Climate change and environmental collapse are twin problems that threaten the very existence of life as we know it on this planet. Solving them presents our generation with the greatest challenge in human history — and it is imperative that we rise to meet this challenge. The stakes are just too high if we fail. As President, I will make stopping climate change and preventing environmental collapse the key national priorities they need to be. We owe future generations of humanity nothing less.
As a Congressman, I built a strong record of fighting for the cause of environmental protection. I co-sponsored the Clean Water Restoration Act — to expand federal jurisdiction in dealing with water pollution to cover all waters of the United States (instead of just “navigable waters”) — and the Clean Water Protection Act — to prevent the use of mining waste as fill material in existing bodies of water — which would have sharply reduced the environmentally devastating practice of mountaintop removal mining. I also co-sponsored a bill to increase oil company and industry liability for industrial spills so taxpayers are not left holding the bill, and voted to increase the amount oil developers must contribute to the oil spill liability trust fund. I was a leader in the fight to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which would have repealed the exemption for hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) in the Safe Drinking Water Act and finally required companies engaged in fracking to reveal the chemicals they regularly inject into the ground. When I ran for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, I called for a moratorium on fracking. I was proud to receive a 96% rating from the League of Conservation Voters, and a 100% rating from PennEnvironment.
I was a leader on climate and energy issues as well. I co-sponsored the Safe Climate Act to decrease emissions and accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gases. I also co-sponsored the American Renewable Energy Act, requiring that 25% of all energy generation come from renewable sources. I voted to extend and expand tax credits for alternative energy like solar and wind, and voted for the Energy Storage Technology Advancement Act, which would have increased funding for energy research to improve industrial energy efficiency and energy storage for electrical grids and hybrid vehicles. I also voted to invest $90 billion in renewable energy development and deployment.
The next few years may prove to be the most important in human history. We can either continue with the head-in-the-sand policies of the current administration, or we can listen to the scientists whose well-studied facts and figures consistently show that global warming is an unambiguously grave threat to humanity and all life on earth. According to our own Defense Department: “Climate change will affect Department of Defense’s ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risk to U.S. national security.” Already we are seeing climate change play a role in migration, such as from Central America, and in war, such as in Syria. Since this is a global challenge, a global response is necessary, which is why we must immediately rejoin the Paris Accord and reassert US leadership to collectively increase and enforce national commitments around the world.
We must also ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, mandating the phasing out of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — commonly used as refrigerants — which evaporate as a greenhouse gas 1000 times more potent than CO2. By setting new international standards that match today’s best air conditioner efficiency, the net result of Kigali for the climate would be equivalent to reforesting two-thirds of the Amazon. This is particularly important as currently only 8% of people in the tropics have air conditioning, but eventually most will. Enforcing Kigali in the United States will likely require securing executive jurisdiction over HFCs by passing a law to give the EPA full authority to regulate all substances that contribute to global warming, as it already has authority to regulate substances that contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. Currently the EPA’s authority in these matters is determined by the discretion of the courts (with one important case still up in the air). And of course we need to install new leadership at the EPA that centers science in all of its decision-making and operates in the interests of the American people, not fossil fuel companies and other corporate powers.
Most critically, we need to break our addiction to fossil fuels as soon as possible. This is why I’m strongly in favor of banning all future offshore and Arctic drilling, increasing fuel efficiency standards, and ending subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, while instead providing more subsidies to the green energy sector. But in the meantime we must act quickly to disincentivize businesses from emitting carbon dioxide through the imposition of a fee on carbon polluters. I favor a program along the lines of the proposed Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a bipartisan plan that would set a low initial price on carbon emissions of $15 per ton but which would rise by $10 per year, with the proceeds of the fee returned in equal measure to all Americans as a dividend. It’s estimated that such a policy alone would reduce our carbon emissions by 90% by 2050.
However, unlike the authors of that bill, I believe we should reserve a portion of the dividends for investments into renewable energy research and development. In particular, we should be looking for cost-efficient ways to scale up available technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (including even by removing it, re-utilizing it, and removing it again in a continuous cycle). I also believe we should be investing in the potential of nuclear technology based on thorium, which would end the use of plutonium and could lead to much safer nuclear power plants, less toxic nuclear waste, and less opportunities for nuclear weapons proliferation. Nuclear power can continue to help us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but in the wake of the Fukushima disaster we must do everything we can to make it safer. In order to reach net zero emissions by 2050, we must leverage every possible resource we can toward technological innovation.
We must also recognize that a huge percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and land use. In fact, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) farming and forestry are just about as responsible for the high level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as electricity and heat production (agriculture and land use are responsible for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, electricity and heat production for 25%), and more so than transportation (which contributes 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions). Modern agriculture, which our country has exported around the world over recent decades, is a huge driver of climate change, especially through annual tillage, deforestation, and livestock management practices. Tilling a field every year releases trapped carbon into the atmosphere and reduces the ability of soil microorganisms to capture carbon in the future (while also causing erosion and the loss of topsoil); deforestation — which is particularly problematic in biodiverse and ecologically sensitive areas like the Amazon basin and Southeast Asia — releases carbon into the atmosphere when it occurs, and often leads to even further greenhouse gas emissions when it is followed by industrial crop farming or large-scale animal grazing; and livestock like cows are also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but these can be reduced through sustainable practices like rotational grazing on well-managed pasture land and through the addition to livestock diets of underutilized crops — like sainfoin, which actually reduces the methane emissions of cows that eat it, even when only a small percentage of their diet.
The Rodale Institute has studied this topic for many years and calculates that if we converted 100% of all crop and pasture land to regenerative organic practices, we would remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year than our current carbon emissions level. In other words, we could start reducing excess carbon from the atmosphere through better farming practices. In order to make this a reality we must stop subsidizing emissions-heavy industrial farming — which generally only benefits large corporations and wealthy landowners — and start heavily subsidizing organic and regenerative farming, which would most benefit small family farmers, but would also benefit all of us by cleaning up our water, air, and food supply. Farms big and small must be given the tools and support they need to transition to more sustainable practices. If we incentivize enough farmers to make the switch — and if we devote substantially more resources to research into perennial staple crops, agroecological farming, and soil science — we can make agriculture a potent weapon against climate change, instead of just another driver of it.
Climate change is such a complex problem that we must pursue every possible solution. I believe we need to invest more in mass transit, increase fuel efficiency standards, improve access to electric cars (including by offering cash rebates in lieu of electric car tax credits so lower-income Americans can participate), reduce food waste, increase recycling, and incentivize consumers and corporations to repair electronic devices, like smart phones, rather than simply replacing them. Our disposable material culture has real costs, and we must not allow them to be born solely by future generations.
With the threat of devastating climate change looming over our planet, it is all too easy to imagine that this is the most urgent environmental crisis we face. But frightening warning signs point to an ongoing environmental collapse that may threaten the stability of society long before climate change renders the equatorial regions of the globe uninhabitable due to extreme heat or floods coastal cities like Miami, New Orleans, and New York. One indicator is the staggering loss of biodiversity already under way, which many scientists have labeled “the sixth extinction,” an event that may ultimately rival the extinction of the dinosaurs. Recent studies demonstrating plummeting populations of insects are particularly worrying, as insects sit at the base of most food chains (for instance, the disappearance of songbirds is a likely symptom of the loss of insect life). So too is the acidification of our warming oceans a troubling sign, leading to the destruction of coral reefs and no doubt the loss of countless species, sometimes before science even has a chance to discover them.
While climate change no doubt plays a role in this global loss of biodiversity — and its role will only become more central as climate change worsens — a great deal of this problem can be traced directly to human behavior, and once again agriculture and land use are strongly implicated. In much of the tropics, palm oil plantations are replacing rainforests at a dizzying rate. In the Amazon, rainforests are replaced by cattle ranches and soybean farms. Here in the United States, consolidation and increasing corporate control of farms have prioritized short-term profits over long-term sustainability, leading to increased use of destructive practices like removing hedgerows and farming from property line to property line (which destroys habitat for beneficial insects and all sorts of other creatures), and overusing nitrogen fertilizers, which lead to toxic algae blooms and oxygen-free dead zones, like the huge one in the Gulf of Mexico. Excessive use of pesticides around the world is believed to be the primary cause of the aforementioned loss of insects, which has ripple effects throughout the natural world.
We can put a stop to this sixth mass extinction event, but in order to do so we must re-double our efforts to preserve the environment by restoring wildlife habitats, make more land off-limits to development, strengthen enforcement mechanisms in the global Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), incentivize the adoption of sustainable farming practices, and — above all — finally deal with the specter of climate change. As President, I will do everything in my power to make sure our children and grandchildren — and their children and grandchildren, and on, and on — can enjoy all of the beauty and prosperity that this miraculous planet earth has provided for us. It is our solemn duty to be good ancestors for the people of the future.