With only a handful of years left to act before catastrophic global climate change becomes irreversible, every day is a high-stakes day for U.S. climate policy. But the past two weeks of Putin’s unconscionable war on Ukraine have been particularly nerve-racking for the future of the energy transition—a transition which is inextricably linked to the future of democracy everywhere.
Putin’s war is forcing the United States and Europe to choose between two types of energy independence: accelerating domestic fossil fuel production, or accelerating the renewable energy transition. If we choose the former, we will certainly fail to meet the 1.5 degree warming target necessary to prevent the worst of climate change. If we choose the latter, the 1.5 degree target may actually be within reach.
Yesterday, Biden met the moment. He signed an Executive Order banning U.S. imports of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas, and coal. This major step deserves recognition; as Bill McKibben wrote, this is potentially “a turning point for the world,” a day that “historians look back on.” We may remember this ban as the day the United States finally stopped slow-walking the energy transition and started sprinting. That is, if the pain of high oil prices and the propaganda of fossil fuel companies over the next few months don’t break the American commitment to freedom at home and abroad, today and tomorrow.
Putin’s war is also forcing us to choose between two American philosophies: one which takes pride in national excess and consumption, boasting as Biden did of record levels of domestic oil and gas production, and one which takes pride in solidarity and conservation, as Americans did when the WWII wartime effort required the rationing of food and fuel. Biden must lean into the latter, guided by what Naomi Klein describes as a lesson of WWII: “if you are going to ask people to sacrifice, fairness is paramount.” Equitable rationing would recognize “the need for rich over-consumers to bear the brunt of the sacrifice, while making sure that workers and the poor have enough.”
Population-wide rationing measures could look like asking households to turn down the thermostat by one degree, which in Europe could save 10 billion cubic meters of gas in a year. Rationing should also target the excesses of the super-rich, conserving fuel by, for example, restricting the use of private jets and megayachts and helicopters and rockets. That would make a tangible difference: the wealthiest 1 percent of people cause half of global aviation emissions, and the “luxury carbon consumption” of the 1 percent will account for 16 percent of total global emissions by 2030. Biden should invite Americans to contribute to national efforts deterring war and the climate crisis, while making it clear that the majority of the responsibility falls on the vastly wealthy corporations who profit off of war and environmental devastation, and the individuals whose excess consumption threatens global climate goals.
New Directions for Biden’s Actions on Climate
There are several promising ideas embedded in Biden’s speech announcing the ban on Russian oil, methane gas and coal that the administration should embrace and take further. This is only the beginning of what will certainly be a bumpy acceleration for domestic and international energy transitions; at every juncture, Biden needs to remember who the enemy is, and who he’s fighting to protect. It’s not just Russian imperialism and Russian oligarchs and Russian propaganda. We have threats to democracy and billionaire greed and misinformation campaigns at home, too. Corruption, inequality, and climate catastrophe can be fought in tandem if Biden decides to crack down on those who profit most from authoritarianism and fossil fuel dependency.
1. Wartime Rhetoric: The Price of Freedom is Worth Paying
When Biden announced the ban on Russian fuels, he acknowledged that the American people would feel the pinch of “Putin’s price hike” at the gas pumps. But he emphasized that this is a price worth paying: “if we do not respond to Putin’s assault on global peace and stability today, the cost of freedom and to the American people will be even greater tomorrow.” Biden should lean into this kind of equation—that the price of oil is nothing compared to the price of freedom lost. The energy transition is going to be uncomfortable; people must be able to connect the dots between the costs they’re paying, and the greater costs they’re avoiding by doing so.
Paying now to save more later is the underlying logic of investing in climate change mitigation and adaptation: the cost of the energy transition now, though high, pales in comparison to the cost of climate inaction, which numbers in trillions of dollars, billions of human lives, and the extinction of least a million other species. Biden should embrace this more encompassing form of cost-benefit analysis. It will help him make a case for increased spending on everything from the energy transition to environmental and consumer protection enforcement.
2. Crack Down on Corporations, on Consumers’ Behalf
In his speech, Biden spoke to fossil fuel companies and their financiers directly, noting that while it’s inevitable that the price of fuel will rise, “it’s no excuse to exercise excessive price increases or padding profits or any kind of effort to exploit this situation.” This war is “no time for profiteering or price gouging,” he declared. Biden’s increasing willingness to address corporate misbehavior, from price-gouging to anti-competitive practices, is encouraging. It’s also popular; cracking down on corporate lawbreaking has overwhelming public support across partisan lines.
Biden should double down on consumer protection, going after the corporations making record profits while consumers pay record prices, and refusing to let fossil fuel companies make last-gasp windfalls from Putin’s war. Such moves would help Biden maintain Americans’ support for combating Russian aggression, climate change, and every other imminent threat. As my Revolving Door Project colleagues have written in “What Biden’s Message Should Be”:
“Put simply, our analysis show[s] that Biden is in desperate need of a villain, and what that should translate into is a corporate crackdown. Biden needs to take the fight to the elite villains who are screwing the American people. He needs to tell the public who the villains are, and he needs to fight them on the people’s behalf. And the best villains available today, on both policy and politics, are predatory megafirms whose abuses harm the public.”
3. Use Emergency Defense Powers to Further the Energy Transition
Biden is reportedly considering using the Defense Production Act (DPA) to scale up the production of heat pumps for Europe, a renewable alternative to relying on Russian methane gas to heat homes. This is a great idea—and not the only way that Biden can and should use the DPA and defense funding to support the energy transition.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s recent report: “The Climate President’s Emergency Powers—A Legal Guide to Bold Climate Action from President Biden” lays out in detail five executive actions Biden could take to address the climate crisis under three emergency and defense framework statutes:
- halting crude oil exports,
- suspending oil and gas drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf,
- restricting international trade and private investment in fossil fuels,
- increasing domestic manufacturing for clean energy and transportation, and
- building resilient and distributed renewable energy systems in climate-vulnerable communities across America.
These actions, like ramping up heat pump production, are immediately available to Biden. And they’re justifiable not only because of the impending climate catastrophe that the world is facing, but the overt threat that continued reliance on fossil fuels poses, enabling authoritarian petrostates like Russia to wield such power.
“If we do what we can,” Biden said, “it will mean that no one has to worry about the price at the gas pump in the future. That’ll mean tyrants like Putin won’t be able to use fossil fuels as weapons against other nations. And it will make America a world leader manufacturing and exporting clean energy technologies of the future to countries all around the world. This is the goal we should be racing toward.”
We should be racing toward that goal—and Biden would do well to keep saying so, as loudly and as often as possible. He should act on that rhetoric with people-centric policies that ease the burden of the energy transition off of everyday Americans, onto the corporations and billionaires profiting from war and environmental destruction.
Biden should ask Americans to contribute to global efforts safeguarding democracy and the planet’s future—and when he does, he should be ready to crack down on the wealthiest and most powerful companies and individuals who inevitably flout the restrictions. He should also adjust his vision of a healthy and resilient economy to one which looks different than it did pre-pandemic. For example, as David Dayen notes, “the worst thing you could possibly do amid the subsequent energy shock and gas price spike is to tell millions of people to jump back in their cars and sit in traffic five days a week.” But that’s what Biden keeps doing. This is not the moment for a push to return to “normalcy.” We need to chart a new, more responsible and equitable path.
Right after Biden gave his speech on banning Russian fuels, he flew to Texas to meet with veterans to discuss the health impact of soldiers’ routine exposure to burn pits. Exposure to burn pits may have caused the brain cancer that killed Biden’s son Beau. The military continues to use burn pits, which are open-air landfills set on fire with diesel or jet fuel, to dispose of waste in the field. Like so many other blights on this planet, burn pits are a toxic byproduct of fossil fuels and war, and an apt symbol for what we’re fighting to extricate ourselves from.
Oil and gas go hand in hand with human and environmental suffering. Yesterday, Biden confronted the unacceptable toll of our continued reliance on fossil fuels. Today and tomorrow, he’ll have to confront it again.
IMAGE: This image of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill by Deepwater Horizon Response is marked with a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.