We Don't Have Time for Climate Symbolism

As we hurtle towards climate chaos, Democratic leaders remain all talk and no action on serious climate policy.

Mark Schlosberg

ILLUSTRATION BY TERRY LABAN

President Joe Biden, like many Democratic leaders, has shifted his climate change rhetoric to more dramatic tones in recent years. Starting with his decision to reenter the Paris Agreement, glowing headlines have heralded Biden’s climate plans. But when it comes to actually moving the United States off fossil fuels, Biden, like so many, is light on substance.

While the GOP advances outright climate denial, many Democratic officials advance climate symbolism.” Their rhetoric acknowledges the urgency of climate change — with words like existential threat,” emergency,” crisis” — but their directives call for lofty changes far off into the future, ignoring immediate action that might actually help.

The Paris Agreement, for example, is heavy on climate symbolism, with promises that fall far short of what is required. Biden also pledged to transition to 100% carbon free” electricity by 2035 but has yet to implement a detailed plan. And when it comes to fossil fuels, Biden has largely rehashed Obama-era policies proven inadequate to reduce atmospheric carbon.

On the campaign trail, Biden was adamant about stopping fracking on public lands. Not only has he failed to fulfill that pledge, his administration is appealing a federal court order that paused fracking in Wayne National Forest. It has also defended a project in Alaska for 100,000 daily barrels of oil for the next 30 years. Biden has not stopped the Line 3 pipeline, and the Dakota Access Pipeline has been given a green light by a federal judge, even as the International Energy Agency says we need to halt development of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Biden’s big-ticket priority, his proposed bipartisan infrastructure package, pales in comparison to the $16 trillion climate plan Bernie Sanders proposed in his campaign last year, which 57 scientists endorsed as necessary to save the planet.

The crux of the problem is Biden’s unwillingness to take on the fossil fuel industry. Instead of a robust plan to end drilling, his administration promotes industry-backed solutions” like carbon capture. But at power plants, carbon capture has cost billions of dollars without removing a significant amount of emitted carbon. Filtering carbon directly out of the air is even more fanciful. The United States emits around 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. To remove even 1 billion tons through direct air capture would take nearly our entire annual energy output, one study shows.

This industry-friendly approach is mirrored by Biden’s team. Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, touts increased exports of liquified natural gas as a solution, while climate advisor Gina McCarthy (who ran interference for the fracking industry in the Obama administration as head of the Environmental Protection Agency) made it clear that the administration is not fighting the oil and gas sector,” according to a White House summary of a meeting she held with oil and gas companies in March.

FDR, talking about the utility industry and his efforts to promote public power, famously implored voters to judge him by his enemies. In the case of climate change, Biden’s approach should be judged by the ones he refuses to make.

The same dynamic appears among Democrats at the state level. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called climate change an existential threat that impacts all Minnesotans,” but has not intervened to stop the Line 3 pipeline, the equivalent of 50 new coal-fired power plants in terms of carbon emissions. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf called climate change one of the most important and critical challenges we face,” while accepting more than $78,000 in campaign contributions from fracking interests and proposing taxes to generate revenue from the extraction of natural gas rather than fully banning the devastating practice. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called climate change a crisis,” but took $50,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests and dependably promotes drilling.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom tweets dire warnings about the existential threat of climate change as he approves new oil and gas permits. He ran on an anti-fracking platform but later claimed he lacked the authority to ban fracking, asked the Legislature to do it for him, then ignored the introduction of a state bill that would have. After public backlash, Newsom directed a regulatory agency to ban new fracking permits, but this will not take effect until 2024 and might not cover cyclic steam, a particularly intensive extraction method prevalent in California. His much-touted declaration that California must phase out oil production generated national headlines — but the proposal would not be fully implemented until 2045.

Even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who banned fracking in New York state in 2014, is big on climate symbolism. He declared we must replace fossil fuel power with clean energy power” in January but has several fossil fuel-expanding infrastructure projects pending.

Yes, acknowledgment is better than outright climate denial. But it will not prevent runaway climate chaos. According to the United Nations, we cannot increase natural gas production without going over the global warming climate cliff of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

There is no time left to spend on symbolic pledges. We need leaders to directly and unapologetically take on the fossil fuel industry and fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Anything less is more hot air.

Mark Schlosberg is senior advisor and former national organizing director at Food & Water Watch.

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