In his recent documentary, British broadcaster and conservationist Sir David Attenborough made a grim warning that our planet is racing toward its sixth mass extinction as illustrated through dramatic climate change and subsequent losses of biodiversity. Such a theory underlines the need for immediate and concrete action from governments, companies, communities and individuals to protect the environment.
Fortunately, the world has seen some positive news in this regard. In China’s case, President Xi Jinping took the spotlight on the international stage when he announced China’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 during his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month. According to Reuters, the pledge is “the most significant climate policy move for years and, if achieved, could curb likely global warming by 0.2-0.3 Celsius this century, researchers said.” While many have applauded this commitment, some remain skeptical – noting that plans for increased construction of coal-fired power plants throughout China counter this pledge and additional overhauls of operation and economic planning may be needed in order to accomplish this goal. However, the public commitment made by President Xi and his government have been characterized as a pivotal indicator of a more sustainable direction for China.
The U.S. has seen a slightly different track, with President Trump’s decision to remove the country from the impactful Paris Climate Accords originally negotiated under his predecessor striking a sour note among environmentalists. While this has drawn domestic and international ire, the U.S. leader remains committed to the decision, further bolstering his stance with pushes for increased use of “clean coal” and continued fracking in various states across the country.
The president’s political opponents have taken the opposite track, pushing for both small and large scale initiatives to encourage private companies toward sustainable practices, demonstrating the power of community action in preserving the environment, and emphasizing the importance of climate change as an issue requiring government attention. A notable example of this push came from a series of Congressional Democrats through the ‘Green New Deal’, playing on the past New Deal, which revolutionized government protections of the economy and workers during the Great Depression era. Spearheaded by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the proposal called for a “10-year national mobilization” plan for the U.S. to decrease the use of fossil fuels as well as emissions of greenhouse gases. While the plan remains a point of contention in U.S. political circles, it does illustrate a shift in the conversation on climate change in the halls of Washington, D.C.
Beyond government auspices, both countries possess empowered civil society and research organizations seeking to encourage individual and community efforts for recycling, increased use of renewable energy, and more environmentally friendly habits. These groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club also often engage with private corporations through monitoring and data gathering.
A masterful example of this work comes from the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Beijing-based non-profit environmental research organization which has dedicated itself to “collecting, collating and analyzing government and corporate environmental information to build a database of environmental information.” Through this work, IPE has successfully provided statistical evidence of both corporate maleficence in China and created groundswell, which has encouraged both private and public leaders to adjust policies toward sustainable development. Their Pollution Information Transparency Index in particular plays a key role in informing the public of government and corporate progress on air pollution targets, as well as areas where work still must be done.
While governments take various paths to combat climate change, a collective approach necessitates the efforts of outside organizations, companies and individuals to successfully protect the planet and our shared future. These actions go beyond environmental regulations, as emphasized by Sir Attenborough, countries can instill policies to raise citizens out of poverty and expand healthcare alongside switching to renewable energy sources and refraining from overfishing practices. With the collaborative effort from every single one of us around the world, we can successfully fight climate change.