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Climate Leadership

In the months before COP26, America's leadership swore that they understood the magnitude of the challenge, the urgency of the need, and recognized the opportunity that this summit could be. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry called COP26 "our last, best chance to save the planet." We were told that the American delegation would arrive in Glasgow with a historic new legislative package to put the USA on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030.

We're still waiting.

With COP26 now at and end, NGOs are still frustrated by lack of access and transparency. Activists are frustrated that world leaders' speeches are still not being matched by sufficiently concrete, deliverable actions. And, as one young American activist recently put it to me: "fossil fuels are the 'f-word' of this conference—all of our leaders are afraid to even say it". For all the pretty pieces of paper being waved around—declarations, statements, and pledges—truly ambitious actions are few and far between. President Biden knows that this is the 'decisive decade'—and so he must leverage every tool the American presidency has to make that happen.

If the past two years have shown us anything, it is that the climate crisis is already here.

If the past two years have shown us anything, it is that the climate crisis is already here. In the US alone 2021 brought us freak snowstorms in Texas, murderous heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest, and hurricanes like Ida and Elsa sowing destruction from the Gulf Coast to New York City.

Developed nations like the US simply must do more to decarbonize across the whole of their economies if we are to mitigate the worst impacts of global heating.

Global heating is at its heart a question of justice. It will disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. The truth is, these disparities are already being felt across multiple American communities on the frontline of the climate crisis, from undocumented communities excluded from emergency relief during the California wildfires to Federal Emergency Management Agency aid actually widening the racial wealth gap in the aftermath of disasters.

As a young person working in the climate movement, I cannot begin to fathom how at COP26, our world leaders are still dawdling on climate action when they should be sprinting at full tilt towards real zero solutions.

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We cannot abandon 1.5C. Developed nations like the US, which is responsible for almost 25% of historical greenhouse gas emissions, simply must do more to decarbonize across the whole of their economies if we are to mitigate the worst impacts of global heating. Failure is not an option.

We young people spent our evenings phone banking and going door to door in our communities to get out the vote to usher in a Biden Presidency and a Democratic trifecta. So what is going on with Biden's climate agenda—the Build Back Better plan we were promised?

Somehow, the future of the entire planet is being held hostage by a coal robber baron and a self-proclaimed "maverick" who fancy themselves kingmakers of the evenly divided Senate. Already, we have bent over backwards, rewriting what should have been the gold standard of climate policy as the Clean Energy Performance Program into a bill which Senators Manchin and Sinema might deign to vote for. What these Senators seem not to grasp is that decisive action on climate is not a 'cost': it is an investment, not just in our future, but in our survival.

Somehow, the future of the entire planet is being held hostage by a coal robber baron and a self-proclaimed "maverick" who fancy themselves kingmakers of the evenly divided Senate

As President Biden rightly points out, the smaller, less ambitious version of the bill currently awaiting vote in the Senate would still be a win, representing the largest climate investment in American history and embedding principles of environmental justice at its heart. After all, something now is better than nothing at all, both to lay the groundwork for future US action and to rally momentum and faith in US climate leadership on a global level at COP26.

But we cannot pin the future of our planet on just two Senators. The loss in Virginia's gubernatorial race and the too-close-for-comfort call in New Jersey show that President Biden needs to deliver now on the promises he ran on in 2020. If Congress can't act, then President Biden must leverage executive branch powers to meet our climate targets. This must include banning federal fossil fuel leasing, strengthening existing environmental regulations, halting fossil fuel exports, and leveraging the Defense Production Act to mobilize the domestic renewable energy industry.

We are quickly losing our window of opportunity to prove that America really is back in the fight against climate chaos. But beyond electoral politics, the voices of activists in the US and across the world show us what's at stake if the US fails to show up.

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"At stake is our food systems, our ecosystems, our beautiful nature, our happiness. At stake is everything," said Peruvian youth climate activist Arturo Salazar. 

We need American leadership in order to rebuild trust in the process. But the climate crisis is not over now the negotiations have ended—the work must continue. We will be watching, and we will keep pushing for stronger, tangible climate action in the US and across the world.

Isabella Shraiman