ourEconomy: Analysis

Joe Biden is in no position to lecture the world on climate change

The US president’s administration has lots of good rhetoric but little action

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Aaron White
20 October 2021, 2.32pm
Biden will arrive in Glasgow for COP26 with most of his cabinet in tow – but little to show
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“Nothing would fundamentally change,” Joe Biden reassured donors at a fundraising event at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan in June 2019, amid the backdrop of his presidential primary bid. So far he has kept his word.

It has now been nearly a year since Biden entered the White House. During his first week in office, he rejoined the Paris Agreement, vowed to stop oil and gas drilling on public lands, and committed to passing a historic infrastructure package that would create millions of well-paid union jobs.

It was no Green New Deal, but the US administration appeared to have at least listened to the Left’s demands. Sunrise Movement climate activists, Bernie Sanders and other progressive groups were reportedly given a seat at the table to negotiate the administration’s agenda. Biden established new climate offices – an international one led by the former secretary of state, John Kerry, and a domestic one led by Gina McCarthy. In April, he even hosted world leaders to announce a new US target to reduce emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

And soon, Biden will head to the UN climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, with nearly his entire cabinet in tow, to lecture the world on the need to transition to green energy as soon as possible to limit global warming to 1.5℃.

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However, he’ll likely arrive without anything to show.

He is departing from a city lined with climate activists demanding that the administration revoke the permit for Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, which will transport oil from Canada to the US, and declare a climate emergency (which he has the authority to do without congressional approval). And he leaves a congress whittling down his signature legislation ahead of an impending 31 October deadline set by house speaker Nancy Pelosi. (The White House denied this deadline on Tuesday.)

“Biden is going into COP26 still without any climate laws on the book,” Kate Aronoff, climate reporter at The New Republic and author of ‘Overheated’, told me last week.

“There was a lot of hopeful rhetoric at the start of the administration, and it’s true that the Biden White House has some of the most ambitious climate pledges and commitments of any Democratic administration to date, but there’s still nothing there.”

So what is Biden’s climate legacy thus far – and what can he unilaterally do? I’ve been speaking to experts over the past week and have found a deep frustration at not just the lack of congressional action or political will, but at a failure by Biden to directly confront the US’s deeply entrenched fossil fuel industry.

No climate legislation to speak of

The congressional packages are central to the administration’s climate agenda. Following bipartisan negotiations, the White House decided to pair a $550bn bipartisan infrastructure deal with a larger $3.5trn reconciliation package (in a process that avoids the Senate filibuster) passed on a party-line vote.

Although this sounds like a lot of funding, both packages actually fall far short of the public investment that economists say is needed to halve carbon emissions by 2030.

What’s more, the original top-line figure, $3.5trn, reserved for the reconciliation bill (which is already shrinking by the day) represents just 1.2% of the US economy over the next ten years. “It doesn’t come close to what even many mainstream economists who focus on climate change say is necessary, which is about 4-5% of GDP,” said Thea Riofrancos, an assistant associate professor of political science at Providence College and the author of ‘Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador’.

It doesn’t come close to what many climate-focussed economists say is necessary

The $3.5trn package nonetheless would be the US’s most significant domestic policy in a long time. It would expand the ‘child allowance’, institute a national paid-leave programme, fund universal pre-kindergarten for under-fives and two years of free community college, and expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing, as well as other public investments.

It would also include a clean-electricity payment programme (which would essentially pay utilities that use renewable energy and fine those that aren’t transitioning to doing so) and clean-energy tax incentives, which would expand the existing credits available for wind and solar and make them refundable – the two centrepiece climate policies in the package.

However, the package is currently being cut to appease senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who both oppose the current spending figure. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that Manchin is opposed to the clean-electricity program – the bill’s main climate policy. (Manchin made $500,000 last year from a coal company owned by his son and takes in more fossil fuel cash than any other senator.) On Tuesday, Biden told lawmakers that $1.9tn should be the new target, with likely cuts to the universal community college fund and the clean-electricity program.

“Without passing that reconciliation bill, the US has zero ‘leadership’ on climate when it shows up to COP26,” Riofrancos told me last week.

With the rumoured end of October deadline fast approaching, it’s increasingly possible that Biden will not arrive at COP26 with signed climate legislation. As Riofrancos told me, that 24-hour window at the end of the month will determine “whether or not the US comes to the table with something or comes to the table with nothing – but continues to make it seem like every other country in the world is the problem as to why we don’t have climate action”.

What can Biden unilaterally do?

The Democrats have the smallest possible majority in the Senate, not to mention some members who are wholly wedded to big-money corporate interests – meaning it remains to be seen what substantive climate policy (if any) will be agreed on before the start of COP26. But, if Biden is indeed a climate champion, there is still significant executive power that he can tap into.

He came to office pledging to end new drilling on federal lands, however, in June, a judge swiftly overruled the promised temporary suspension on the grounds that it financially harms oil-producing states. Now the administration is on track to approve the most drilling permits on federal land since George W. Bush was in office. The US is currently the world’s largest producer and consumer of oil and gas.

Max Moran, a research director at the Revolving Door Project, which scrutinises executive branch personnel, told me he has been “deeply disappointed” in Biden’s executive actions – or lack thereof – on climate policies. “He controls this entire federal bureaucracy and there’s an enormous number of things you can do on [climate],” Moran said.

Without passing that bill, the US has zero ‘leadership’ on climate when it shows up to COP26

For starters, the administration could revoke the permits for pipeline constructions (Line 3, Line 5, and Mountain Valley) and declare climate change a national emergency – which would open up vast federal resources and capabilities. Biden could also reinstate a ban on crude oil exports which was lifted in 2015 under Obama.

This is indicative of the administration refusing to directly confront the fossil fuel industry. “Biden could reinstate [the crude oil ban] as soon as he wants to, but we’ve seen consistently an unwillingness to meaningfully challenge the fossil fuel industry in really any way,” Aronoff added.

And it’s not just a matter of political will. Many official members of the administration have ties to the oil and gas industry.

One of these figures is Amos Hochstein, who was a marketing executive for the fossil fuel company Tellurian. Now, Hochstein is essentially promoting American gas internationally as the State Department’s senior adviser for energy security.

Susan Rice, Obama’s former national security adviser and current director of the Domestic Policy Council, also has had strong financial ties to the fossil fuel industry – holding investment stakes in Enbridge (the Canadian oil and gas company). Rice has since been ordered by federal ethics regulators to divest her holdings.

Biden also nominated Neil MacBride to be general counsel of the Treasury Department. MacBride formerly worked at the corporate law firm Davis Polk, where he sued the Treasury Department on behalf of Exxon.

Dorothy Slater, who focuses on climate finance at the Revolving Door Project, told me that the Biden administration – whilst less publicly corrupt than Trump’s – is still hiring figures wedded to the fossil fuel industry. “Biden is not putting in the CEO of Exxon. But he is putting in a lot of people who are just removed [from that position],” she said. “They lobbied or they worked for big law firms that represented oil and gas firms.

“We've seen Manchin trying to put coal and methane gas in as part of the clean-electricity standard, which is completely unacceptable. But at the same time that's the standard in this setting with [Biden’s] nominations, appointments, and executive actions.”

Biden could also listen to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and release Steven Donziger – an attorney who led a lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of Indigenous peoples and farmers in the Amazon. In 2019, Donziger was countersued by Chevron, and has since been under home arrest for nearly 800 days and sentenced up to six months in federal prison on contempt for refusing to turn over electronic devices.

Biden, however, has instead hired several lawyers from the law firm currently used by Chevron, Gibson Dunn, to executive positions. These include Jose Fernandez (under-secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment), Stuart Delery (deputy White House counsel), and Avi Garbow (senior counselor to the Environmental Protection Agency administrator – a post Garbow has since left).

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The US could harness its power on the international stage

The US holds tremendous influence on the global economic stage, with veto power in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and an outsized role in bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. But as Aronoff emphasised to me, “so far [the US] has been pretty reluctant to use it” to drive action on climate change.

As the largest historical carbon emitter, the US has a disproportionate responsibility to assist the Global South and countries least responsible for the crisis. It could start by acting decisively on a technology transfer and waiving intellectual property rights for green technologies.

But the US could also fundamentally reshape the global power and economic imbalances that hinder poorer nations’ ability to transition to a carbon-free economy. According to Riofrancos, the US should “use its weight … to reduce, at least, if not outright cancel the sovereign debt that is an oppressive financial burden on so many Global South governments.”

And it’s not just cancelling debt. Tackling the global climate emergency also requires a fundamental redistribution of financial resources. “It’s time for some form of global redistribution to happen under the banner of fighting climate change, because these governments do not have the resources to move away from fossil fuels,” Riofrancos added.

However, given Biden’s personnel and precedent, this is highly unlikely. Year after year, the US tends to send the same sort of personnel to the UN climate conferences, who are always wedded to the status quo.

This is why, for Aronoff, the key question this year “is whether we’ll continue to see business as usual from the very steady set of American technocrats who tend to do the negotiating at COP, whether it’s in the Obama administration, the Trump administration or the Biden administration … [who] evade any questions of historical responsibility and any questions about loss and damage financing or any real transfer of resources to climate-vulnerable countries.”

The signs so far are not encouraging, with John Kerry continuing to lecture the world about cutting carbon emissions, while the administration publicly calls on the international community to pump more oil.

People vs Fossil Fuels

Last week, a historic Indigenous-led mobilisation ‘People vs Fossil Fuels’, in Washington DC called on Biden to stop fossil fuel projects and revoke Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. More than 530 activists were reportedly arrested.

Indigenous communities have long been at the forefront of disrupting the extraction and infrastructure of fossil fuels. A new report by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International found that Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed at least a quarter of annual US and Canadian greenhouse gas emissions.

Biden is not putting in the CEO of Exxon. But he is putting in a lot of people who are just removed

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fossil fuel emissions must immediately be reduced to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. Like in many other nations worldwide, the leadership of the US Democratic Party continues to ignore these findings. “Even very progressive-sounding governments have not really internalised this,” said Aronoff.

While more progressive members of the Democratic Party and climate activists have championed bold climate policies, there has still been no implementation by the leadership.

“We need people in power to put those ideas into practice and link them to real sources of public funding. We are at a really crucial moment, needing that implementation and adoption piece of the policy process to take place,” said Riofrancos.

We’re quickly running out of time. For all the good talk, Biden still heads to Glasgow without any significant action.

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