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Biden is still not doing nearly enough about the climate crisis | Steven Donziger

Biden is still not doing nearly enough about the climate crisis | Steven Donziger

Just before announcing that he would again run for president, Joe Biden signed off on what on the surface looks like a great move to help address the climate crisis: an executive order that creates an office of environmental justice in the White House. “Environmental justice,” the president said from the Rose Garden, “will be the mission of the entire government, woven directly into how we work with state, local, tribal and territorial governments.”

That is a beautiful sentiment. And sentiment, when coupled with substantive policy positions, can lead the country forward. The idea of a White House office that can help mobilize an all-of-government response to the climate crisis could be a force multiplier in the fight to save the planet. But to be effective it needs real presidential leadership that involves the creation of a bold and realistic plan to phase out fossil fuels along a strict timeline.

That is to say, what we really need is societal transformation. That transformation can only be delivered by a mass public mobilization to demand it – and with leadership from the top, which, thus far, has been sorely lacking.

Without such an immediate fossil fuel phase-out plan, the announcement looks more like a campaign stunt to compensate for Biden’s disastrous recent decisions to greenlight a slew of new fossil fuel projects that will pollute the planet for decades to come. It all looks ad hoc, piecemeal and ultimately transactional. Biden is trying to appeal to environmentally conscious young voters while appeasing the fossil fuel industry as it continues to reap windfall profits.

Let’s take stock. The 2023 UN IPCC report on the climate ccrisis is no less than terrifying. Hundreds of the world’s leading scientists have demonstrated that we are on the brink of a tipping point which, absent immediate change, will cause massive and irreversible damage to the planet and seal a dismal fate for future generations.

The world’s population is knocking on the door of the point of no return, while the biggest polluters (the United States, China and India, among others) are not doing nearly enough. Heatwaves, flooding and hurricanes are killing hundreds of thousands of people every year around the world while costing untold billions in economic damage. In the meantime, Exxon made $56bn in profits last year, its biggest-ever take.

As these humanitarian costs grow more acute, fossil fuel investments are increasing to record levels. If active fossil fuel projects live to the end of their natural lives and those planned actually come to fruition, in a few short years we will blow past the limits of what scientists feel is the upper limit of a manageable level of global heating (an increase in temperatures of 1.5C compared with pre-industrial levels).

In the meantime, damage caused by the climate crisis threatens to overwhelm many countries around the world with flooding, food and water scarcity, forest dieback and population displacement. This is particularly true for vulnerable nations like those in the South Pacific that bear the brunt of a problem they did not cause. The effects are not abstract: in Somalia a new study reports 43,000 excess deaths just last year from heat and low rainfall. Nearly half were children younger than five.

In the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged: “No more drilling on federal lands, period, period, period.” Yet a few weeks ago he approved the Willow oil project on pristine federal land in Alaska. This project alone will produce enough greenhouse gas emissions to nullify almost the entirety of the climate benefits created by passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the president’s signature climate legislation.

I believe approval of the project was done with the election in mind. Biden’s team thinks the decision will help inoculate him against attacks that he is undermining national security by blocking drilling.

Though Biden makes it seem like he’s had to capitulate to one drilling project because of the need to keep oil prices low, in reality he “approved drilling projects on federal land faster than Trump did during his first two years in office”. Some of these fuel projects were mandated by court action, but many (such as the Willow project) were approved by Biden’s free will.

On top of that, Biden approved oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico for an area larger than Italy; over time, this will produce its own “carbon bomb” on the atmosphere. And just days ago he approved a separate $39bn LNG mega-project in Alaska. “Joe Biden’s climate policy is flying off the rails,” said a spokesperson for the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

There are three simple steps that I believe Biden must take to shift course and show he can seriously address the climate crisis.

First, he needs to cancel the Willow project. If he does so, the government will be sued by ConocoPhillips, but the justice department can handle it and, I believe, win the case.

Second, Biden must appoint a blue-ribbon commission of leading academics and experts unconnected to industry to write a national plan to phase out fossil fuels and complete the transition to clean energy. The plan must be capable of creating a second world war-degree level of societal mobilization around climate and be seen as an engine of jobs creation.

Third, Biden needs to ensure our country adequately supports an international fund for damage and loss due to the climate crisis. Created in a breakthrough agreement at the last UN climate change conference, the fund needs roughly $300bn annually by 2030 to adequately address the impacts of wild weather events. G20 countries pledged to give $100bn, which is nowhere near enough. The amount raised has already fallen short by $17bn.

The White House says that the new office of environmental justice will address “environmental injustice through toxic pollution, [and] underinvestment in infrastructure and critical services”. In light of the toxic poisoning of thousands of families in Ohio after the Norfolk Southern train derailment – caused largely by the government’s failure to provide effective oversight over the rail industry, and by the EPA’s weak response – the new office will have a lot of work to do to deal with domestic issues of toxins and poisoning. That’s critically important.

What we do in the next 12 months on climate and environmental justice has never been more critical. The new White House office can help, but it is no substitute for robust leadership from the president. The new office won’t come close to achieving its potential unless Biden shifts course.

  • Steven Donziger is a human rights and environmental lawyer, a Guardian US columnist, and the creator of the Substack newsletter Donziger on Justice

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