What Biden’s Earth Day Summit Needs to Accomplish

What Biden’s Earth Day Summit Needs to Accomplish

Photograph by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images



World leaders are coming together this week as part of President Joe Biden’s Earth Day Summit. If the president truly cares about environmental justice, he needs to listen to communities on the frontline of the crisis.

Photograph by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Happy Earth Week, homies! The team here at Atmos has been hard at work all week. Not sure if y’all peeped, but we just launched our new print issue, Hive. In this edition, we take a look at the power of community and coordination—key themes within the climate movement, especially this week as President Joe Biden kicks off his Earth Day Summit.


Around the world, advocates are hitting the streets or organizing their own events alongside the summit to remind the president of what’s at stake. The climate crisis is personal. Whether it’s Indigenous communities at risk of losing their land (and their lives) or U.S. pipeline opponents, grassroots advocates are rising up and demanding Biden stand with them. Still, it’s worth noting that this week’s announcements won’t be enforceable. They will be promises and wishes with no mechanisms to hold leaders accountable. And that’s part of the problem.


Welcome to The Frontline, where Earth Day is more than a marketing scheme. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Earth Day is rooted in civil disobedience and protest. Climate activists are keeping that energy as Biden prepares to sit down with other world leaders and announce new emissions targets this week. However, words mean little in the fight to stop global heating. We don’t need more greenwashed lies. We need action.






In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set a mission for all of humanity: Reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in a decade or face irreversible consequences. Last year, a pair of artists came together to communicate this data to all of New York City. They unveiled an art project in Union Square where a digital clock counted down the seconds, minutes, and hours we have left until we’ve run out of time to act. On Monday, they updated the clock again to showcase what we are already doing—specifically how much of the world’s energy currently comes from renewables.


Now, youth climate strikers are delivering a miniature version of the climate clock to the White House on Wednesday along with a single demand: no more fossil fuels. For 13-year-old Silas Neeland, a member of Minnesota’s White Earth Nation, that means no Line 3 or Dakota Access pipeline running through tribal lands. He’ll be speaking virtually at the event coinciding with the delivery in D.C. and hopes Biden listens to what he has to say.


“If he wants to be a climate president, he has to listen to why these are dangerous fossil fuel pipelines,” Neeland said. “You’re on stolen land. If you’re going to steal people’s land, please just respect it.”


Respect is the bare minimum communities deserve. What they need is much more.


Set Fair Share Emissions Targets


President Biden is set to announce new nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, for the Paris Agreement during the Earth Summit. Former President Barack Obama previously set NDCs to a 28% reduction below 2005 levels by 2025. Now, there’s growing speculation that Biden will announce a 50% reduction for 2030. That’s what United Nations General Secretary General António Guterres is expecting, at least.


While this is an ambitious target (especially compared to previous administrations), the U.S. would still be lagging behind some leading European countries, including the U.K. and Switzerland. This commitment also dwindles in comparison to what environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth U.S. and Sunrise Movement, have requested in a document released earlier this month. They want to see the U.S. make a 70% reduction in domestic greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and another 125% reduction by investing resources and support to developing countries.


The ideal scenario is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, staying below 3 degrees Celsius feels like a win at this point to Natalie Mahowald, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University who co-authored that 2018 IPCC report.


“I used to say that if you want to keep emissions low enough so that we can keep temperatures below 1.5, what we have to do is cut energy demand dramatically—for example, stay at home, don’t drive, don’t fly,” she said. “Under COVID, we did that, and we did not see anywhere near the cuts we need to do. Keeping temperatures below 1.5 requires a rapid restructuring of our economy that probably is not going to happen.”


Missing that target, however, will mean more misfortune for coastal communities in the Global South. They’ll need support to prepare, rebuild, and adapt.

“You’re on stolen land. If you’re going to steal people’s land, please just respect it.”


Invest in Developing Countries


We know that industrialized regions such as the U.S. and E.U. historically contributed the emissions that made the climate crisis as we know it today a reality. We also know that developing countries will bear the brunt of how the crisis manifests. So, wouldn’t it be just and fair for the ones who caused the disaster to help foot the bill?


“We in the U.S. industrialized using fossil fuels, basically causing the climate crisis, and people in other countries have the right to develop sustainably as well,” said Karen Orenstein, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Friends of the Earth U.S. “They just can’t do it using the cheap dirty energy we did, so we have to enable them to develop as well—but to do so cleanly because the future of human civilization is at stake.”


According to the report Orenstein helped author, that can look like $800 billion in contributions over the next 10 years to cover mitigation, adaptation, and damages cost that we can expect abroad with the rising of our temperatures and ocean. That may also mean pledging support for an international debt relief and green recovery package that would offer $3 trillion as aid for developing countries to help meet the Paris Agreement without sacrificing the future and well-being of their constituents. Without such assistance, developing countries will be forced to rely on polluting fossil fuels to build their economies.


Recognize Global Indigenous Rights


In March, the United Nations formally recognized the role Indigenous communities play in protecting biodiversity. The report authors intentionally released that study before a number of global events on the climate crisis—including this Earth Day Summit. Now, Indigenous leaders want Biden and his peers to listen up. Indigenous peoples won’t be sitting alongside the president during these negotiations, but that’s why they have organized their own event this week to communicate their needs and solutions.


Levi Sucre Romero, the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, wants politicians to establish rights to his people’s ancestral lands. Something in our global political system is not working if a leader like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—who’s spokenly openly about his racism toward Indigenous peoples—is invited to convene with the White House but tribal nations are not.


“Enemies of Indigenous peoples like Bolsonaro will be there,” Sucre Romero said in Spanish. “That’s why we’ve made every effort to show there are more opinions beyond the people who will be there.”


Sucre Romero said Indigenous communities should be involved with the allocation of climate-related development funds. He worries that the release of these funds to corrupt politicians means they’ll never wind up in the hands of people who actually need them. Regional Indigenous organizations and alliances exist to provide the infrastructure to handle such funds.


Regulate Money in Politics


Ultimately, nothing can change if corporations continue to buy our politicians. This is true beyond the U.S., too. Oil and gas dominate the energy grid. That needs to change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s unlikely so long as fossil fuel executives fund political campaigns. That’s one of the main factors preventing adequate climate action, said Narasimha Rao, an associate professor of energy systems at the Yale School of the Environment.


“It’s quite clearly the dominance of the status quo of the fossil fuel industry that has made things quite difficult,” Rao said. “Gas is a global market, and it has become a global commodity.”


Corporate influence keeps our dreams small. Lobbyists representing private interests tell us that a fossil fuel-free future is impossible. They tell us to invest, instead, in carbon removal. That way, they can keep their oil and gas pipelines and refineries. While scientists do need to find ways to suck carbon out of the air, they need to more urgently build technologies around clean energy, public transit, urban planning, food, and more.


Addressing the climate requires a transformation of our societies. It requires a level of ambition and imagination humanity has never seen. That new world will come at the cost of our current one. And some industries will suffer. That is inevitable. Corporate profit, however, shouldn’t dictate the future of our planet and everyone who inhabits it. The rich executives will be fine. You and me? Maybe not. Politicians need to listen to the people. Believing corporate climate denial is what got us here in the first place.

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