Joe Biden’s climate handcuffs

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Last week, President Joe Biden made headlines with his latest climate effort — an executive order calling for the federal government to be carbon neutral by 2050.

It’s a laudable goal. It means federal buildings will be retrofitted, the vehicle fleet will be electrified and the government will only purchase clean electricity. The interim goal is to cut carbon by 65 percent by the end of the decade. As we know, this type of investment will grow the market tremendously, yielding industry efficiencies and cost reductions, and will accelerate the mass adoption of these practices. 

However, some critics are lamenting the slow roll. Why give ourselves until 2050 when we needed this type of government action years ago? Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, mocked it saying the plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 “is like a teenager promising to clean their room in 30 years.”

At the UN climate summit in Glasgow last month, Biden called for reducing fossil fuel emissions and moving more rapidly on renewable energy. Just a few days beforehand though, he was pleading with oil producing nations to pump more oil. “It does on the surface seem inconsistent, but it’s not at all inconsistent,” he said about his diametrically opposed appeals to world leaders a few days apart. I hate to break it to you sir, but the word “inconsistent” would be putting it lightly. 

The Australian satirical newspaper The Shovel also mocked these superficial claims with the brilliant headline “Man announces he will quit drinking by 2050.” “He has assured friends it will not affect his drinking plans in the short or medium term,” they joked.                    

Biden and other leaders want to have their cake and eat it too. He appears to want to keep oil prices down and keep the fossil fuel lobby happy while pandering to the voters who are demanding the U.S. government take climate change seriously.

And of course, only four days after coming back from Glasgow, the Biden administration held the largest auction of oil and gas drilling leases — ever — opening up nearly 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for drilling. On the campaign trail, he promised that if he was elected president his climate action would include “banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters.” Apparently, a federal judge in Louisiana wanted to see the auction go through and the Biden administration used that as an excuse to allow it.

Although reporting this week from The Guardian found that “the Biden administration admitted that a court decision did not compel it to lease vast tracts of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling, shortly before claiming it was legally obliged to do so.” Either way Friends of the Earth and other environmental organizations are suing the administration for it, and rightfully so. 

On the whole, if the president is able to accomplish even a fraction of what he claims, he’ll have done more for the climate than any president before him. The bipartisan infrastructure package is already investing in climate solutions. And the Build Back Better (BBB) Act, if passed by the Senate even vaguely resembling what the House passed, will be the most impactful climate legislation we’ve ever seen.

But even still, the fossil fuel lobby gets its way. The price tag on BBB has been cut in half from its original scope and will still include billions in fossil fuel subsidies, and investments in technology meant to prolong fossil fuel development. It’s the type of “all of the above” energy strategy nonsense lamented by clean energy advocates for decades. Including my favorite provision: The fossil fuel industry will get a tax break for taking their carbon pollution, and pumping it down into oil and gas wells to help get more fossil fuels out of the ground.

This is a perfect demonstration of how moneyed interests get their way in politics. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — the “Kingmaker,” as he’s known by ExxonMobil lobbyists — who has been the primary obstructionist to his own party’s agenda, is the highest recipient in fossil fuel lobby money in the Senate. He also is the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee. Funny how that works.

The point is this: Biden’s hands are tied. Not because he doesn’t care about the climate. I believe he does. It’s because in a society where money influences politics, with the greatest levels of wealth inequality in over a century, it would be hard to imagine any other outcome. The hypocrisies and contradictions between the Biden administration’s words and actions are not due to Biden’s character deficiencies, or lack of knowledge. The industry interests have him in handcuffs. He’s doing what he can, but there’s only so much wiggle room.

This begs important questions for the rest of us: Do we highlight the Biden administration’s contradictory climate actions at every opportunity, holding his feet to the fire in hopes that he changes course? Do we praise him for efforts that are in the right direction, even if they fall short? Do we continue to fight the fossil fuel industry through tactics like divestment and board activism? Do we, given the uphill political battle, double down on community-based climate solutions that can benefit us today, and create new narratives about what’s possible when empowered citizens work together?

Yes. Yes, to all of the above.

What’s needed today is not for us to waste time deciding what to praise and critique: whether to laud the president or point the finger at him; bicker about whether it’s more important to kill the fossil fuel pipeline or build the solar farm; shame the climate obstructionism in congress or gush over whatever small wins we get; reiterate the devastating reality of climate change impacting us today or find new ways to get people involved in implementing local climate solutions. 

The truth is we need to push on all of these fronts, as hard as we can, until the momentum from all directions begins to converge, and the equitable clean energy path forward becomes apparent to the world, unable to be deterred. This is the work ahead of us. 

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Tags Andreas Karelas Build Back Better carbon neutral Climate change Democrats Fossil fuels Global warming Joe Biden Joe Manchin

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