Climate change fell out of the public eye as COVID-19 took over the world. But this year is likely to be the most pivotal yet in the fight against climate change.
From our vantage point today, 2020 looks like the year when an unknown virus spun out of control, killed hundreds of thousands and altered the way we live day to day. In the future, we may look back at 2020 as the year we decided to keep driving off the climate cliff–or to take the last exit. Taking the threat seriously would mean using the opportunity presented by this crisis to spend on solar panels and wind farms, push companies being bailed out to cut emissions and foster greener forms of transport in cities. If we instead choose to fund new coal-fired power plants and oil wells and thoughtlessly fire up factories to urge growth, we will lock in a pathway toward climate catastrophe. There’s a divide about which way to go.
In early April, as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. and doctors urgently warned that New York City might soon run out of ventilators and hospital beds, President Donald Trump gathered CEOs from some of the country’s biggest oil and gas companies for a closed-door meeting in the White House Cabinet Room. The industry faced its biggest disruption in decades, and Trump wanted to help the companies secure their place at the center of the 21st century American economy.
Everything was on the table, from a tariff on imports to the U.S. government itself purchasing excess oil. “We’ll work this out, and we’ll get our energy business back,” Trump told the CEOs. “I’m with you 1,000%.” A few days later, he announced he had brokered a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to cut oil production and rescue the industry.
Art by Jill Pelto for TIME
Later in April, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, in a video message from across the Atlantic, offered a different approach for the continent’s economic future. A European Green Deal, she said, would be the E.U.’s “motor for the recovery.”
“We can turn the crisis of this pandemic into an opportunity to rebuild our economies differently,” she said. On May 27, she pledged more than $800 billion to the initiative, promising to transform the way Europeans live.
For the past three years, the world outside the U.S. has largely tried to ignore Trump’s retrograde position on climate, hoping 2020 would usher in a new President with a new position, re-enabling the cooperation between nations needed to prevent the worst ravages of climate change. But there’s no more time to wait.
We’re standing at a climate crossroads: the world has already warmed 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution. If we pass 2°C, we risk hitting one or more major tipping points, where the effects of climate change go from advancing gradually to changing dramatically overnight, reshaping the planet. To ensure that we don’t pass that threshold, we need to cut emissions in half by 2030. Climate change has understandably fallen out of the public eye this year as the coronavirus pandemic rages. Nevertheless, this year, or perhaps this year and next, is likely to be the most pivotal yet in the fight against climate change. “We’ve run out of time to build new things in old ways,” says Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University and the chair of the Global Carbon Project. What we do now will define the fate of the planet–and human life on it–for decades.