The Climate Crisis Is Forcing Our Systems to Change. It’s Time for Congress to Follow Suit.

For more than a decade, activists have called for “systems change, not climate change.” While the climate crisis has arrived more quickly than much of the world anticipated, systems change has often felt far too slow. But last week, we saw that as sea levels rise, some of our most powerful systems — legal and financial — are indeed undergoing a sea change.

On May 26, Shell received a stunning rebuke from a Dutch court, which ordered it to cut emissions 45 percent from 2019 levels by 2030 — approaching what’s needed to avert catastrophic climate change. That same day, Chevron faced a shareholder revolt; in defiance of the company’s board of directors, they demanded that Chevron cut the emissions created when consumers burn its fuels, which account for the lion’s share of its emissions. And at ExxonMobil, long the world’s most powerful oil company, tiny upstart activist investor group Engine 2.0 staged a coup and installed at least two climate-minded directors on its board.

It was a turbulent day for an industry that’s had more and more of them lately. As concern over the climate crisis surges, and the economics of clean energy grow even more favorable, shareholders are pushing Big Oil to plan for a future of Big Renewables. And globally, the justice system is increasingly recognizing that enabling fossil fuel companies to pursue their profits at the expense of our collective future is a violation of our human rights.

Common sense is changing. There is a growing sense, even in the conservative quarters of an oil company’s shareholder meeting, that we must make a rapid transition to clean energy to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Ordinary people across the country are saying no to a future of extreme heat, fires, hurricanes and floods — to days when you can’t go outside because the air is so thick with smoke and pollution. And increasingly, investors, courts and others are joining the chorus.

President Joe Biden and the majority of congressional Democrats have shown they’re listening. Biden’s budget shows that he’s ready to make a break with four decades of punitive cuts to public goods and services, and make government an engine of progress and prosperity once more. It includes major new investments to speed the transition to clean energy and net-zero emissions, address legacies of pollution, and create family-sustaining jobs with access to unions in the sustainable industries that will power our future. And Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) just shepherded one of the largest investments in a clean energy future in legislative history, the Clean Energy for America Act, out of the Senate Finance Committee.

But so far, Congress as a whole has failed to absorb what will be the dominant common sense of this century: that climate change is already here, already claiming homes and lives, and only large-scale, rapid action will be enough to avoid total climate catastrophe. We’ll need to change how we get around, how we power our homes and businesses, and much else. And if we want such large-scale change to happen without leaving anyone behind, we need it to be catalyzed by the federal government.

It’s past time for Congress to listen to the message that’s coming from the street, the boardroom and the courtroom, and pass climate legislation that addresses this crisis at the speed and scale necessary. Lawmakers must deliver a big, bold infrastructure package that builds a more just and sustainable future, while creating millions of family-sustaining jobs in clean energy, electric vehicle manufacturing and energy efficiency. There can be no more tinkering around the edges while the West burns, the Gulf is slammed by hurricanes and Texas freezes.

Last week, climate advocates and courts told some of the world’s oil companies that the time for business as usual was over. Their systems need to change. Now, it’s time for Congress to follow suit.


Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club, and a nationally recognized writer, speaker and commentator on climate and environmental issues.

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