.

After centuries of relying on coal, gas and oil to industrialize the global economy, we must phase out our reliance on fossil fuels and shift to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future.

Since 1980 we’ve burned more coal, oil and gas, globally, than in all of history before that. The result: Over just four decades, we’ve increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 24%, to its highest level in more than 3 million years, raising the average global temperature 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.

We, as a nation and global leader, face an existential choice. We will replace fossil fuels with clean energy options, or we’ll surrender more of our people, and more of our world, to the mounting costs and growing dangers of climate change.

Fortunately, President Biden understands the stakes.

He’s laid out a plan, as part of his Build Back Better agenda, that starts with cleaning up the dirty power plants that account for about a third of our carbon footprint. Through strategic infrastructure investment and responsible incentives, Biden’s plan will help us become more efficient, so we do more with less waste; get more clean power from the wind and sun; and build a modern power grid and storage system.

Right now, we’re getting about 60% of our electricity, nationwide, from coal and natural gas. Under Biden’s plan, we’ll get 80% of our electricity without either of those fossil fuels by 2030, and we’ll get 100% clean power by 2035.

Next, Biden’s plan will modernize U.S. transportation, which accounts for about another third of our carbon footprint

The president’s Build Back Better agenda promises the largest investment in history to help put sustainable public transit within reach for all of us, especially low-income communities that depend on safe access to public transit. It will slash the $560 billion bridge and road repair backlog and help to reconnect historically disadvantaged neighborhoods that were shattered decades ago by misguided highway routes. 

And it includes funding to build half a million electric charging stations nationwide. That fits hand-in-glove with plans by General Motors, Ford and other global carmakers to invest $257 billion globally as the industry shifts to mostly electric vehicles over little more than a decade.

Biden’s Build Back Better vision also includes funding to cap millions of abandoned oil and gas wells nationwide, protecting communities from leaks of toxic chemicals that can foul water, lands and air, and from methane — a powerful climate-wrecking gas.

Congress needs to fully fund Biden’s agenda to Build Back Better for everyone.

Shifting away from fossil fuels will create millions of jobs across the country — paying 25% more, on average, than the median wage — helping to drive the strong, durable and broad-based recovery we need in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It will make our economy more competitive globally, and give U.S. workers a beachhead in the fast-growing clean energy market, projected to attract some $30 trillion in global investment over just the next two decades. And it will help to advance racial equity, by reducing the climate hazard and harm that falls disproportionately on low-income communities and people of color.

Our reliance on fossil fuels — in this country and around the world — has come at a cost we can no longer afford. There are cleaner, smarter ways to power our future. We’re not stuck with gas, coal, and oil and all of the damage and danger they bring. And neither are our children.

President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda contains the strongest climate action in history. We owe it to ourselves, and to our children, to rally around this vision for a more hopeful, more prosperous future. The stakes are too high for anything less.

Mitchell Bernard is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group with more than 3 million supporters nationwide.

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