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Has the U.S. set realistic goals to combat climate change? A climate scientist weighs in

To discuss the ambitions of the climate summit and the very real challenges to President Joe Biden's plans, we're joined by Michael Mann, a climate scientist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State University. He's the author of, "The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet." This reporting is part of the international journalism collaborative called "Covering Climate Now."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now let's turn to the ambitions of the climate summit and the very real challenges to President Biden's plans.

    Michael Mann is a climate scientist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State University. He is the author of "The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet."

    Our continuing coverage of these issues this week is part of the international journalism collaborative called Covering Climate Now.

    Michael Mann, welcome "NewsHour."

    Let me just start by asking, how ambitious is President Biden's plan that he's laid out, compared to what any country's done before now?

  • Michael Mann:

    Yes, thanks, Judy. It's good to be with you.

    And it is a bold plan, make no mistake about it. I think that Joe Biden is surprising some of the skeptics who didn't think that he would lead on the issue of climate change. They were skeptical that he would show the sort of bold leadership that's necessary.

    But, here, we have the United States really laying down the gauntlet for other countries, a commitment to lower carbon emissions by a factor of two within the next 10 years. That is doable, and it is essential, if we are to avert catastrophic warming of the planet, more than three degree Fahrenheit warming of the planet, where we will start to see some of the worst impacts of climate change.

    That's what we have got to do globally. And, here, the United States is setting an example for other countries to follow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me read for you what The New York Times is reporting would be required by the end of the decade in order to meet the president's goal of cutting emissions in half.

    More than half of all new cars and SUVs would need to be powered by electricity, not gasoline. Nearly all coal-fired power plants would need to be shut down. Forests would need to expand. And the number of wind turbines and solar panels would quadruple.

    Is that realistic?

  • Michael Mann:

    Yes, well, you know, nothing that's worth doing is easy.

    And it's certainly a monumental task. But there is quite a bit of research now, teams from Stanford and the University of California, for example, that have demonstrated that we can get there with existing technology. We don't need a miracle, Bill Gates, who's said that in the past. We have the technology necessary to solve this problem.

    What we need is the political willpower, and we need the policies. And we have got leadership from the president in terms of executive actions that address the climate crisis. We're also going to need a legislative component. We're going to need climate legislation to make its way through Congress, if we are going to meet those commitments.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are going to be the easier pieces of this, and what are the harder pieces?

  • Michael Mann:

    So, there's a lot of low-hanging fruit, as it were.

    There are lots of things that we can do, for example, that save us money, and they decrease our carbon emissions. They're win-win, clean energy jobs, creating a resilient, smart grid that can be powered with renewable energy.

    These are all things that will improve our infrastructure, that will provide jobs. But, again, it's not going to be easy. If we are to wean ourselves from coal and natural gas and oil, essentially, within a decade, we are going to need policies that incentivize that shift. We need to put a price on carbon. We need to provide massive subsidies for renewable energy.

    We need to block the development of additional fossil fuel infrastructure. These are all things that the Biden plan supports. But, again, we need to codify that in terms of legislation if we're going to accomplish that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Mann, we know this is a global crisis, hence the 40 world leaders participating in today's summit.

    Tell us, how important is it what other major contributors of emissions, like China, like India, how important is it what they do, how much they contribute to dealing with this?

  • Michael Mann:

    Yes, well, it's essential.

    We are the world's largest cumulative emitter of carbon pollution. For nearly two centuries, we have been producing carbon pollution. Right now, China is the largest current emitter of carbon pollution. And so, clearly, we need the world's two largest emitters, the United States and China, to come together to, in fact, create an atmosphere that leads other countries to make meaningful commitments.

    That's what happened under the Obama administration. We had a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and China that really had teeth in it, and it laid the groundwork for a very successful Paris treaty.

    Now, what happened subsequently, obviously, Donald Trump came in. He pulled out of the Paris agreement. That took the pressure off of China. And after having been decommissioning coal-fired power plants, they started building them again.

    So, I think there's reason to be optimistic that now, with the U.S. once again demonstrating leadership, reaching a bilateral agreement again just last week with China, that creates an environment where other countries, and, in particular, some intransigent actors, like Australia, Scott Morrison, who really has made fairly feeble commitments thus far, this is going to put more pressure on them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, finally, I mean, you raise something that I do want to ask you about.

    And that is, because of our political process, because we elect a new president who could be of a different party every four years, every eight years, how much could that be a setback to what the United States and the world are trying to do?

  • Michael Mann:

    Yes, well, you live by the executive action, you die by the executive action, which is to say that anything that one administration does through executive actions, as you say, can be reversed.

    And that's what we saw with the Trump administration. So much of the progress that had been made under the Obama administration was reversed in just four years. And there's all that lost time, that opportunity cost of not having been acting in the meantime.

    And so what we need to do, as I said, we need to use those executive actions. And, right now, the Biden administration is doing that, but it can only go so far. We need to codify those changes in terms of legislation.

    And with a divided Congress, with a divided Senate, with a tiebreaking vote by the Democratic vice president, and some Democrats who might not sign on to expansive climate legislation, clearly, Joe Biden is going to need all of the diplomatic and — tools at his disposal, and Democrats in Congress may have to use some of the parliamentary tools that they have at their disposal, if we're to get climate legislation that will complement the executive actions that are being taken.

    And that's what we need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambitious, but clearly also complicated.

    Michael Mann with Penn State university, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • Michael Mann:

    Thank you, Judy.

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