Saving Earth: Environmentalist Carl Pope says Biden must undo Trump's legacy, lead fight against climate change
Pope admits that the lack of enforcement of environmental laws by Trump's administration is one of the problems. He says that the country 'needs new leadership more than we need new laws'
Planet Earth is in dire need of solutions. Astronomer Carl Sagan once said that we have a responsibility "to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Our campaign Saving Earth focuses on nature and wildlife conservation and this column will feature stories on the pressing needs of our planet and hopefulness of our fight.
Canadian conservationist Harvey Locke told MEA Worldwide (MEAWW) that the fight against climate change and nature conservation are the "yin and yang of the future." No one believes this more so than environmentalist Carl Pope, who was the executive director of Sierra Club -- one of the nation's oldest environmental organizations -- and also serves as the senior climate advisor to former New York City Mayor and 2020 presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.
MEAWW caught up with Pope as part of the Saving Earth campaign to ask him what lies ahead in the quest for saving the planet. Pope believes that we are moving in the right direction, though he admits that it is not fast enough. He says, "I think for the past couple of decades, we didn't move when we should have and as a result, we have some things happening like the fires in Australia, the melting of the sea ice in the Arctic. [These events] are clearly having devastating impacts on wildlife, and we are going to need to speed things up if we are going to avoid even worse outcomes in the next couple of decades."
Pope also notes that there needs to be global action to stabilize and restore the climate, he says, "One of the things that are unique about climate change is you cannot protect wildlife, especially vulnerable wildlife effectively with anything you do within your country." Pope says there are things that can be done to protect more habitat, citing a study that said that we have to set aside a third of the world's oceans and land area as natural preserves "to give us the resilience and the diversity that we will need to survive a rapidly changing climate." He also mentioned the Red Sea corals which have been shown to be resilient to rising temperatures and could help in restoring coral reefs in more vulnerable areas such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
In the United States, Pope admits that the lack of enforcement of environmental laws by US President Donald Trump's administration is one of the problems. He tells us that the country "needs new leadership more than we need new laws." He continues, "Undoing the legacy of the Trump administration is by far the most important thing we can do in the United States to protect wildlife." He also cautions that should Trump get reelected, environmental actions have to be rooted at the state and local level, saying, "We will not be able to rely on the federal government to enforce any laws on anything."
Pope notes that there has been a shift in terms of how climate change is being spoken about, citing the European Union (EU) as an example, for their new economic stimulus program which he says is "as green as it is." He admits the youth climate movement is also having a bigger impact closer to the United States, noting that the Democratic Party is now much more activist and focused on "climate policies that will do the job instead of climate policies that were symbolic but not effective." He admits that while the youth activists have been effective, they might not move the Trump administration, "as they won't move Jair Bolsonaro's administration in Brazil or some of the other right-wing, nativist leaders around the world."
Pope is also in praise of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden's plan for fighting climate change. He admits that it is amazing that Biden's plan has adopted "about half of the Green New Deal," which has many important features for fighting climate change, which he thinks will likely be implemented if Biden wins and if Democrats recapture the Senate with the new progressive voices are elected, "I think the climate sections of the Green New Deal are very likely to be largely implemented over the next four years," adding that the country would be in "pretty good shape if we can pull these elections off."
So, what should Biden focus on should he become the 46th President of the United States when it comes to wildlife and climate change? Pope says that Biden needs to take every regulation that Trump has promulgated, "he needs to tell the courts, we are not going to defend those regulations, we are withdrawing them. Please send them back to us and we will start over again from scratch." He says that this "would undo most of Donald Trump's environmental devastation."
Governments around the world use economic tools to help shift towards a greener economy. One of those tools is the carbon tax, which taxes products based on the amount of carbon content they have or went into their manufacturing. Pope believes that carbon taxing is a useful tool, though not a "silver bullet that should be relied upon to solve the whole climate." He adds that it is a useful tool "because I'd rather tax pollution than tax work and it is a good way to raise money to pay for the programs we need. It is a better way to raise money." He says that a carbon tax could be designed to replace regressive forms of taxation such as the social security tax and then spend the money to help vulnerable and frontline communities. He adds that the carbon tax can be powerfully consistent with environmental justice, "but it's all a matter of what taxes you replace and how you spend the money," adding that it has to be set up right to get the desired results.
So, how much should a carbon tax be worth? Pope admits that the taxation system might be different in every country and that he doesn't think a single principle should apply. He says, "Getting any carbon tax is useful if we spend the money in a useful way." He says it can be $20, $30, or even $100, though he admits that the last is unlikely though theoretically ideal.
He tells us that the United States must rejoin the Paris Agreement -- an international agreement to strengthen efforts to fight climate change signed in 2016 -- given the country's scale of economy and "disproportionate role in the global climate pollution." He adds that the country must pass a climate policy that "puts us on a pathway to meet well below the 1.5 degrees Celsius standard." He also says that the country should begin to engage internationally to solve the problem of climate finance so that developing countries are enabled to do the same thing.
One of the key events that help international communities to come together to decide what must be done to fight climate change is the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. This year's conference, also known as COP26, has been pushed to November 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The delay gives a change for a potential Biden administration "to get ready for it," according to Pope, "and bring forward a very ambitious plan that hopefully will inspire other countries to do the same." He continues, "The Europeans are in pretty solid shape, I think India will follow if they see the United States joining the Europeans. I hope the Chinese will follow as well -- we have obviously some complicated dynamics right now with the Chinese and that's something that is of concern." He tells us that the most important thing that can come out of COP26 would be an agreement on how to finance decarbonization for the emerging nations.
Another tool that activists widely promote to fight climate change is the fossil fuel divestment movement -- which calls for getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous and are rooted in fossil fuel companies. Pope tells us about the movement, "Frankly at this point, I think everybody should be divesting from fossil fuels if they don't want to lose their shirts." He says that those who have invested in fossil fuels have lost money over the last decade will "lose a lot more money in the next decade." He says, "Even if you don't believe in climate change, you're losing money by staying in it."
Pope also tells us that the most important outcome from the pandemic is that, "Two years ago, when you talked about something that might be a very good thing but required a big investment, everybody said the government can't afford it. Now everybody sees that the government can spend that kind of money," adding that the money that the government spends for economic recovery and stimulus can be spent in ways which are good for the natural systems and wildlife. Among the countries that have led the fight against climate change, Pope says Costa Rica and Europe do well.
Pope ends his conversation with us by reiterating that replacing fossil fuels which are no longer economically viable will make economies more prosperous and create more jobs. He says, "It's not a matter of sacrificing to save the climate. It's a matter of reforming our economies quickly to make them both more prosperous and climate-friendly." He says, "Saving the climate is now going to make money."