“If we act to save the planet,” President Joe Biden told a masked and distanced joint session of Congress last week, “we can create millions of jobs and economic growth and opportunity.”
Words I have been waiting my entire adult life to hear a president say. Without apology. Without speaking in code. Without soft pedaling. Necessary words that address the unique moment we find ourselves in.
You know this column is rarely political. Instead, I more typically offer updates on how the environment is doing in Philadelphia and Roxborough, or share the extraordinary natural world in which we live. But not this week. So walk with me out onto a political limb, and let’s talk climate.
Because frankly there is no more important issue. Yes, more important than COVID because we are finally coming out of this pandemic - at least it seems at the moment - and in the last year, climate change has just not gone away, and underpins and supersedes all other issues.
And because Philadelphia is already hotter, wetter, and weirder. Hotter: springtime is 2.7 degrees warmer than it was only 50 years ago in 1970, and getting warmer. Weirder: remember only last week temperatures toyed with hitting the 90s - in April! - and then suddenly dropped while weirdly high winds began blowing through.
So I’m thrilled to have a president who doesn’t blink or hedge on climate change, but is all in, labeling it the “existential threat” it deserves to be called. He even dared to sprinkle climate change proposals throughout his infrastructure plan, which of course isn’t a universally popular move. OK, it’s actually reviled in some quarters. But think about it for a moment.
When the Delaware River - a tidal waterway, by the way - rises, as it already is, it threatens Penn’s Landing and I-95 through the city, it threatens South and West Philadelphia, Fishtown and the river wards. It threatens the major chemical and energy facilities along the river. It especially threatens a massive low-lying airport built on fill from previous dredging of the river. Projections show the airport to be underwater in coming decades: to where will we move the airport? In the alternative, how will we make the airport resilient to sea level change?
Infrastructure questions all, without a doubt.
And combating climate change requires energy-efficient buildings that are solarized and connected to a smarter energy grid. Public transportation that more readily moves more people more smartly through the region so we can wean ourselves off of our overlong reliance on cars. And making streets and neighborhoods more resilient to the ravages of stormwater from more powerful storms.
Biden also correctly connects the climate issue to justice, and is not afraid to talk about climate justice, as underserved Americans in low-income neighborhoods will especially feel the impacts of a supercharged climate.
And yes, Biden also recommitted the country to the Paris Agreement, the world’s agreement on wrestling with climate change. Remember, when President Trump withdrew America from the treaty, we joined Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries to do so - and both have since that time signed on. Is this the company we wish to keep? All of us know climate change is a global concern, and we need to be at the table negotiating the terms for how the planet solves the crisis. We have a ton of skin in this game.
Biden outlined what Scientific American, an apolitical science-based magazine called “a transformative vision of muscular government, with climate policy driving both domestic and international affairs. He cast decarbonization as an engine of his economic plans. And he framed competition with China as a struggle over the future of clean energy.”
“There’s no reason,” the president continued last week, “the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. No reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries.” Hard to imagine why anyone would have a beef with those last two sentences.
But he didn’t stop there. His plan is intent on “replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American, so every child – can turn on the faucet and be certain to drink clean water.” Lead in drinking water leads to permanent loss of IQ among people who consume it; certainly this intention cannot be problematic.
“We are at an inflection point in history,” Biden said. We are. We’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change - and the last who can do anything meaningful about it.
George H.W. Bush ran on a climate change platform in 1988, but the issue quickly fell in the chasm between the parties. Intelligent people need to pull it out of the chasm - and handle it.
Because, as Martin Luther King Jr. noted many decades ago, we are facing “the fierce urgency of now.” There is urgency in the pandemic, in racial justice, but especially in climate
“Look,” Biden says whenever he wants to make an important point, for me, it was long overdue that an American president talked like a rational adult about this critical issue. Finally.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at email@example.com.