Bringing America back into the Paris Agreement was one of the first tasks that Joe Biden accomplished as US president. But as the cost-of-living and energy crises bite, and the midterm elections edge closer, the climate president is in a bind. Can he walk the tightrope of proving he is doing all he can to reduce prices at the pump while pushing forwards with his long-term goal of a clean energy economy, and allow the Democrats to cling on to power?
Biden is not playing the blinder on climate change that many expected. But climate experts are also clear that attempts to suggest he is doing no better than his predecessor are disingenuous and even dangerous.
“Do you have amnesia? Do you remember the Trump administration?” Steven Cohen from Columbia University’s Earth Institute retorted when I asked him whether Biden is actually any better than Trump on climate action. “The Biden team is the strongest on climate change in American history,” he insisted. “Trump was the most anti-environmental administration since the first two years of Reagan. Trump was anti-regulation and anti-environment. His administration was full of scientific illiterates. The fossil fuel industry dominated the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency].”
The US climate scientist Michael Mann and author of New Climate War was similarly cross at the idea that there could be any overlap between Biden and Trump. “It angers me when people, including ostensible climate advocates, say that,” he said. “This is dangerously misguided rhetoric that plays right into the hands of polluters and their abettors.”
Nonetheless, Biden has had a difficult run.
He got his $1.2trn infrastructure package signed off, which makes tackling climate change a key aim. The transportation sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and the legislation includes $39bn to modernise public transport. New York alone will get over $80m for charging stations, commented Cohen.
The other bill that was supposed to deliver on climate action, though, remains blocked, partly because of opposition from within Biden’s own ranks. The Democrat senator Joe Manchin has refused to join the rest of his caucus and remained stoically opposed to the Build Back Better bill. In addition to a host of other measures, the legislation includes more than $500bn to curb carbon emissions. Manchin has said he cannot explain the bill to his constituents in West Virginia, which include coal miners. Manchin also owns a coal business, and his personal wealth comes from coal.
Biden has also come under fire for the amount of drilling taking place on his watch. Most recently, climate activists have questioned his calls to increase domestic oil production and to release up to 1 million barrels of oil a day from the strategic reserve to reduce reliance on Russia and bring down prices.
We have a “very complicated landscape”, said the veteran climate expert Alden Meyer from the think tank E3G. “Inflation is the largest issue on voters’ minds ahead of the midterm elections [in November] when Congress is up for grabs. Gasoline prices are the most visible sign of inflation. The president is trying to head off misinformed claims by the Republicans that he is responsible for these rises by, for example, cancelling the Keystone pipeline.”
The concern is that if Biden can’t keep a lid on petrol prices, the Democrats could lose control of Congress. Commentators should stop worrying about short-term blips, suggested Cohen. “The transition to renewable energy is a generation-long transition and would not be aided by an economic depression due to inadequate energy.” For him, meeting short-term needs with fossil fuels is not incompatible with long-term transformation. “The drilling controversies are mainly symbolic,” he added.
Mann agreed that understanding timescales is vital. He sees increases in oil today as “short-term realpolitik that doesn’t contradict the longer-term intent of this administration to move us towards decarbonisation”.
Cohen thinks the president is fully on board with climate action. “Biden and his team understand the issue and are pursuing a government-wide approach.” If Build Back Better is enacted, plus the infrastructure bill and federal green procurement, “there will be a huge infusion of cash into the green economy”. And change is already happening in the business world, he believes, citing the “major capital investment” by US carmakers in electric vehicles. General Motors has pledged to spend $35bn on electric vehicles by 2025.
The immediate reaction to the war in Ukraine has created a “clash of narratives”, said Meyer. It can be confusing that a president who describes climate change as the “existential threat of our time”, also calls for an increase in domestic fossil fuel production, but for the moment no real harm has been done. The bigger question is what happens next. “It is one thing to redirect LNG [liquefied natural gas] from Asia to the EU in the short term, it is quite another to build new pipelines,” said Meyer.
Republicans wrote to the US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm last month urging the administration to “immediately approve delayed permits for natural gas pipelines and LNG export facilities in order to strengthen America’s energy security and weaken Russia’s ability to harm our European allies”. If Biden responded positively to such entreaties, the long-term prospect for climate action would be harmed.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published yesterday (4 April) once again showed that new fossil fuel infrastructure is incompatible with avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. “The real question is how do we succeed in positioning the solutions to climate change also as solutions to price volatility? A trade-off between climate change and security is a risk,” admitted Meyer. The best way to get off Russian gas is not LNG but more efficient use of energy and renewables, including solar and wind, he stated.
On paper, Americans seem to agree. Data from 2021 shows that 72 per cent of Americans believe global warming is happening, and 64 per cent of them believe it will harm people in the US. Clear majorities also agree that clean energy is important, back funding for research into renewables, a requirement for utilities to produce 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources, and tax rebates for energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels. But ultimately, such opinions have to be stronger than concerns about which party is best-placed to provide cheap petrol.
“We need larger democratic majorities in both houses if there is to be any meaningful national climate policy,” said Mann. “Voters must turn out in every election to vote on climate, voting out fossil fuel mouthpieces and voting in climate advocates.”
Going into the midterms with “a popularity rating of 50 per cent is helpful”, said Meyer. The polls show that Biden’s approval rating is only around 40 per cent.
Mann remains hopeful that this trend can be reversed. “There is a lot that can change over the next few months that might completely change the dynamics of the midterms,” he said. “Foremost is the upcoming House investigation [into the Capitol riot last January] and possible criminal prosecution of Donald Trump and his enablers.” If the opposite was to happen, and Trump was to get back into the White House in 2024, it would be “game over” for the climate, said Mann. “We simply cannot allow that to happen. It’s that simple.”