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Biden and Kerry Must Address the Climate Emergency

First, a sigh of relief: We elected a president who actually believes in government. Who’s made John Kerry, a serious diplomat, his climate czar — and put him on the National Security Council, recognizing, as our military has for years, that an unstable climate is a matter of war and peace.

We chose a moderate to replace a demagogue: in practical terms, we had to. But in the realm of climate change, as the young know — the young whose turnout was crucial to Joe Biden’s victory, whose motivation was in large part the urgency of the climate crisis and whose share of the electorate will only grow — moderation will be the kiss of death.

In this life-support emergency, muddy, transactional compromise has failed us so far, over decades of destructive policy that propped up the good-ol’-boy bastion of fossil fuels. Which is still busily selling out the world from underneath our feet.

And it will fail us with a radical finality if Mr. Biden’s version of climate action turns out to be baby steps. He has told us that he’s committed to curbing climate change — that, unlike his White House predecessor, he recognizes its importance. Hedging for swing-state voters, however, he’s also shrunk away from the Green New Deal and banning fracking.

But the election is over. And now weak, milquetoast maneuvers will condemn the coming generations as surely as climate denial would. A miss is as good as a mile: Biden cannot succeed by accommodationist reforms aimed at pleasing the corporate establishment. He can succeed only through heroic measures.

For our grandchildren and his, for all those who follow us on this Earth — along with the insects that pollinate our crops, the beasts that roam the melting Arctic, the coral reefs that are swiftly bleaching into oblivion — the next four years are crucial. Mr. Biden’s climate policy will either save the young or consign them to a bleak and terrifying future.

Science gives us 10 years to make a large-scale transition to renewables, and 20 years to get to zero carbon, to have a chance of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — just this side of the apocalypse zone. Mr. Biden’s current climate plan won’t get us there fast enough.

Business as usual won’t be our salvation. The changes he needs to make are sweeping ones we’ll have to embrace as a culture. This cannot be a children’s crusade alone — grandparents like him, parents, uncles and aunts must also join the fight.

All of us will have to rally to the momentum of a recognized truth: that now is the only time that remains to us to halt the lethal juggernaut. For hope and for joy, now is the only time we have left.

As the youth climate movement shows — through Sunrise, Zero Hour, Extinction Rebellion and many other green energy and environmental justice grass-roots groups bound up in the drive for action — the will for transformation is growing. Rising up from beneath our arms, which should have been sheltering them.

In colleges, high schools, even grade schools across the country and the globe, the children are struggling to lead us.

We can marshal a broader social will. But it needs the strength of political will to be made flesh: the force of the executive, the dedication of public and private money to climate-rational projects, the use of existing law and the cooperation of nations.

In the absence of such a unifying paradigm shift, deadly storms and wildfires will get worse, removing from our descendants the safety of home. Rising seas will remake the coastlines before we can adapt, undoing our great cities. Forced migrations will bring civil strife and autocracy. Waves of extinctions will unravel the ecosystems that give us clean water, clean air, forests and fisheries. And forever rob us of the beauty and possibilities of a living planet.

Congress, and the entrenched private interests behind it, has proved too spineless to tackle this singularly universal threat. Only this president, now, has the power to lead with enough strength to push our country and the other two largest emitters, China and India, to zero carbon by 2040.

He can do this by recasting his climate plan to hit emissions-reduction targets not by midcentury but much sooner. By creating millions of jobs in green energy, building and transportation — in energy justice, sustainable agriculture, health care and education. By executive order and other available means, he can declare a climate emergency, keep fossil fuels in the ground both offshore and on, stop their export and infrastructure build-out, direct cabinet departments to shift subsidies to clean energy, and use the Clean Air Act to cap greenhouse gas emissions. That would be a start.

There’s no “interest” group that will not be permanently devastated by a ruined climate — rich or poor, Black, Native, Latino or white, Democrat or Republican.

If I were Joe Biden, a paragon of centrist decency compared with Donald Trump but no one’s warrior king, at least so far, I’d seize this moment for what it is: the possibility of an extraordinary redemption. Not to cave to mediocrity and compromise and damn the ones who come after, but to show a depth of honor and a fighting spirit that will never be forgotten.

Rise up and save us, Mr. Biden. Not in the vague tomorrow, but today.

Lydia Millet (@lydia_millet), a novelist and the chief editor at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., is the author, most recently, of “A Children’s Bible.”

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