A piece in The Guardian titled “Is Joe Biden about to show up at COP26 empty-handed?”, by climate activist and author Kate Aronoff, argues persuasively that President Joe Biden has the executive powers necessary to set the US on a course to replace climate-heating fossil fuels with ones that don’t trap heat and pollute the environment, a course that would allow him to advocate strongly for an ambitious outcome to the UN climate summit that begins in Glasgow, Scotland, next week.
However, while Biden has declared repeatedly that the climate crisis is an existential threat to the country and the world, his actions as president to date belie that statement. Although he issued an executive order in January to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, many of the subsidies are embedded on the tax code, so need legislative approval. To date the order has had little practical effect on the $20 billion in production subsidies or the $11 billion in consumption credits the US gave the industry in 2019. Biden has authorized oil and gas drilling rights on public land at below-market rates. He rescinded the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, but hasn’t moved to halt several others, including the Dakota Access pipeline, Line3, and Line 5. Biden could declare the climate as a national emergency, which would give him even greater executive powers, but hasn’t done so. He let the opposition of a single Senator, millionaire coal baron Joe Manchin of West Virginia, force his most significant climate program, the carrot and stick Clean Electricity Performance Program, offering subsidies to utilities which increased their clean energy output by 4% per year, and fines for those which did not. The program was critical to reaching Biden’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions in the energy sector by 80% by 2035. Without it, that goal won’t be achieved.
Biden will take precious little to the Glasgow summit, far too little to rally other countries to follow our example. Without US leadership, the summit’s prospects of producing an ambitious complement to the 2015 Paris Agreement are slim. The implications are dire. Current commitments are projected to result in a 2.7°C (4.5°F) temperature rise by 2050. Some countries will increase their commitments in Glasgow, somewhat reducing that number but keeping it far above the 1.5°C beyond which the consensus of climate scientists predict catastrophic economic and human consequences.
Biden deserves credit for good intentions and for proposing by far the most ambitious climate agenda of any previous president. He “gets” that the climate is an existential issue. Yet by nature and by long experience as a senator, Biden is a politician, not a leader, which is what the moment requires. Compromise and bipartisanship are his core tenets, so deeply held that he is willing to abandon campaign promises and his climate convictions for them. His character would be deemed honorable, even noble in past, more0 normal times, but it is a tragic flaw today when confronted by not one, but two existential issues — the climate and the Trump-led assault on America’s democracy abetted by a cult-like GOP. Existential crises, by their very nature, are not amenable to compromise. The climate, once tipped into conditions hostile to human life, is irreversible for millennia; our democracy, once lost, is gone forever. If Biden arrives at COP26 in Glasgow without a strong US commitment to address the climate crisis, it will doom the summit, Biden’s presidency, America’s democracy, and quite possibly the human race.