Planet Earth is now all but locked in to at least 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released this week. This means that life on Earth will soon become much harder. Droughts and famines will be more frequent, just as more destructive storms will level homes every year. The heat waves and floods that wracked the world this summer are not just the new normal: They will get worse. People are already dying, and many more assuredly will die.
President Biden’s initial statement—er, tweet—after the IPCC report was published proclaimed, “We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis,” as if he hadn’t been president already for nearly seven months. But a more disheartening response of sorts came out a few hours later: Amos Hochstein was appointed as the State Department’s new senior adviser for energy security. He’ll initially be negotiating over a Russian oil pipeline, but will ultimately fill “a broader global energy role in the Biden administration,” according to Axios.
This “broader global energy role” will likely be a rerun of Hochstein’s duties in the Obama State Department. Back then, his title was “Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs,” but his actual job was essentially to be the point man for securing American access to foreign oil fields. Hochstein’s devotion to planet-killing fuels hasn’t wavered in the years since: He spent all four of the Trump years as a marketing executive for Tellurian, a fossil gas company. (He conspicuously resigned from Tellurian last September, when it became clear that Biden would likely win the presidential election, and did a five-month respectability stint at Harvard’s Kennedy School.)
Hochstein is not even a skeptic of the fossil fuel industry, much less an environmentalist. His life’s work has been planting American flags on global fossil fuel reserves, facilitating the drilling and pumping of their contents, and inflicting pain on anyone who gets in the way.
It started with Iraq. On March 23, 2000, 18 months before 9/11, Hochstein wrote a press release in which his boss, neo-connish Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdenson, theorized that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction, adding, “Just because we don’t have good options doesn’t mean that we ought to stick to the policy as it is.” (Gejdenson lost his re-election bid in 2000, so he never cast a vote on the 2002 Iraq War invasion.)
Fourteen years later, after hundreds of thousands were killed in an American war triggered by the federal government lying about “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, Hochstein testified before Congress that “Iraq has emerged from decades of mismanagement and sanctions to resume its role as a major oil supplier. The country is still developing, but we are intensely focused on helping Iraq build in improved reliability in its energy sector, and to sharing best practices related to oil and natural gas production, distribution, and export.”
During his time in the private sector, Hochstein was a loyal foot soldier for the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying strategies. In 2017, as a Tellurian executive, he gave the closing address at GE’s Oil and Gas Annual Meeting, where he winkingly referred to the gas industry’s favorite falsehood—that the gas is needed as a “bridge fuel” between oil and renewables.
And the gas was not, he added, a merely transitory device. “That is the key, as the bridge to the future, for a cleaner future. And a bridge is not something where when you cross it you cut it off. A bridge remains,” Hochstein said. In other words: If we can get the rubes in Washington to build out infrastructure for gas, they’ll have to use it for decades to recoup the investment. It appears to have worked: The bipartisan infrastructure bill that just passed the Senate includes $25 billion in subsidies for fossil fuels.
To Hochstein, fossil fuels are eternal, because they are levers of geopolitical power. Drilling “provide[s] incentives to accelerate political accommodation and encourage compromise,” and can “free” U.S. allies from influence by rivals in Russia and China, he testified in 2016. This is why the U.S. must pursue every last oil field, and why U.S. involvement in the Middle East is eternal. As he said on an industry radio show last year, “The idea that the United States will leave the region is not realistic. This is a region that you don’t get to leave.”
Even if climate change didn’t exist, this way of thinking would be imperialistic. But in 2021, it is also suicidal.
IT WOULD TAKE AN EXTRAORDINARY amount of optimism to think that, despite all of this, Hochstein’s eventual permanent role in the State Department will focus on ending fossil fuel production globally. For now, he’s in charge of implementing a deal with Germany to allow completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will funnel oil from Russia into Europe. It’s quite an about-face for Hochstein, who once called the pipeline “the existential crisis facing Ukraine,” to now be in charge of getting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on board. A cynic might say that he simply sees a path back into governmental power, and is taking it.
What makes it doubly unlikely that Hochstein will have a sudden, irreversible change of heart is that his gas policy preferences are in sync with this administration’s policies. In the primary season, Biden had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward a climate platform that even approached the scale needed to prevent catastrophic warming. Seven months into office, Biden’s old tendencies are coming back.
Indeed, the president is on track to open more public lands to oil drilling than any president since George W. Bush. On Wednesday, his national-security adviser urged OPEC+ to increase its production. (OPEC+ includes both the 13 OPEC member states and ten more loosely affiliated oil-producing nations.) Biden’s recent and much-trumpeted climate executive order is a nonbinding call for an electric vehicle fleet by 2030, whose goals actually amount to something less than the Obama-era emission reduction targets and won’t do much to curb emissions if not supplemented by EV chargers and green sources of energy. The administration’s target is also less than what vehicle manufacturers themselves committed to previously.
Would that Hochstein were the only fossil fuel–friendly appointment. Biden’s nominee for Treasury general counsel once sued the Treasury on behalf of ExxonMobil. (That nominee, Neil MacBride, was Biden’s counsel in the Senate.) The Army Corps of Engineers, which has to issue permits on most domestic oil pipelines, is led by Michael Connor, who used to work at a corporate BigLaw firm that represented some of the worst Big Oil companies. And the Treasury Department’s climate counselor, John Morton, seems to think the economics of tackling climate change are about putting a literal price on air and water.
None of these drilling permits, executive orders, or nominations came out of Congress, or were the result of a bipartisan compromise. They were developed and emerged from inside Biden’s executive branch. The president owns them.
It’s fairly clear what policies Hochstein will want to pursue. Last June, he said, “I believe the administration will come in wanting to have a good relationship with UAE, a good relationship with the Gulf, and to figure out how to have a relationship with Saudi Arabia.” On the domestic front, he has stated opposition to allowing unregulated oil flaring—a fine policy, but one at the margins of climate crisis reforms.
As Kate Aronoff wrote in The New Republic this week, Biden’s appointees “don’t dispute that the climate is changing, but they are absolutely in denial about what curbing it would entail. The [IPCC] report has made clear that the climate in which this country became a superpower no longer exists.” Hochstein personifies that denial. His whole career is premised on the 20th century’s understanding of fossil fuels as a value-neutral tool of geopolitical power, just another weapon in an endless cold war.
That 20th-century vision led to death and suffering around the world. In the 21st century, it is effectively scolding terrified people that preventing millions of deaths just isn’t practical, realistic, or savvy. For a president whose chief political asset is his claim to basic human empathy, this vision, this policy, and these appointments are anything but empathetic. People both here and around the world will suffer for them.