fb-pixel Skip to main content

The 2020 election must be a time of reckoning on climate change

American voters should make climate change the priority at the polls

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, at the UN climate conference last week in Madrid, is promising bold action on climate from Europe.Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty

The world is warming, and without swift and dramatic action, it’s about to get a lot worse. That much is devastatingly clear from scientific reports. At this rate, we can expect the next few decades to bring deadlier heat waves, pandemics, rising seas that flood coastal cities, and the disappearance of coral reefs.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Youth climate movements have surged around the globe. Solutions abound — from putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions to replacing fossil fuel electricity and gas-powered cars with new technologies, to rethinking how we grow food.

What remains lacking, however, is political will and leadership. And even as some European and American officials stepped up last week at a global climate summit, they put into sharp focus the need to elect a US president and a Congress who won’t reverse progress as the planet careers toward climate catastrophe.


When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took office on Dec. 1, she pledged to push for swift action. “We don’t have a moment to waste any more on fighting climate change,” she said, urgingmassive investment.” The former German defense minister intends to make hers an anti-warming presidency. Indeed, her first trip in her new role was to Madrid, for the United Nations climate summit.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Washington’s adult-in-the-room, was also in Madrid, as leader of a bicameral congressional delegation, despite the week’s impeachment proceedings. On Monday, Pelosi had this message for the world: "By coming here, we want to say to everyone we are still in, the United States is still in.”

The Trump administration, however, recently reinforced the president’s intention to leave the Paris climate accord — the first and only defection of the 185 countries that had signed onto it — an exit that will be complete in November 2020. The administration’s latest declaration came just a few weeks before the latest United Nations benchmark report said the world community must take dramatic action to prevent catastrophic warming.


Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels would require nations to increase by five-fold their nonbinding commitments under the Paris agreement, the UN stated, while merely keeping warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, would require “unprecedented changes," and a tripling of nations’ current commitments. Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions are on course to reach a record high in 2019, mostly due to increased emissions in China and India, the world’s top carbon dioxide polluters along with the United States. (Both countries have hinted that they’ll update their commitments under Paris; the devil will be in the details.)

The 28-nation European Union may also fall short of its goal of a 40 percent reduction by 2030 if the current trajectory continues. But there’s currently talk of the EU redoubling its efforts. Von der Leyen hopes to persuade the EU to embrace the goal of carbon neutrality by mid-century.

Such a commendable effort wouldn’t by itself make up for lackadaisical efforts elsewhere. But Germany and France, which have Europe’s largest and third-largest economies, are exploring ways to leverage greater change. The two governments are considering a border carbon tax, whose aim would be to favor goods from companies or countries that have made aggressive carbon-reduction investments over those that have not. Under such a system, products from companies or countries that aren’t implementing serious carbon-reduction policies would be slapped with essentially a carbon-pollution tariff. That would also be a salutary development.


For the world to win this race, however, the United States and other nations must match Europe’s efforts and energy rather than stay on the sidelines. Our current national see-no-warming posture, of course, is a regression. Under President Barack Obama, the United States was essential in getting the Paris agreement done, and its promise to finance climate projects shored up developing nations’ commitments. But that has changed under Trump, who seemsintent on undoing all of America’s achievements — and whose outlook is dictated by his short-term political interests.

It will be hard for Europe to change that. But American citizens can. How? By making climate change a voting priority, not just an afterthought, in 2020. We should favor presidential candidates with ambitious climate goals and solid plans to achieve them.

It’s time for the American electorate to make climate change a political do-or-die, up and down the ticket. The coming election is pivotal if we hope to avoid the worst warming, but it will also be good practice: For the foreseeable future, we will need leaders who boldly steer us out of the climate crisis instead of off the cliff.