Everything is on fire. It doesn’t have to be

The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to one of the world’s largest rainforests, second only to the Amazon. Larger than Alaska, it contains a massive peatlands area that has trapped the equivalent of three years’ worth of global carbon emissions.

It’s not surprising then that Congo’s decision to auction off large swaths of that area for oil and gas exploration has been met with outrage. But the government is merely following the global trend of kicking climate concern to the curb. After all, everyone has other immediate priorities. As a government climate adviser told The New York Times, Congo’s priority is to reduce poverty and spur economic growth, not to “save the world.” And why would we expect Congo to save the world if no one else will bother?


The United States holds the greatest responsibility for climate change as it has produced more carbon emissions than any other country in history. As a wealthy, liberal country with significant global influence, it is also better positioned than any other to act. If we’re looking for anyone to lead this effort to save the world, it should be us.

And the time is now. The future we feared has arrived. This summer has seen historic high temperatures and wildfires across the Northern Hemisphere. Germany’s Rhine River, the backbone of its economy and a key transport route, has reached water levels so low they threaten global supply chains. Droughts are threatening famine and global food security. In the Horn of Africa, 20 million people are at risk. Children are starving to death.

Given the scale of the climate crisis, the impotence of the global response is hard to overstate. We’re no longer just willfully mortgaging the future. We’re actively trading the habitability of our planet today for continued access to cheaper, dirty energy. In doing so, we are accelerating rather than addressing this existential threat.

The European Union has now voted to classify natural gas as green energy, qualifying the fossil fuel for funding and subsidies meant to promote clean energy expansion. Previously, the EU was the unparalleled leader in climate action, but Europe’s short-term thinking in response to the war in Ukraine harms both our climate and the region’s security given its reliance on Russia for fossil fuels.

The war has seen a similarly disappointing response from the Biden administration, whose plans include begging authoritarian leaders to pump more oil and opening new offshore leasing for oil drilling at home. As a leader in addressing climate change, the United States has been either a mockery or an accurate reflection of our chances for success. If we can’t take these hard steps ourselves, how can we ask the rest of the world to make the necessary economic sacrifices in our stead?

The good news is, we know what to do: reduce emissions and get off fossil fuels. We have the technology — in solar, wind and improving carbon capture — and as it turns out, we have the global will to act collectively if we so choose.

We’ve done it before. I was a child of the 1980s and remember when the hole in the ozone layer was the great, human-made environmental catastrophe that threatened human health, agriculture and animal life alike.

But the global community met this enormous challenge with resolve. The 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was the first treaty in history to be signed by every country on Earth. As a result, 99% of substances that deplete the ozone have been phased out. This deal harmed certain commercial interests, cost savings and convenience in the short term, but the world proved it could be done, and the ozone has been healing ever since. This feat was a remarkable example of the power of cooperation, multilateralism and diplomacy. We can do it again, but leadership is required.

And there are signs that American intransigence on climate could be changing. This week, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the biggest recipient of fossil fuel dollars in Congress and a critical obstacle to efforts to secure an aggressive climate action plan, reportedly agreed to a package of policies that includes hundreds of billions of dollars to reduce emissions and increase clean energy use. If it passes, this deal could enable the United States to cut emissions by 40% by 2030 — an important step in the right direction.

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