Joe Biden’s bold climate-change plan for the United States: What the world needs now

Illinois has a lot riding on this — and every incentive to make it work.

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World leaders virtually attend the Leaders Summit on Climate, during the opening session, as seen on a screen at Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, April 22, 2021. The virtual event attended by many national leaders from their countries around the globe to raise global ambition on climate change is taking place on Earth Day, and hosted by President Joe Biden.

Mustafa Kamaci/Turkish Presidency via AP

Illinois sits in the crosshairs of climate change. The success of President Joe Biden’s ambitious Earth Day plan to curb the global crisis is critical to the future of our state.

A Nature Conservancy report issued Tuesday warns that climate change, left unchecked, will bring to Illinois new waterborne diseases, mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever, more mold, pollution and pollen that trigger allergies and asthma attacks, more flooding and a variety of other loathsome ills.

Temperatures could rise to 95 degrees or higher for a full straight month. Because some hospitals are located in low-lying areas, it could become harder to get medical care after heavier and more frequent storms.

Biden’s bold and inspirational plan is good for Illinois, and it is our responsibility as a state to help the president make it work.

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It won’t be easy. The United States must take the global lead on combating climate change, but after four years of climate-change denial by the previous presidential administration, other nations view our country as an unreliable partner. We are seen as a nation that yoyos from trying to save the planet to just letting it go.

A great strength of Biden’s plan, then, is that it approaches the task at hand in an inclusive way, hoping to encourage a buy-in by all Americans and all countries. There is a focus on coming to the aid of disadvantaged communities. There is a focus on working with other countries. Climate change is a global crisis requiring a global response — and we have to go big.

Biden, speaking at Thursday’s Leaders Summit on Climate, called for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. He called for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions altogether by 2050. He said the United States by 2024 will double the amount of money made available to developing countries to address climate change. And he said he hopes to extend federal environmental protections over 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030.

Biden can achieve some of this through executive orders and by statutory authority. But much more of what he hopes to accomplish will require congressional approval and appropriations. The president’s negotiation skills, honed over decades as a senator and vice president, will be put to their toughest test. Fifteen Republican governors already have announced they will try to block Biden’s climate change agenda.

“This is a major, bold, umbrella plan and it is going to take many individual programs to get there,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club.  

At the moment, only 12% of America’s land is protected. And the easiest way to get up to 30% would be to extend federal protections to tens of millions of acres — or even hundreds of millions — that the government already owns out West. But there are smaller parcels of land that are prime for protection throughout the country, including in Illinois. For example, the mostly unused 3,000-acre U.S. Army Joliet Training Center should be designated environmentally protected land as a complement to the nearby Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

The Illinois Legislature should step up and enact energy legislation that will position our state to be eligible for federal money to reduce fossil fuel emissions. A recent state-commissioned study of a request by Exelon, the power company, for a subsidy to keep underperforming nuclear plants open suggests ways the state can move toward greater use of renewable energy, clean jobs, help for displaced workers, aid to economically challenged communities and protection for electricity ratepayers.

The report, by Synapse Energy Economics, said subsidies for the nuclear plants make short-term good sense as the state transitions to renewable energy, but the subsidies need not be as generous as Exelon envisions. The state’s emphasis really has to be elsewhere.

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“[Biden’s plan] is an argument for Illinois to pass smart, clean energy legislation and for Gov. Pritzker to show leadership to move a bill forward that truly accelerates solar energy, wind power, energy storage and energy efficiency,” said Howard A. Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Chicago can contribute to the cause of combating climate change, as well, beginning by expanding its urban forest — more trees everywhere — encouraging more green roofs and turning vacant land into green areas, all of which would absorb carbon.

Nature-based solutions to climate challenges present huge opportunities to improve the quality of life in Chicago.

While, yes, helping to save the planet.

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