When United Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Center South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, I was in a meeting at the U.S. Capitol with the late Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, lobbying on the Clean Power Act of 2001. This landmark legislation, as Jeffords explained, would have required “dirty power plants to clean up or shut down.” The bill focused on reducing electric power plants’ emissions of smog- and soot-producing nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, toxic mercury and greenhouse gas-trapping carbon dioxide. Jeffords believed that “with American ingenuity, we can achieve the reductions … without shutting out the lights.”

Visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., hold a giant Flight 93 flag during a moment of remembrance Sept. 10, 2018, on the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. We need to channel the same ingenuity into addressing climate change that the heroic passengers aboard Flight 93 did when they diverted the plane. Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Later that morning, American Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center collapsed. United Flight 93 was forced down into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, by heroic passengers who diverted the plane from the very building I was standing in moments before, likely saving countless lives, including my own. In the days and weeks ahead, Americans came together to mourn and comfort each other. In the years ahead, “American ingenuity” rebuilt and renewed New York City and Washington, D.C. Any meaningful climate policy was put on hold.

I’m not equating deadly terrorist attacks with catastrophic climate change. They are distinctive challenges with severe human impacts. But from my own, very personal point of view, that day holds a mix of memories, including the important environmental topic we were discussing when Capitol Police entered the meeting room suddenly, urging us to exit the building immediately and to “run!”

It’s been two decades since that devastating attack on our country transformed our approach to defense, homeland security, economic and foreign policies. However, our climate policy, in many respects, remains grounded in September 2001.

Today, Earth is under attack. Brutal heat waves, such as in the Pacific Northwest over the summer, are getting hotter. Droughts, such as the one plaguing the western United States, are becoming more frequent and severe. Flooding and extreme rainfall, especially in western Europe and China this summer, are intensifying. Wildfires are ravaging California. Ice sheets are melting and sea levels are rising. Hurricanes are growing stronger as global temperatures increase. Natural weather patterns are being disrupted, causing wild swings between wet and dry, and hot and cold.

I keep waiting for scientists to burst into the room and yell, “Run!”

Last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a critical warning to the planet, the Sixth Assessment Report on the “state of the science” on the climate crisis. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres cited it as “a code red for humanity,” noting that “global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.” The report, an amalgamation of 14,000 research studies from more than 200 scientists in over 60 countries, finds that humans are unequivocally contributing the greenhouse-gas emissions that are warming the planet faster than anticipated.

We can stop the attack by reducing and eliminating the pollution causing climate change. Investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean transportation will hold the planet’s temperature increases down. Without these investments in place quickly, it will be more difficult later to finance the low-carbon (or no-carbon) transition needed to meet the IPCC climate targets and leverage the funds necessary for clean buildings, power and vehicles. Starting in 2021 is particularly important in a pandemic economy to help pave the way for the United States to quickly reduce global warming emissions, ensure equity across the investment spectrum and put people to work.

Twenty years ago on Sept. 11, I walked from the Capitol to my Arlington, Virginia, apartment, across from the burning hole in the Pentagon. You may remember the images of the American flag unfurled in the spot where disaster struck earlier. I felt helpless and hopeless.

With climate change, we are neither helpless nor hopeless. Together, with American ingenuity, we can save lives and the planet.

It’s time to confront the climate crisis with solutions for a clean, safe and healthy world. In the immortal words of my United 93 hero, as conveyed to his fellow humans in their rush to the cockpit to thwart the next attack: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!


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