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On Sunday, an estimated 75,000 people marched in Manhattan, demanding that President Biden end the era of fossil fuels and take immediate action to address climate change. The next day, almost 150 people were arrested protesting outside the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, calling for an end to the Fed’s funding and propping up of fossil fuel projects. These NYC demonstrations followed over 650 global actions to draw attention to the climate crisis, pressuring decision-makers to act in the run-up to UN Secretary General António Guterres’ Climate Ambition Summit 2023, which opens this morning.
President Biden is Abdicating Responsibility for Addressing the Climate Crisis
Guterres has been a prominent voice on the world stage in calling for bolder climate action from world leaders. When he announced the summit in December, Guterres didn’t mince words, saying, “The invitation is open. But the price of entry is non-negotiable – serious new climate action that will move the needle forward […] There will be no room for backsliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters or repackaging of announcements of previous years.” In practice, this means only representatives of nations with plans for meaningful action to slow corporation- and fossil fuel-driven climate change will be allowed to speak at the Summit.
Biden was invited to attend the Climate Ambition Summit, but opted not to. Officials have said that John Kerry, currently US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, will attend in his stead, though he is not expected to speak. In order to speak at the summit, Biden or his surrogate would have to present a bold new plan for climate action. This seems unlikely to happen, given that Kerry has already responded to the week’s demonstrations by watering down protestors’ demands, describing the unambiguously named “March to End Fossil Fuels” by saying “To me, the broader message of that is: Get rid of the emissions,” an interpretation that avoids implicating the industries and corporations causing the emissions in the first place. (And, frankly, reads as a greenwashing tagline for carbon capture efforts, by directing attention to emissions rather than the fossil fuels behind them).
Environmental groups have denounced Biden’s decision not to attend the Summit as a deliberate evasion of Guterres’ calls for increased accountability from the wealthy nations most responsible for the climate crisis. It is unconscionable, if unsurprising, that the leaders of the nations most responsible for the climate crisis — including the US, China, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France — don’t plan to attend or speak at the summit. The US has historically been the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and still today, the US is responsible for a third of global oil and gas expansion plans. Biden continues to parrot the promise that his administration will keep emissions below 1.5 degrees celsius, but this requires immediate and meaningful action to reverse course — and while the incentives to invest embedded within Biden’s legislative legacy may be necessary, they’re far from sufficient.
Biden did describe the climate crisis as an “existential threat” in his speech to the UN yesterday, but his rhetoric remains detached from many of his actions. As protestors at Sunday’s March called out, Biden’s track record on climate clearly embodies the backsliding and greenwashing Guterres has criticized. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to “end fossil fuels,” including ending oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Instead, as Food and Water Watch has reported, Biden’s administration has approved more drilling than the Trump administration in federal lands and waters, including approving the dangerous Willow Project and Alaska LNG Projects, advancing the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and supporting green-washing efforts like carbon capture.
Protestors during Climate Week are exposing this hypocrisy and calling for Biden to reverse course on climate issues, by “stopping new fossil fuel projects, phasing out oil and gas drilling on our public lands and waters, and declaring a climate emergency to turbo-charge a just clean energy future,” as our allies at the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups have been advocating for years. As actions continue this week, calls to action include signing onto this petition, telling Biden to end fossil fuels now.
Biden Has Many Possible Levers to Address the Climate Crisis – It’s Past Time He Uses Them
Biden’s most visible broken promises on climate action, and his approval of disastrous, high-profile fossil fuel projects, are not the only ways he has failed to wield the executive branch to halt climate change. As we at Revolving Door Project have long advocated, there are many steps Biden could take by urging and empowering an array of federal agencies and departments to protect people and the planet from the abuses of the fossil fuel industry. Several pressing opportunities based on executive branch vacancies and pending regulation include:
- Appointing a permanent and climate-conscious administrator to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). More than halfway through his term, Biden has yet to appoint a PHMSA head administrator, leaving Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown in the top role. PHMSA is charged with creating and enforcing safety regulations for the thousands of miles of new natural gas and carbon capture pipelines the Biden administration is poised to approve. Leaving the office without a fully confirmed and appointed leader, as massive infrastructure projects proceed and leaks regularly occur, is deeply irresponsible.
- Nominating FERC commissioners willing to hold fossil fuel companies accountable. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) currently has an open seat, after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin blocked Democrat Richard Glick’s renomination, citing concerns about Glick’s mere acknowledgement of the climate crisis existing. (A Republican seat on the Commission is also poised to open by the end of the year.) Biden must ensure that future FERC nominees and appointees are willing to make protecting people and the planet their top priorities.
- Urging the Treasury Department to issue stringent guidance on the implementation of the 45V tax credit. As we explain in our recent Hydrogen Industry Agenda Report, the Treasury Department is charged with determining how a “clean hydrogen” tax credit valued at up to $100 billion will be administered. Treasury’s guidelines on how hydrogen producers’ products are deemed “clean” will determine whether hydrogen use will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or allow the hydrogen industry to become a massive greenwashing scam that could actually increase demand for fossil fuels.
As climate advocacy organizations are demanding this week (and every week), it’s long past time for Biden to take meaningful action to address the climate crisis. Bold steps like halting drilling on federal lands and declaring a climate emergency are long overdue. We applaud the efforts of organizers, advocates, and protestors to keep the pressure on Biden and other federal decision-makers to take steps they are legally authorized and actually obligated to take, under legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
In addition to meeting protestors’ demands, we’re calling on Biden to fulfill his responsibilities as head of the executive branch by fully staffing climate-protecting agencies and mandating the enforcement of regulations that are intended to protect communities and ecosystems from fossil fuel-driven climate change. These steps are basic good governance — it shouldn’t take tens of thousands of protestors marching in the streets for Biden to fulfill his presidential duties and live up to his campaign promises, especially as the consequences of the climate crisis unfold around us every day.
Bold climate action is easily within Biden’s reach under his existing powers as president, which would only be expanded if he declared the climate emergency advocates are demanding. If Biden continues to fail to act, he is abdicating his responsibility as president and putting people and the planet in harm’s way, with negative impacts for generations to come.