It would be a fascinating exercise to go back to the year 2000 and describe U.S. energy policy and geopolitics from 2000-2021 to environmentalist liberals. “Well, ramping up in 2009, we’ll have more than doubled oil production and ended up producing about 1/5th of the world’s oil,” you might begin. “Coal will run out of steam, but we’ll mostly just replace it with natural gas, building a vast pipeline network. In 2021 we’ll still be fighting multiple oil-based forever wars. We’ll have learned a lot more about climate change, and it’s a huge problem and temperatures are on track to rise by 3.3 degrees Celsius, rendering much of the world uninhabitable. We did all that stuff anyway.”
It would then be interesting to ask them what they thought would cause this. Given the increased enthusiasm for fossil fuels in 2009, they might assume an oil-baron Republican had won in 2008. Fundamentally, they would likely assume that we must have had several decades of tragically right-wing energy and foreign policy. And they’d be exactly right. They probably couldn’t imagine how environmentally-conscious Democrats would be fond of politicians at the heart of all of these policies, or how thoroughly the Democratic party would be invested in them. Unfortunately—like the proverbial frog sitting in slowly-heating water until it boils to death—we’ve all just grown accustomed to cynicism and inaction on the decisive challenge of our time.
“People always tell me and the other millions of school strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at.”
“…particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18 percent of total global deaths in 2018—a little less than 1 out of 5.”
—Environmental Research, February 9, 2021.
It’s important to consider what environmental crises mean to real people in real life. The fossil fuel economy means racialized air pollution in American cities. It means endless deaths and injuries in car accidents as we remain locked into the auto industry for our entire lifetimes. In the last year it has meant gravely worsened Coronavirus outcomes for millions of people around the world, changing and ending lives. It means indigenous and rural people’s land taken and trampled until they are left with the mess. It means apocalyptic storms and lethal heat that could make much of Africa, Latin America, and South Asia unlivable for humans. It means a political spending bonanza for hard-right fossil fuel interests.
What do we hope from Democratic leadership when it comes to energy and the climate? “Anything is better than Donald Trump,” is not a passable standard and does not amount to listening to scientific consensus or showing leadership. Measured against the scale of the climate crisis or against other developed countries, or even against Obama’s weak record, signs are not good that the Biden administration will bring needed progress. Right now, Joe Biden could listen to indigenous people and environmentalists, hundreds of whom have been arrested this week resisting pipelines. He could stop the Line 3 and Dakota Access Pipelines and could represent his country’s interest and the world’s interest and oppose the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline. He is simply refusing to, and most progressives are doing nothing. Unaccountability is not working, and neither is “at least they’re not Republicans.”
The Recent History of Promises Broken
“We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
—Barack Obama in 2008
Between 2009 and 2016, Joe Biden vice-presided over perhaps the biggest missed opportunity for climate action in human history. Renewable energy, which outside of established hydropower had scarcely begun to enter the scene in the U.S., was beginning to surge globally, and was also popular among Americans. The youth vote propelled a commanding post-recession Democratic mandate, with 75 percent of Obama’s supporters identifying global warming as an important issue, and strong or even overwhelming majorities of Americans supporting renewables over fossil fuels early in Obama’s terms.
Obama and Congress did undertake a modest green stimulus, raising, for example, non-hydro renewable energy from about 4 percent to about 8 percent of U.S. electricity. But clean energy growth under Obama compares very poorly with other countries. Renewables grew twice as quickly in Germany and about 50 percent faster in the EU than under Obama. (This is all despite Europe having far less sunshine and space per capita.) In addition, China’s 2009 green stimulus was proportionally about 4-5 times greater than the U.S.’s, creating the modern solar industry and an “incredible” high-speed rail network. Now Germany is almost 50 percent renewably-powered and China deploys about as much wind power as the rest of the world combined.
The U.S. also failed to lead when it came to protecting the global environment. Obama helped torpedo the Copenhagen Climate Accords in 2009 because he didn’t want to commit to more than a 4 percent decrease in U.S. emissions by 2020. The far-too-much-acclaimed Paris Agreement—which took effect right at the end of Obama’s presidency in November 2016—obscures media and public memory of an 8 year abdication of responsibility from the world’s most powerful nation. While Norway and Germany protected enormous stretches of rainforest, cooperating with Lula da Silva’s left-wing Brazilian government, indigenous peoples in the Amazon, and environmental activists—and capturing more carbon in the process than the entire U.S. green stimulus—the U.S. undertook few similar initiatives. The U.S. has done little for Brazilian indigenous groups and the rainforest. So far, Joe Biden has done little for Brazil except float a questionable climate deal with Bolsonaro, certainly one of the most environmentally destructive leaders the world has ever seen.
The Forgotten Oil and Gas Boom
“You wouldn’t always know it, but [oil production] went up every year I was president. That whole—suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas—that was me, people.”
—Barack Obama in 2018
Recent reports proclaiming the end of the fossil fuel-friendly Trump era are sadly ironic. The Obama-Biden administration drove the sharpest expansion of oil production in the history of the U.S., and perhaps the largest or second-largest boom of any country in human history. Trump continued the momentum, but it was Obama who launched the new oil era.
Certainly due to market conditions and not ideology, Bush actually presided over the second-worst period for U.S. oil in his lifetime. In striking contrast, Obama’s terms saw 77-88 percent growth (sources vary), with added production roughly comparable to Iraq’s, the world’s fourth largest oil producer. Probably only Saudi Arabia has ever expanded oil production by so much, so quickly. This splurge is little-examined despite the catastrophic environmental and political ramifications, perhaps because it does not fit popular narratives about Obama’s allegedly environmentally-conscious government.
In electricity, the big story of the Obama era was not the surge of renewables that Western European countries saw, but rather the replacement of coal with natural gas. In 2009, about 69 percent of U.S. electricity came from fossil fuels. By 2016, it had only decreased to 64 percent, electricity from natural gas surged from its 2008 level, and the seas had most certainly not started to recede as promised.
Democrats contend that manic gas development was a positive alternative to coal. It’s hard to imagine that credible climate scientists—aware of the steep and dangerous challenges ahead—would accept gas as a good alternative. Gas directly produces about half the emissions of coal, which is still quite filthy. Time has shown that leaks—a concern of pipeline opponents for decades—release enough gas into the atmosphere that gas might be, in fact, just as bad as coal after all. Add to this the climate damage of fracking (which we’ve known about for 10 years at least) plus the very long-term contracts of the gas industry, and gas might arguably be even worse.
A president has huge power to block fossil fuel development by rejecting pipeline projects outright, bringing land under federal protection and oversight (which Obama did a few times in later years after fueling the oil/gas boom; many other times he opened up lands), and putting up regulatory hurdles to make detrimental projects untenable. Obama chose not to use these powers to protect us, and, in fact, openly claimed credit for bad policy. Like the “Make America Great Again” slogan of the right-wing, the notion that we are going back to an era of Democratic climate responsibility under the Biden administration is a fantasy about a world that never existed.
Democrats often suggest that Biden, and even Obama, were not responsible for this expansion. It was simply markets! Perhaps this is the point—the Obama government let markets govern—markets skewed by decades of fossil fuel subsidies that Biden is also not ending—rather than protecting us from them. But beyond that, Obama was a proponent of offshore drilling (and declined the opportunity to cut it off after Deepwater Horizon exploded, leaking 5 million barrels of oil and distinguishing Obama’s presidency with the largest oil spill in world history). He also expanded natural gas in partnership with Republican legislators, drilled in Alaska, developed oil and implemented natural gas as vehicle fuel to reduce imports, reaffirmed support for fracking, etc. Biden didn’t complain back then. His ideological continuity with Democrats of 5 years ago is demonstrable in his pipeline policy, and he is surrounded by fossil fuel-friendly advisors.
Biden – A New Era?
“When it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial as we waste our time creating new loopholes with empty words.”
—Greta Thunberg, on the Paris Climate Agreement
“No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”
—Joe Biden, addressing rich donors in New York City in 2019
Many media outlets insist that Biden has already been quite good on climate. The Paris Agreement is back. The Biden cabinet must “consider climate impacts” in decision-making, and fracking on public lands has been “paused.” Keystone XL’s fourth stage is again cancelled (it was only coming online in 2023 anyway).
And yet, none of these things are what they seem. The Paris Agreement was many years too late and lacked teeth. The cabinet can’t fix climate change by simply “considering impacts.” Keystone XL was already a zombie according to the industry. Biden may have shut Keystone down, but when it comes to the Dakota Access and Line 3 Pipelines, he has simply declined. He has even moved to open the path to the massive Baltic Nord Stream 2 pipeline facilitating Russian gas sales to Germany. In exactly the worst area, Biden is collaborating with Putin, speeding a Russian gas line even though the German Green Party wants to axe the project if it wins an election later this year. When it comes to keeping fossil fuels in the ground, by far the best action any president could take is to aggressively fight pipelines and fracking through regulation, vast public lands expansion, and court battles, but Biden has given many indications that business-as-usual will prevail. And the oil and gas men are thrilled. When Keystone was cancelled, the firm driving the project proudly announced it had another $25 billion worth of projects in the pipeline. And oil and gas stocks are up over 90 percent from election day. Fossil fuel industries and liberal environmentalists have conflicting expectations for Biden’s presidency; they cannot all be right.
Biden and Harris campaigned on continuing fracking, even though the majority of American oppose it, including clear majorities in the vital swing state (and prime fracking state) of Pennsylvania. Less than one-tenth of U.S. oil and gas fracking is located on federal land and Biden’s pause is only on new leases, meaning the oil and gas industry still has access to the vast majority of its current resources and, indeed, still aims to shoot up again towards record levels, according to the Energy Information Administration. Can the climate afford for the U.S. to keep producing around 11 million barrels of oil daily, more than twice our production under George W. Bush? Biden seems to intend for us to find out.
But what of Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan? Widely heralded as a watershed moment for climate action, the plan allocates about $583 billion for a grocery list of climate causes. Unfortunately, almost a third of these investments are directed toward electric vehicles and many other infrastructure investments that reinforce our unsustainable and dangerous auto-based way of life, but parts of the plan perhaps comprise a start. How much of a start, though, and how far will we go beyond that “start”? Many intelligent people have studied the costs of a transition to a sustainable economy. This is not a new question, and a wealth of thorough expert opinions have already been offered as to what we need to do, now. No serious study suggests that the scale of investment in Biden’s plan approaches the scale of spending we need. Biden himself refers to this plan as “once-in-a-generation.” If he is right, we in the U.S. are certain to be a failed generation when it comes to climate change.
Progressives have proposed $10 trillion alternatives that actually approximate an appropriate scale of response. The proportional relationship between these plans is telling. AOC suggests we invest $10 trillion over the next decade to start doing our country’s part in addressing the crisis we largely caused (the U.S. alone is responsible for 25 percent of emissions since 1751). Biden suggests we invest a half trillion, largely in electric cars. It’s not nothing, but if the president’s proposal takes us only 5-10 percent percent of the way to where we need to be by 2030 for minimal climate security, we’re in trouble.
Of course legislative possibilities are limited, and Biden´s budget does propose $800 billion in spending over the next ten years (for what little a budget proposal is worth, let alone one about 10-year spending plans). But it is our responsibility to be honest about what needs to be done during this presidency, not years from now. And legislative roadblocks don’t begin to excuse irresponsible executive policy like Biden’s support for DAPL, Enbridge Line 3, and Nord Stream 2. A climate president would go beyond defeating these pipeline projects and would also go on the attack, protecting swathes of land and drowning existing projects in legal fees. And an honest assessment of our climate situation should also lead us to support state and local Green New Deals. State policies vary. California, for example, has made a huge difference and could do more.. If California were to take on as much state debt per capita as, say, Massachusetts over the next five years, it could invest hundreds of billions in a Green New Deal—far more than the current value of all U.S. renewable energy. Or to point out a bad example, Biden’s home state of Delaware is the U.S.’s worst laggard in renewable energy at only 2 percent (Vermont leads at 99.9 percent). Given the dysfunction of our national legislature and judiciary, it would be reasonable to hope for sustainable development at other levels where Democrats have power.
What do we need? Stop Line 3, and Still no DAPL!
“You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”
—FDR to racial justice advocates (anecdotal)
“We must form grass-root structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions.”
—Barack Obama on community organizing
FDR and Obama both betrayed activists. In the above quotes, though, they told them a valuable truth: progressives must not simply assume that Democratic politicians will do the right thing. Across the spectrum of the Democratic party and the left, most recognize that disengagement after Obama’s election led to a loss of political momentum. Don’t prematurely declare victory and congratulate Biden for environmental gains. The Paris Climate Accord is a pile of papers, not a change in emissions. And the Keystone XL Pipeline was a fraught project anyway. Don’t thank Biden: keep an eye on him and hold him accountable, as a broad coalition of faith leaders, aid groups, and better lawmakers did after he recently tried to extend Trump’s refugee policy.
Many tasks for the climate movement under Biden are clear. Right now, Biden is refusing to revoke federal permits for the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline, which will pump hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil daily if we don’t stop it (the equivalent of several percent of U.S. oil production.) As previously mentioned, Biden is still refusing to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock despite urgent requests from indigenous tribes. Liberal media and environmentalist groups have so far called very little attention to these failures, but were breathless when Biden cancelled the Keystone, years out. This pattern—big proclamations about the future and more gas and oil now—needs to end. Media interests should be calling out the hypocrisy, and citizens should be calling out media interests when they refuse to. Most importantly, citizens should take direct action: petitioning Biden and other Democrats on issues like Line 3, and donating to equip indigenous groups where members put their bodies and legal safety on the line to stop these projects.
These pipelines will not be the last opportunities for a vigorous climate movement to act under Biden. State and local activism will probably offer many of the best opportunities for acting on sustainable development. Activists will have chances like the Stop Line 3 and Stand with Standing Rock campaigns to mobilize new generations of leaders, as protesting at Standing Rock helped inform AOC’s political trajectory.
We all need hope. But false hope can lead to disillusionment—giving up on politics after centrist politicians don’t deliver. Or it can lead to dangerous fantasy—imagining that Democratic politicians are doing what we should be—and becoming a defender of the status quo. Healthy climate hope does not rest on denial, defending failed ways, and shutting down efforts to hold politicians accountable. It rests on pressure, accountability, and honesty. For now, it will have to rest on grassroots actions and lower-level politics. And maybe in the future, that can grow into real honesty, integrity, and leadership as we face the interwoven challenges of environmental degradation in an uncertain new era.