The new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was a punch in the gut — one you knew was coming, but leaves you gasping for breath nonetheless. The reality it paints is stark: No matter what we do, human-made climate change is locked in. The next 20 to 30 years will see more and more of the lethal heat waves, fires and flash floods that have torn a ruinous path across the world this summer. At minimum, hundreds of millions of people will be water insecure, animals and plants will go extinct in increasing numbers, and the seas will continue to rise, say the report’s 234 authors, citing 14,000 scientific studies. A certain amount of damage is irreversible. As UN Secretary General António Guterres says, the report is “a code red for humanity.”
But the landmark report has a ray of hope — or, at least, harm reduction. Humanity can still ward off the most catastrophic scenario, but only by acting dramatically to entirely curb carbon emissions. The best we can hope for is a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is disastrous in its own right, but a threshold that must not be crossed. While sea levels will continue to rise no matter what, anything above that temperature increase will mean even worse megastorms, entire countries being swallowed into the sea, and mass hunger and death. “At 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health,” says a press release accompanying the report. With every uptick in temperature, the results grow more catastrophic. Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica could melt. The seas could rise 49 feet.
Which is what makes the report’s recommendation so striking. To stay within the best-case scenario, the entire world must undergo a dramatic shift away from fossil fuel extraction, the report determines. Countries must do so immediately, and in a coordinated fashion in order to minimize the harm already set in motion. Other reports, including from the IPCC, have offered such a prescription before. But this time, the stakes are immeasurably high. The fossil fuel industry is the enemy of human society. Everything is on the line. As the UN’s Guterres put it on Monday, the IPCC report “must sound a death knell” for coal, oil and gas. The specifics of this phaseout can be debated — there is no shortage of ideas, from a just transition to public takeovers of utilities to revamping of mass transit. But the basic fact that fossil fuels must go – – and go right now — is not debatable. According to the best scientists the world has to offer, that must be our starting place.
Which makes it especially concerning that a pledge to take on the powerful oil industry is missing from the response of U.S. officials. White House aides and Democratic members of Congress have been clamoring to express alarm about the IPCC’s findings. “We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis. The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. And the cost of inaction keeps mounting,” President Biden tweeted in response to the report on August 9. “We cannot delay ambitious climate action any longer,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared in a statement. “Every bit of warming matters, and every bit of avoided warming matters,” Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in an interview with CNN.
These declarations of urgency are fine and good, but if they fail to lay out a plan to change the material conditions of the crisis — and identify the fossil fuel industry driving it — they fall into a familiar neoliberal trap: Express horror at an injustice, make a great show of objecting to it, but don’t do anything to change it. This dynamic has resulted in a tremendous gap between the Democratic Party’s rhetoric about climate change — that it’s an existential threat to humanity — and its material actions.
The Biden administration has rejected a firm and immediate phaseout of coal and has reversed on his pledge to halt oil and gas drilling on federal land, which is now poised to hit levels not seen since President George W. Bush (while a judge blocked an administration attempt to ban new drilling on these lands, environmentalists say Biden could still use his executive power to stop new drilling). As climate reporter and author Kate Aronoff noted in The New Republic, Biden’s plan to promote electronic cores, which he has emphasized as central to his climate agenda, is threadbare. ”So what is the White House doing to make good on its promise of sparking an E.V. revolution?” writes Aronoff. “Last week, the White House announced that it had reached a nonbinding deal with the country’s biggest automakers that half their new vehicles would be electric, plug-in hybrid, or hydrogen-electric by 2030.” According to Aronoff, that deal is less ambitious than some of the industry’s own pledges.
The president’s infrastructure plan has fallen far short of the president’s climate promises, and some are warning it actively does harm. In a June 24 article for The American Prospect, Alexander Sammon warned that the bill includes so much spending on fossil fuel infrastructure that a second companion bill would have to actively undo its harm. The vast majority of its spending, he writes, is going “predictably, to repaving roads, expanding highways, building out airports, and burnishing other fossil fuel – heavy infrastructure, transportation, and land and water use patterns.” Biden is certainly better than the outright denialist camp of the former Trump administration, and he has shown some willingness to take up the demands of climate activists, like a Civilian Climate Corps. But there is no universe in which his actions can be construed as coming even close to what is needed to make a dent in the climate crisis.
The disconnect between rhetoric and action is disorienting. As the New York Times noted August 9, “John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, said the U.N. report showed that ‘we need all countries to take the bold steps required’ to limit global warming to relatively safe levels. Unmentioned was the fact that current United States laws and regulations are insufficient to meet its own climate goals.”
To the extent that the Biden administration did identify an enemy in the wake of the IPCC report, it engaged in the kind of vague scolding of other countries displayed in Kerry’s remarks. “[I]t is essential that all countries — in particular the major economies — do their part during this critical decade of the 2020s to put the world on a trajectory to keep a 1.5 degrees Celsius limit on warming within reach,” said Blinken. Such finger wagging is alarming given the disproportionate role of the United States in driving climate change, whose harms are disproportionately borne by the Global South. An analysis released in September 2020 found that the United States is responsible for 40 percent of all “excess global carbon dioxide emissions” in the world, and it will be impossible to curb climate change without slamming the brakes on the U.S. oil industry. The fact that the GOP engages in outright climate denialism makes this shirking of responsibility especially dangerous.
There are many, of course, who understand what’s at stake. The people willing to go head to head with this industry — to put their bodies in the way of pipeline construction, chain themselves to bulldozers, stare down rubber bullets and national guard and police deployments, and watch as their comrades are sent to prison. The hundreds of people arrested in 2014 protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. The water protectors at Standing Rock who faced coordination between the National Guard, police and the extractive industry, and saw Indigenous protesters sent to prison in alarming numbers. Indigenous opponents of the Line 3 tar sands pipeline. Young protesters holding sit-ins in congressional offices. Organizers across the country who are mobilizing to wrest utilities away from private companies and put them in the hands of the public so that they can be transitioned to renewable energy. Climate activists who declare that any solution to the climate crisis must beat back capitalism. Groups pressuring the White House and Congress to adopt more expansive climate measures, like a Green New Deal. Across the country, countless people have clearly identified the enemy, and are taking concrete action to stop the fossil fuel industry.
The White House and congressional Democratic leadership should channel their urgency and resolve and put a face to the moral agents most responsible — the CEOs, lawyers, consultancy firms and lobbyists defending extractive, carbon-intensive industries. They should name names and take bold, immediate action to stop these industries, not engage in performative handwringing as if all they can do is bear witness to the coming carnage and meekly propose vague timelines and industry-friendly tweaks. As Chase Iron Eyes, co-director and lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, put it in a recent statement about opposition to Line 3, “We are running out of time to do the right thing for future generations.”