By Dino Grandoni with Alexandra Ellerbeck
Climate scientists are dealing with a strange new feeling now that Joe Biden is president: optimism.
Gone are the days of outright hostility from the White House to climate science, as was the case during Donald Trump’s presidency.
President Biden’s early executive orders on climate change, say an array of chemists, biologists, social scientists, signals that this White House acknowledges their work towards understanding the causes and consequences of rising temperatures.
But they know it remains extraordinarily difficult to actually cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to stop dangerous warming, even with Biden as president.
“We’re celebrating the opportunity to do a herculean task,” said Amir Jina, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. But he added, “Being too optimistic is something I’m being cautious of.”
Biden campaigned on the most aggressive climate plan ever put forward by a major-party candidate, calling for the elimination of greenhouse gas pollution from the power sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions from the rest of the U.S. economy by the middle of the century. The president unveiled sweeping executive actions Wednesday to kick-start that agenda.
Jina, who is currently teaching a class on international climate policy, has already reorganized his syllabus in response to Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord. “It’s an amazing time to be teaching this.”
Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, compared the work now facing the United States to climbing Mount Everest. “When you get to base camp, you absolutely should stop and celebrate,” she said. “Right now, we’re at base camp. We can see the peak of the mountain.”
That feels like a sea change from four years ago, when Trump was elected. His administration shut out climate scientists from decision-making and rolled back rules meant to cut emissions.
“It’s really overwhelming, to be honest,” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of environmental politics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It’s transformative.”