By Ambassador Judith Cefkin (Retired)
In recent months, the U.S. Gulf Coast has been pummeled by an unprecedented number of hurricanes, and the West is smoldering from historically severe wildfires. This includes the two largest wildfires ever recorded here in Colorado. The intensity, frequency, and scope of these natural disasters — fueled by warming oceans, soaring temperatures, and extended droughts produced by the heat-trapping impacts of carbon emissions — have exposed the reality that the ugly effects of climate change are literally on top of us.
Around the world the reality is equally grim. My experience serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu (2015–2018), impressed upon me the urgency of the threat. The Pacific Island region is on the front lines of climate change, and the impacts — rising sea levels, coastal erosion, ocean acidification, and increasing strong cyclones (hurricanes) — are omnipresent. To cite just one example of the resulting traumas I witnessed, in February 2016, category-5 Cyclone Winston (the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the southern hemisphere) devastated Fiji. The storm razed entire villages, destroyed some 40,000 homes and hundreds of schools, devastated crops and livelihoods, and killed 44 Fijians. Heartbreakingly, this included several children who were literally snatched out of their parents’ arms by storm surge.
The future of our planet is on the ballot this November. Only one presidential candidate has a plan to address the existential threat of climate change. Joe Biden has unveiled an ambitious plan that would make the U.S. power sector carbon-free and get the U.S. to net zero emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has labeled climate change “a hoax,” and his proposed remedy is that “it will start getting cooler.”
This is not a choice of the environment vs. jobs. The Biden plan will grow the economy, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, create new good-paying jobs, and mitigate climate change. Let’s remember, that climate change has a real cost. For example, the clean-up from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017 cost $265 billion. The damage from the California wildfires this year have already topped $50 billion, with the damage in Colorado more than $200 million and climbing fast.
A U.S. Government National Climate Assessment concluded that by 2100, the U.S. could lose 10 percent of its GDP due to the adverse effects of climate change. The economy of the future will be built on clean technology. Jobs in solar and wind energy are growing at a faster rate and paying hirer wages than those in the carbon fuel industry. Importantly, with a $2 trillion investment pledged for research and development, the Biden plan will make the U.S. a leader in the development and production of clean technology.
But even if the U.S. does everything right to get to net zero, we will only be safe if we recommit to global cooperation. Neither the causes nor the impacts of climate change recognize borders. With the U.S. responsible for about 15 percent of global emissions, if the rest of the world doesn’t do its part, we will still suffer the impacts of climate change. And if the U.S. doesn’t do its part, the world will pass the tipping point that dooms earth to irreversible catastrophe. Recommitting to the Paris Climate Accord, which Joe Biden has pledged to do on day one of his administration, is an essential first step. And contrary to what Trump claims, the Paris Agreement was a good deal for the U.S. It leveled the playing field, so that countries, like China, are no longer held to lower standards, and it put each country in charge of determining its own emissions reduction targets. But when the Paris Agreement was signed, it was done with the recognition that initial commitments would lay the foundation, but not be sufficient to keep global warming below the critical two-degrees Celsius mark. Success depends on all countries, particularly the largest emitters, increasing their emission-reduction targets over time, as technological advances pave the way.
The choice is in our hands at the ballot box. Do we ignore the existential threat of climate change and its consequences, condemning the U.S. and the rest of the world to an increasingly unlivable planet? Or do we take bold action to address the threat? A vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is a vote to protect the U.S., build the economy, and make the U.S. a leader of global climate solutions.
Judith Cefkin, a native of Fort Collins, is a retired diplomat and former U.S. Ambassador to Fiji and four other Pacific Island countries from 2015 to 2018.