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Pragmatism leaves no room for fossil fuels

President Biden
AP/Alex Brandon
President Joe Biden speaks at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Uncle Sam, the stern-looking goateed guy in the star-studded top hat, has long been the personification of the United States. But, for this conversation, let’s imagine he’s a real person with the good of the nation foremost in his mind.

Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has a problem. He is a long-time alcoholic. The disease has progressed so far that drink outweighs his commitment to national security, public health, environmental quality, economic stability — and virtually everything else. That’s what addiction does.

Uncle Sam’s addiction has caused several crises in America, including economic recessions and wars. He has tried to get sober many times, but nothing has worked. Now, the world’s best doctors say he must stop drinking immediately because the disease threatens his life. His body has no more capacity to tolerate alcohol.

This is where we are today regarding fossil fuels. President Biden has already earned the title of the most successful president ever in facing the long climate crisis. At the most recent UN climate change summit COP27 last November, he correctly called global warming “an existential threat to human existence.”

Yet, he seems torn about handling America’s fossil fuel addiction. During his first year in office, the Biden administration approved more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands than former President Donald Trump did; the following year, the number plummeted. He has just reportedly approved the controversial $8 billion Willow oil-drilling project that’s been on ice across five presidencies. Despite the project’s probable environmental and climate impacts, ConocoPhillips plans to build it on Alaska’s north slope, the country’s single largest area of pristine land.

Last month during his State of the Union speech, Biden said, “We’re going to need oil for at least another decade…and beyond that.” An oil industry spokesperson praised him for being “pragmatic.”

But “pragmatic” means different things in different contexts. We would appease Uncle Sam by keeping his liquor cabinet full, but it would not be pragmatic regarding his life expectancy. Biden’s recent comments and decisions are politically pragmatic, given the likelihood he will seek another term as president in 2024. They might blunt attacks from the oil and gas industry, which has displayed its muscle by preventing Congress from meaningful climate action for more than 30 years after the U.S. signed the first international climate treaty.

On the other hand, environmentalists are not likely to abandon him.

Then there is existential pragmatism, which in this time of escalating climate change, is also the pragmatic approach to national security, economic stability, public safety and health — along with human existence. Because of that 30-year impasse, the U.S. and international community must now go cold turkey to end its fossil-fuel addiction. To meet the preferred goal of the Paris climate agreement, we must do in seven years what we could have done gradually in 30.

The inescapable reality is that Biden’s skill at compromise does not work with nature. The atmosphere does not negotiate; it reacts. As a result, the world’s energy policy, including Uncle Sam’s, must be guided by science, not political expediency.

The good news is that the pragmatic application of science to energy policy has the blessing of American voters, at least in theory. Research shows most Americans support the transition away from fossil fuels. Moreover, the more they learn about the economic risks of fossil fuel addiction and the benefits of clean energy, the more inclined they are to support the shift.

What remains to be seen is whether their opinions turn into votes on ballots listing many competing priorities. We need political leaders with Churchillian gifts to outmuscle the oil and gas industry’s 739 lobbyists and $124 million in federal-government lobbying just during 2022. Fossil energy trade associations reportedly spent $2 billion from 2008 to 2018 on advertising, lobbying and political contributions, outspending climate-action groups 27-to-1.

So, what does climate pragmatism tell us? First, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said two years ago that oil- and gas-field development must stop. “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas, and coal, from now — from this year,” according to IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

Asked last year to assess how long the world has to phase out oil and gas production, the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester concluded it must be done by 2034 in the richest and 2050 in the poorest countries. “There is no room for any country, at any income level, to increase its oil and gas production,” The Tyndall report cautioned.

An analysis two years ago found that “governments still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be consistent with limiting global warming” to the most desirable goal in the Paris climate accord. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that unless the United States changes direction, “petroleum and natural gas (will) remain the most-consumed source of energy in the United States through 2050,” and America’s oil production will reach record highs.

What does economic pragmatism tell us? The policy group Energy Innovation reports, “99 percent of the existing U.S. coal fleet is more expensive to run than replacement by new solar or wind.” It says switching coal-fired power plants to solar or wind would generate $590 billion of investment.

Our goal should be a science-guided national transition work plan in which these pragmatisms coincide and support one another. For example, the White House’s position could start with the long-term decarbonization strategy it issued in November 2021. The plan should include a specific timetable and milestones based on currently available competitive energy and carbon sequestration technologies. This category does not include wishful thinking about carbon capture technologies that don’t exist and are unlikely to be competitive with clean energy.

Is it idealistic to think Biden could gather political, environmental, industry and science leaders to hammer out a consensus plan? Definitely, but it’s also the most pragmatic path to do what we must in the time we have left to do it.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags Biden Climate change Fossil fuels Joe Biden oil and gas Politics Politics of the United States Uncle Sam White House

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