Opinion: As Americans worry about climate change, 9 experts weigh in with solutions

Editor’s Note: This roundup is part of the CNN Opinion series “America’s Future Starts Now,” in which people share how they have been affected by the biggest issues facing the nation and experts offer their proposed solutions. The views expressed in these commentaries are the authors’ own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

One in every three American adults say they have been personally affected by an extreme weather event in the past two years, according to Gallup. Public concern about the environment is near a two-decade high, according to a Gallup poll that found 44% of Americans worry “a great deal” about it. The polling organization says it’s the seventh year in a row that public worry over the issue is at a high level.

Experts say we’re already seeing the effects of climate change, as extreme weather events – catastrophic hurricanes, droughts, floods and wildfires – ravage communities all around the world with greater frequency.

For Katherine Keel, who had to evacuate from a wildfire in 2018, moving to the mountains of Colorado opened her eyes to the reality of a warming planet. “Climate change has become an undeniable fact of life in this area and our safety, livelihoods and wellbeing are at stake,” she wrote.

We asked nine experts to propose solutions that would mitigate the impacts of global warming, cut greenhouse gas emissions and help us reach our net zero goals.

Jonathan Foley
Jamie Alexander

After decades of stalling, the federal government is finally taking decisive action on climate change. The recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and other climate-related legislation has set the stage for significant progress toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions and building America’s renewable energy future.

It’s a great start, but federal policy alone won’t get the job done. Bringing climate solutions into the world at scale requires that every part of the economy bring its superpower to bear: genuine business leadership moving markets, investors and philanthropists shifting capital, workers building solar panels and wind turbines, and cities and states making climate solutions a reality in the places we live and work. And all of this will be accelerated by community leaders and activists keeping the pressure up and demanding accountability.

After all, leadership outside the Beltway pushed the climate agenda forward for years. Even before strong federal action, US emissions actually fell by 20% since 2007 and were on track to drop 30% by the 2030s. Now, thanks to federal investments, emissions are projected to drop by 40% instead. While federal legislation is critical, it will be responsible for roughly a quarter of these emissions reductions. Leadership from outside the Beltway will contribute the other 75%.

Multiple forms of climate leadership, leveraging each other, are needed to get the job done — as long as the work is guided by science, a commitment to equity and justice, and an unfailing moral compass. And these other leaders can move quickly, along other fronts, and do things the federal government can’t do — with less delay and political compromise.

In the end, it’s leadership from all of us – in the private sector, government and diverse communities around the nation – that will be needed to address climate change. And it’s time for all of us to step up.

Jonathan Foley ( @GlobalEcoGuy ) is the executive director of Project Drawdown, a science-based nonprofit that leads efforts for climate solutions. Jamie Alexander ( @jabeckx ) is the director of Drawdown Labs at Project Drawdown.

Jessica Dunn

Transportation is the biggest contributor to US greenhouse gas emissions, and the shift from gasoline to electric cars will play a key role in the fight against climate change.

But the mining of materials to make electric vehicle (EV) batteries presents numerous challenges, including supply chains vulnerable to disruption and harmful social and environmental consequences.

Given that the demand for these materials is only expected to increase, recycling EV batteries provides an opportunity to build a more sustainable future while shoring up domestic supply chains.

When an EV battery has reached the end of its life, materials recovered from battery recycling can be used to make new ones, reducing the need for mining. Recycling infrastructure is already growing in North America. Estimates show that, in 2050, recycled materials have the potential to meet roughly half of the demand for cobalt and nickel, and a quarter of the demand for lithium for EVs in the United States.

Ensuring all batteries are eventually recycled is key to increasing EV sustainability, and policy can help. In the US, there has been government-funded research and development into new recycling processes, and the California legislature convened stakeholders to explore policy solutions. But the European Union and China are ahead of the US in enacting recycling requirements for EV batteries. We can do more at the federal and state level.

Switching to EVs is essential to slow climate change and create a sustainable future. Smart policies that encourage battery recycling are an important part of the solution.

Jessica Dunn is a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, specializing in lithium-ion battery sustainability. She conducts research on material circularity and reducing battery impacts through repurposing and recycling.

Ama Francis

Recent deadly monsoon flooding in Pakistan and tens of billions of dollars in damage in the wake of Hurricane Ian in the US serve as reminders that extreme weather is affecting people on a previously unthinkable scale.

Climate change intensifies disasters that push people from their homes, creating “climate migrants” all around the world. In fact, environmental disasters are already the leading cause of internal displacement globally – more than war or conflict, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

While many migrants relocate within their country, a growing number have to cross international borders to find safety, including to the United States. Unfortunately, our immigration laws have yet to keep pace and need to be updated to include protections for climate migrants.

The good news is there are common sense actions the US can take to address this issue:

  • Recognize that some climate-impacted people qualify for refugee protection, and train immigration and refugee officers to better understand the role of climate in applications for asylum or resettlement.
  • Issue temporary protected status (TPS) for citizens of countries particularly affected by climate disasters, such as Guatemala and Honduras, allowing them to remain and work legally in the US.
  • Create new migration options for people most affected by structural inequality and climate change impacts.

It’s rare that the right thing and the smart thing align – but in this case they do. The US has contributed the most to carbon emissions over time, and addressing climate migration provides an opportunity to ensure equity, mitigate our demographic deficit, and uphold the dignity and safety of climate migrants all at once.

Climate change is not an insurmountable future issue, it’s a solvable present-day one. As we approach the upcoming midterm elections, it’s imperative that candidates recognize that fact and commit to supporting these solutions if elected.

Ama Francis is a climate displacement project strategist with the International Refugee Assistance Project and a non-resident fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University Law School.

Ramón Cruz

The historic investments in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) reflect what many state officials have already acknowledged: We must take urgent steps to curb the climate crisis. State governments have a crucial role in the equitable implementation of the IRA, as residents of their states increasingly experience the traumas of losing their homes, loved ones and livelihoods through climate-fueled disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes and droughts.

The impacts of the climate crisis are not confined to either blue or red states, but are felt in communities across the nation. This includes low-income communities and communities of color in Michigan, for example, that are among the most polluted in the country and have higher than average rates of asthma. It includes communities of coal miners suffering from black lung disease and struggling with access to medical care. These communities and many more remain in desperate need of support — which the IRA can provide.

The IRA’s investments include more than 100 programs that will invest $369 billion in climate action, clean energy jobs and environmental justice. This gives states the means to create family-sustaining jobs, improve the health of communities and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

One challenge is to channel funds efficiently, equitably and transparently from federal to state and local agencies. Governors should establish executive offices to ensure community organizations are active participants. Governors should issue executive orders enacting the Biden-Harris administration Justice40 initiative to invest in disadvantaged communities at the state level, similar to Gov. Roy Cooper in North Carolina while remaining transparent like Governor Steve Sisolak in Nevada on infrastructure funding.

As voters go to the ballot box, we must cast our votes for candidates who will proactively address our collective problems, not score petty political points. Let’s make communities, climate action and environmental justice the true winners this election season.

Ramón Cruz is the president of the Sierra Club.

Rich Powell

Climate debates in Washington are often based on false choices: renewables versus fossils, economy versus environment, 100% global emissions reduction versus inaction at home. The truth is, no government or business will achieve climate goals and see economic success unless all energy resources are on the table. So, let’s ask ourselves some key questions.

If solutions are only focused on reducing emissions to net zero here in the US while China continues emitting, what have we really accomplished? If America’s power sector transitioned entirely to clean energy at the cost of reliability or affordability, would the public support the change? Will our industry move overseas to higher emitting locations?

Economic inflation, high gas and electricity prices, global supply chain chaos, Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s effort to dominate markets have all combined to create an ongoing energy crisis. Lawmakers in both parties can work together on the biggest question: How do we restore American energy independence while working to solve the climate challenge?

There is a path both parties can follow. First, leverage American innovation and make clean energy cheaper. If two technologies are the same price and one is cleaner, utilities and industries worldwide will buy the cleaner alternative.

Second, lawmakers can modernize permitting to build cleaner and faster. Nobody argues against protecting the environment, but it shouldn’t take nearly five years on average to site a solar field, wind farm, natural gas plant or new transmission line. We need to cut approval periods by more than half.

Third, let’s think global and lead with America first. US emissions are trending down from 14% to 12.7% of the global total, and unless we equip other nations with clean technology, our efforts will never solve the global problem.

If we eliminate the false choices and unleash American resource independence, we can solve the climate challenge.

Rich Powell is CEO of ClearPath, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that develops and advances policies that accelerate breakthrough innovations to reduce emissions in the energy and industrial sectors.

Pippa Brashear

We cannot move toward a more just climate future if we continue to build infrastructure the way we have for the past century. We need to stop relying solely on shored-up single-purpose gray infrastructure like bulkheads and seawalls and start embracing blue-green infrastructure and the complexity of natural systems. This means preserving natural areas that are still intact and reviving landscape systems at a regional and national scale. Blue-green infrastructure works with nature, instead of against it – combining carbon capture, improved resilience, greater adaptability and greater biodiversity – while being less expensive to maintain and operate.

Demonstration projects already exist. In Raritan Bay, just off Staten Island in New York, we’re in the process of building Living Breakwaters, nature-based infrastructure that will reduce the risk of wave damage, mitigate erosion along the beach and create a habitat for marine species – including oysters that can help filter the water and, we hope, catalyze more projects like it. Louisiana is currently wrapping up its 2023 Coastal Master Plan, which includes some of the largest restoration projects in US history, such as sediment diversions – designed to redirect water, sediment and nutrients to starving wetlands, mimicking the natural processes that once enabled them to thrive so this critical natural infrastructure can continue to help mitigate flooding and erosion.

We’re at an inflection point for the climate movement. The passing of the Inflation Reduction Act marks a paradigm shift so big that it’s easy to overlook $2.6 billion in grants the law allocates to coastal communities and tribes for climate adaptation. This is a tremendous investment in nature-based infrastructure. The next step? Connecting the dots: linking shovel-ready, blue-green infrastructure projects to funding, creating more precedents for enhancing ecosystems and ensuring communities have a personal and economic stake in their implementation.

Pippa Brashear, is the resilience principal at SCAPE, a landscape architecture and urban design firm based in New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. She leads design and planning teams on large-scale climate adaptation and infrastructure projects across the US.

Christina DeConcini

For those of us who have spent decades urging Congress to enact strong climate legislation, it is difficult to believe that, in one year, Congress enacted three significant pieces of legislation designed to rapidly accelerate clean energy development and deployment.

Most of the focus has been on the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Job Act. Together these laws will deploy clean energy technologies – most of which are already commercially available after years of development – at a pace and scale necessary to put us in striking distance of our 2030 climate goals. This is fantastic, but we can’t stop there. In order to meet our net zero goals by 2050, we will need to rely on new technologies, much of which is still at the prototype phase, according to the International Energy Agency.

This brings us to the third and often overlooked piece of legislation: the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS). Most of the attention around CHIPS has focused on funding it has allocated to revive the American semiconductor industry. But, within CHIPS, there are critically important – but unfunded – provisions, which provide the framework and research policies necessary to bring emerging clean energy technologies to commercial viability at the pace necessary to meet the climate challenge.

Research and development can sound boring, but it is the essential ingredient for all innovation. The government has consistently played a leadership role in funding ongoing RD across all sectors of the economy and embracing risks the private sector won’t – all in the name of the public good.

While CHIPS merely authorized funding, Congress must now appropriate the money for these provisions, which will go toward advancing energy storage, fusion energy, artificial photosynthesis and carbon sequestration research, among other things.

Christina DeConcini is the director of government affairs at the World Resources Institute. She is an attorney and advocate who oversees WRI’s legislative work, its strategy on climate change and energy issues, and its engagement with the US administration and corporate partners on these issues.

Ernesto Díaz

Rising sea levels will continue exacerbating beach erosion for decades – and even centuries – in the US.

Low-lying cities and communities currently exposed to regular coastal floods, erosion and direct wave impact are at greater risk. In Puerto Rico, for example, rising sea levels have placed 60% of its 1,225 beaches at risk of moderate to severe erosion, according to a report from Puerto Rico’s Climate Change Council. The island’s situation is particularly alarming since 61% of its population lives in the 44 coastal municipalities where flooding and storm surges have devastated communities in recent years.

Meanwhile, in Florida, more than 425 miles of beaches are already critically eroded, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Last month, storm surge caused by Hurricane Ian obliterated several coastal communities.

The combined effect of rising sea levels and catastrophic storms will only cause more harm to these populations. It is imperative that cities and states come up with protection and adaptation interventions at built-up areas that currently experience coastal floods and beach erosion.

Protection may not be available to all due to the expensive nature of these plans, the complicated cost-benefit analysis process of agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers and, in some cases, because communities refuse to retreat. Higher-cost public and private infrastructure are more likely to get funding for protection. However, low-income communities may not be eligible for federally funded projects, mainly because these communities have experienced significant floods for generations. This evidences the need to foster a balanced and equitable approach to reduce coastal risk.

While protection or retreat may be a challenge for developed areas, municipalities can use available sea-level rise projections to reduce risks through planning and updated building codes. Cities must develop land use plans and zoning regulations for the next several decades in order to reduce vulnerability and ensure that future investments meet and exceed the new infrastructure requirements.

Building codes and design standards must also be updated. Construction codes and standards play a vital role in building resiliency and adaption to projected sea-level rise. Measures such as building elevation, foundation design and others meant to combat moisture entrapment and damage from debris are key to ensure infrastructure resilience. These plans require political will, sustainable financing and a science-based process. The science is available, and these coastal communities can’t afford to wait any longer.

Ernesto L. Díaz is an oceanographer. He is the Caribbean regional manager at Tetra Tech, a consulting and engineering firm , and serves as the science coordinator for the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council.