Hurricanes and wildfires are ravaging the United States, and President Biden is on the road reminding everyone that the climate crisis is real, it’s here, and action — bold action — must be taken to combat the devastation being wrought by rising temperatures.
Last week he was in New Orleans surveying the damage from Hurricane Ida. “We’ve got to listen to the scientists and the economists and the national security experts,” the president said. “They all tell us this is code red.” This week he was in California addressing the need to do more to tamp down wildfires, which he described as “supercharged” by climate change. “We have to act more rapidly and more firmly and more broadly than today,” he said.
Biden’s insistence that the climate crisis is a serious issue requiring urgent action doesn’t carry the same weight with advocates as it did when he took office. In the eight months since he promised a “whole of government” approach to warming temperatures, his administration has been unwilling to use all the tools at its disposal to disrupt the ongoing production of fossil fuels.
“We’re simply out of time,” says Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “He can use his powers to stop supercharging the climate crisis with drilling, fracking, and disastrous projects like Line 3, or he can just keep repeating talking points, approving fossil fuel development, and listening to Joe Manchin, which makes him nothing more than a disaster tourist.”
Biden’s reticence to say no to fossil fuels is especially disappointing given his early focus on combating the climate crisis. He campaigned on a $2 trillion jobs-centric climate package. The day he was inaugurated, he signed executive orders setting ambitious energy goals, rejoined the Paris Agreement, and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline. He directed the Department of the Interior to pause new oil and gas leases on public land. He laid out an ambitious “whole of government” approach to combating the crisis that would be facilitated by an all-star climate team he announced before he took office. “Folks, we’re in a crisis,” he said at the time. “We literally have no time to waste.”
This sense of urgency has since been belied by many of the administration’s actions. The bipartisan infrastructure bill was stripped of many of the clean energy initiatives included in the initial package, after Biden deferred to conservatives and centrist Democrats like Manchin rather than pushing for filibuster reform. He’s now pushing a new partisan plan that includes key climate provisions, but those could also be pared back in order to secure the votes needed from all 50 Senate Democrats, including the centrists.
Rolling Stone‘s Andy Kroll reported recently that Biden is finally coming around to the idea of pushing those centrists for filibuster reform, but the delays have frustrated activists. “He came out really strong with his executive orders back in January, but it seems like he lost a lot of that momentum, especially when working with this bipartisan group of senators on the infrastructure package,” says Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement.
Congress was always going to be the biggest obstacle to the kind of transformational change needed to combat the climate crisis. What’s more concerning to advocates is what the Biden administration has done to perpetuate America’s reliance on fossil fuels. This spring alone, the administration defended Trump-approved oil-and-gas lease grants in Wyoming and a Trump-approved drilling project in Alaska, while passing up an opportunity to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. In July, the Associated Press reported that the Interior Department had issued 2,100 new oil and gas permits since Biden took office, setting a pace that would exceed even Trump. Two days after the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in August describing the climate crisis as “a code red for humanity,” language Biden parroted this week in California, his administration called on OPEC to ramp up its oil production. A few weeks after that, it announced plans to auction off 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for drilling.
“There is no there is no way that the United States can meet its climate obligations and goals with this kind of business-as-usual fossil-fuel development,” says Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation at Earthjustice. “Twenty-five percent of the U.S. climate footprint comes from carbon emissions, from oil, gas, and coal extracted from federal lands and federal waters. It’s a huge chunk of the U.S. climate footprint and it’s the piece of the U.S. climate footprint that the president of the United States has the most responsibility and control over.”
“The climate crisis is caused by oil, gas, and coal,” says Siegel, noting that the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuels. “Addressing climate change means limiting fossil fuels. He has broad powers to do that across the board.”
Infrastructure like pipelines is especially damaging because the large upfront investment encourages the use of fossil fuels for years or decades to come. Maintaining it as it incurs wear and tear can be a Sisyphean task, too. “As long as we have pipelines, which is a very long time, they need to be as safe and as clean and as well operated as possible while also recognizing the future is going to look different,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg explained to Rolling Stone earlier this year.
This future may never arrive, though, if Biden continues to allow pipelines like Line 3 to be built. The president’s renewed push for climate action coincides with a growing pressure campaign to convince him to block the controversial Enbridge project, which is slated to carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands oil through Minnesota watershed and indigenous lands. Biden could revoke the federal permits given to Enbridge, but in June his administration instead defended in court the Trump administration’s decision to issue them. (The White House declined to comment on Line 3, referring Rolling Stone to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Justice Department, neither of which responded to a request for comment.)
The Biden administration could still move to block Line 3, but its unwillingness to do it so far has drawn the ire of both climate groups and the indigenous Americans whom Biden promised to protect — and whose land extractive projects often affects. “Biden campaigned on the helping tribes with climate justice. He’s not standing up,” says Crystal Cavalier, the Biden campaign’s deputy director for tribal engagement in North Carolina who is now protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would impact the region’s tribal lands. “He’s not doing what he said he campaigned on, which is stopping these pipelines. He did say no to fracking, but he also talked about climate change. The [IPCC report] that came out is talking about how we have to make change now. It can’t be tomorrow. It has to be right now. We’re trying to force him to.”
Congress is starting to get involved. In August, eight Democratic senators and close to two dozen House representatives sent Biden a letter urging him to suspend the Clean Water Act permits the Trump administration granted Enbridge, and this month a group of progressive representatives led by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) traveled to Minnesota to demand Biden take action. “We have been encouraged by Joe Biden’s boldness so far,” Omar said. “Now we have another chance to reject a moving pipeline. We hope you will act.”
The “bold” action to which Omar was referring is the executive order Biden signed on his first day in office to effectively kill the Keystone XL pipeline, which is one of the first things mentioned when anyone lists the actions the administration has taken to combat the crisis. It certainly a positive move to cancel Keystone XL, but the idea that Biden played any significant role in its termination is “revisionist history,” says Matt Leonard, a veteran climate activist who organized against the pipeline for 350.org. “Biden took some of the credit putting the final nail in the coffin, but really the final nails were already in place,” he says, noting the years of pressure activists put on the Obama administration to reject the pipeline. The pressure resulted in Obama’s decision to block Keystone XL in 2015, a decision that was reversed by President Trump. Biden simply reversed Trump’s reversal.
Joye Braun of the Indigenous Environmental Network celebrated the termination of Keystone XL, especially because it happened on her birthday, but she also hesitates to heap too much praise on Biden. “Standing Rock happened when Biden was the vice president,” says Braun, who was one of the first activists to camp at Standing Rock in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and also organized against Keystone XL. “During that administration, under Obama and Biden, they allowed our people to be water-cannoned for six hours in 28 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the level that he’s willing to go. We have to remember that. We have to be willing to say, ‘Hey, can you hear us now?'”
“If Biden really had leadership and vision on these issues,” Leonard adds, “he would be canceling a Line 3 today.”
Not all activists are discouraged by Biden’s approach to the climate crisis thus far. Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune, who once chained himself to the White House fence to protest Keystone XL, has criticized Biden’s hesitance to cancel Line 3 but is willing to cut the president some slack given the actions he has taken, as well as the fact that it’s only been eight months. “Clearly, the Build Back Better agenda is putting the climate at the center of the president’s strategy for how he can help engineer an economy recovery,” Brune says. “As we’re seeing, the president is using every opportunity to connect the dots between the problems that our country faces, some of their solutions, and the urgency of the climate crisis.”
Biden’s recent missteps on climate could still be reversed. There’s still time to cancel Line 3, and still plenty of positive momentum to build on as the nation and the world contend with rising temperatures. “He could reject [Line 3] tomorrow, or sometime next month,” Brune says. “There are many other things on the president’s agenda which are moving forward, and so we remain hopeful that the entire administration will continue to use all of the power at their disposal to address this climate emergency that is facing our entire country.”
There’s no question that Biden is the most climate-forward president in history, and that the commitments he has made — from his climate-centric Cabinet appointments, to pushing for electric vehicles, to his appropriately alarmist rhetoric — mark a seismic step in the right direction. But seismic progress relative to Trump, or even to Obama, isn’t necessarily going to be enough when stacked up against the devastation already being wrought by rising temperatures, and that devastation is only going to get worse. “We’re out of time,” Siegel says. “For decades, every single Democratic president has said something good about climate change but has not been willing to do the things that need to be done. It’s always, ‘Well, let’s just take the easy way out and do the hard things later.’ But now we’re absolutely out of time.”
The degree to which Biden and his administration understand this beyond the speeches he’s giving is unclear. Regardless, the 78-year-old career politician might simply be too steeped in the traditional machinations of Washington, D.C., including the tendency to foster bipartisanship and long-held relationships with fossil fuel companies, to actually be as bold as he says we need to be. There’s nothing traditional about the problem of climate change, and if this problem is processed through the same old ringer of political give-and-take that yields results at the speed of a melting glacier, it’s going to be too late.
“The climate crisis doesn’t care about any of the political stuff,” says Caputo. “It’s going to do what it’s going to do. Unless we do something about it now, our children and our children’s children are the ones who are going to have to deal with it. I think there’s a really powerful political case to be made that the Biden administration’s response to the climate has been well-intentioned but inadequate, but at the end of the day it’s the atmospheric physics that needs to govern what they do. That says the time for action is now — and they’re not taking it.”