We are now three months away from an election that could determine a lot, including what our future climate looks like. For our podcast Trump on Earth, Reid Frazier discusses the 2020 election through the prism of climate change with TIME correspondent Justin Worland, who recently wrote a cover story for the magazine entitled, “2020 is our last, best chance to save the planet.”
Listen to the full episode or read the transcript below:
(These conversations have been edited for clarity)
Reid Frazier: Why is this election so important for climate change?
Justin Worland: Let’s start with the science. The planet has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The Paris Agreement says we should try to keep temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius. Somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, we might experience some dramatic tipping points that could really alter life on this planet as we know it. So we really don’t have much time.
Then you add the fact that we have this pandemic, which has obviously created so many health problems and economic problems, but also led to the spending of trillions of dollars to deal with the pandemic. That money can be spent in a way that rethinks the way we live, or it can be spent to reinforce our old way of living.
We’re not going to get an opportunity like this again. If we don’t take the opportunity, we’re going to lock in a high carbon world. Around the world, this is a topic of discussion. In the U.S., under President Trump, it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to do anything to take on this issue. Under a different president, that might not be the case.
Frazier: So what is it about the timeline laid out by the Paris Agreement that makes this year or the next few years so important?
Worland: Before the pandemic, and apart from the election, this was supposed to be a critical year for climate change. Countries were supposed to come together in November 2020 and outline new plans to reduce emissions, to try to bend the curve. That summit has now been postponed by a year because of the pandemic. But the Paris Agreement did make 2020 a key year. There were a number of other key conferences that were meant to build momentum to this big international climate conference.
Frazier: So the world is positioning itself to ratchet up its climate commitments. Could you also talk about what effect the coronavirus could have on our timeline to act on climate change. Why would the coronavirus and the ensuing rebuilding package matter so much for climate change?
Worland: Well, this year, countries and financial institutions have spent some $11 trillion. They’re going to spend trillions more in the coming months. And that’s money that otherwise would have been spent over the course of the next decade. These discussions are happening right now around the world.
“With a second Trump presidency, we’re going to start to see climate change as an issue where countries are pushing each other in a more aggressive way.”
But you go to a place like China where they’re looking to expand their electricity generation, they’re going to decide right now whether to build more coal-fired power plants or whether to build more renewable generating capacity. Once that money is spent, it’s not going to be spent again.
China is a prime example because they had funding that was supposed to take place over a five year period and they’re pushing to try to pull that funding forward. So these decisions are happening really quickly in response to the pandemic and I guess more precisely to the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Frazier: One really fascinating part of your story was this point about how the current climate crisis we’re in was made, in part, because of decisions made during the past, obviously. But you’re talking specifically about the aftermath of World War II, when the U.S. economy grew out of a wartime economy. We see the growth of the automobile and plastics industries and the Marshall Plan in Europe.
Talk a little bit about why that era casts such a long shadow in terms of climate.
Worland: I think it’s really important to understand, everything that we do in this country, for the most part, runs on fossil fuels. I mentioned in the story, the biggest line item in the Marshall Plan was to support oil. It was a conscious decision when the U.S. built up the capacity to build plastics for wartime purposes, to then use that to build consumer products.
You look at the measure of GDP which came out of GNP, which was a measure developed during the war as a measure of economic output, which then prioritizes consumption, which is based, again, on having an unlimited supply of oil to continue powering our society.
So all of these decisions were made in that period. And they really sort of structure the way our society runs today. Undoing that requires some real deliberate thinking.
Frazier: We know that the U.S., under the Trump administration, has basically not done much intentionally about dealing with climate change. But what is happening in other countries?
Worland: Well, it’s a really interesting mix that’s happening around the world. The EU is leading the charge with hundreds of billions of euros committed to building back greener: renewable energy capacity; electric vehicle charging stations; a just transition in some of the coal-dependent states where they’re funding measures to retrain people.
Look at a place like China, the picture is mixed and still to be determined. They’re funding a lot of coal-fired power plants. But at the same time, building out the capacity to build for the clean energy economy — prioritizing electric vehicles, prioritizing solar panel manufacturing, etcetera.
If you go to developing countries, these are places that are dependent on financing from elsewhere, there is this new-found commitment to climate action that is in large part driven by if they’ve received funding from the IMF. The IMF says ‘we’re going to give you this funding but we want to evaluate whether you’re prepared to address climate change.’ You get these interesting things where countries are spending a lot of money to build greener because they’re being pushed to do so.
Frazier: And in the EU, they’re calling it the European Green Deal, right?
Worland: Right. It’s funny because there’s a lot of debate about it, but there’s very little debate about whether they should have it. It’s a question about what does it look like? It’s not a controversial thing like it is here.
Frazier: Your article’s premise is that if Trump is reelected, a lot of possibilities for reducing carbon in the atmosphere will go away, essentially. Am I right about that? And what is the outlook if Biden is elected?
Worland: You are right to say that a lot of possibilities for reducing emissions go away if Trump is reelected. The hope for a lot of climate activists is that a Joe Biden presidency would mean big climate legislation; stimulus that funds green initiatives; a restoration of a lot of the regulations that have been overturned and an expansion of those. The one thing I would say, obviously, if Trump is reelected, it’s not going to be a priority. But this issue is not going away.
“Once you’ve crossed the tipping point, you’ve crossed it. The world isn’t over. We’re not all going to go extinct, but it’s going to be a different world.”
The one thing I always point to as a part of the European Green Deal is a carbon tax at the border, which means essentially they’re going to be creating a tariff on goods for places that are not addressing climate change. And if you [want to ] get Republicans in Washington anxious about climate change, saying that there is going to be a tax on their goods is a good way to do it.
I think that with a second Trump presidency, we’re going to start to see climate change as an issue where countries are pushing each other in a more aggressive way. It’ll be interesting to see how a potential Trump second term would deal with that.
Frazier: So you discussed in your article some of the tipping points in climate if we go over some of these thresholds. What are the tipping points in and why are they important?
Worland: In my story, I reference a 2019 analysis in the journal Nature, which points to nine tipping points – anything from the melting of ice sheets in the West Antarctic to the breakdown of certain currents that regulate our weather patterns, to the loss of the coral reefs. All of these things are phenomena that would really trigger a much bigger change than we’ve experienced thus far.
To lose an ice sheet that would raise sea levels significantly very fast would be a very dramatic change in warming. To have a circulatory pattern breakdown that would then lead to rapid temperature change in certain parts of the globe — these are all things that are potentially very close to happening and would dramatically change our world, pretty close to overnight.
Frazier: And you couldn’t come back from them. You can’t just refreeze the West Antarctic ice sheet.
Worland: That’s exactly right. Once you’ve crossed the tipping point, you’ve crossed it. The world isn’t over. We’re not all going to go extinct, but it’s going to be a different world.
Justin Worland is a Washington D.C.-based correspondent for TIME covering energy and the environment.