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When the Good is the Enemy of the Sufficient: Biden’s Climate Plan

By all accounts, Biden’s second climate plan is better than his first. But how much “better” will it take to save the world?

Joe Biden’s second climate plan, released in the wake of the Biden-Sanders climate task force, has for the most part been lauded as a marked improvement on his first. Where the activist Sunrise Movement graded that first plan an F, it now calls the new one “a major step forward.” Noting that step, John Nichols concludes in The Nation that “That movement is what matters.” A headline in Common Dream announces that “Progressives Welcome Biden’s $2 Trillion Green Energy Plan,” and, finding the plan a “truly useful compendium of the mainstream and obvious ideas for an energy and conservation transition,” Bill McKibben sees it as a “good roadmap by which to steer.”       

How “major” is a “major step”? How “good” is a “good roadmap?” Though McKibben finds the roadmap “good,” he adds that it “avoids the most controversial areas of the debate,” remaining “especially quiet about the efforts that will be necessary to limit mining and drilling for fossil fuels.” We might well wonder: if a map doesn’t lead to such limits, what does it mean to call it good, even in a qualified way? In following such a map, where does even a “major step forward” get us? 

For the most part, that is, Biden’s plan has been approached in light of the wrong question. Mitch Jones argues that “Better-Than-Before Climate Plans Still Aren’t Good Enough,” and in that light it becomes clear that the overriding question isn’t “is Biden’s second plan better than his first?” or “is it,” as Grist describes, “the most ambitious climate plan a . . . Democratic presidential nominee has ever taken into the general election?” but, rather, especially as time runs out: “is the plan good enough?”  

Incrementalist framings—like seeing the plan as a “major step forward” or holding that “the movement is what matters”—have long begged that increasingly desperate question. Of course, incrementalism is often justified with a logic conveniently abstracted from any historical, scientific, or social context: we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What the particular context of the climate crisis presents us with is a logic of a less convenient sort: as our house burns down, we must not let what is comfortably called the “good” be the enemy of the sufficient.    

I’d like to address what “sufficient” might mean here and to suggest the nature of the Biden plan’s failure in that regard. But I want to clarify first that the plan’s insufficiency doesn’t mean that defeating Donald Trump isn’t imperative. It means rather that, however devoutly that outcome is to be wished and worked for, defeating Trump should not itself be confused with taking the drastic urgency of climate change seriously.

Time is running out. We’ve almost reached the point of no return and arresting the rush toward the climate cliff would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” This is the way the historically too-cautious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change articulated the necessity, in 2018, of “transformative systemic change”—a fundamental disruption of business as usual. If defeating Trump is a necessary condition for those “rapid” and “unprecedented changes,” it is itself far from a sufficient one. If the next four years are going to see sufficient disruption of business as usual, it will take intense political pressure and massive activism. In this context, Biden’s election is itself necessary only in the sense that another Trump term would likely obliterate the last, already slender, prospect that such an effort could matter.      

Achieving the sufficient won’t be possible if we avert our eyes from the nature of the challenge. What’s at risk in the climate crisis isn’t the planet itself (which in some form will exist for billions of years) but the particular climate system that is a precondition for the origin and maintenance of what we call “civilization.” Because of anthropogenic global warming (supplemented by other ecocidal degradations) that system—our necessary home—is likely rapidly approaching a threshold, a point of irreversible collapse into some other system altogether, sometimes called “hothouse earth.” A “sufficient” climate plan, then, would offer some reasonable chance of stopping short of that catastrophic threshold.

What degree of planetary heating represents that threshold? Our current, relatively stable, version of Earth emerged after the last period of glaciation, about 10,000 years ago. With atmospheric concentrations of CO2 remaining roughly steady at about 270 parts per million, global temperature remained more or less constant until about 200 years ago, when, as industrial production began to depend on the burning of coal, releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, the temperature began to rise precipitously. If it gets high enough, that relatively stable system—the life-support system for “civilization”—will likely collapse. Atmospheric CO2, now about 415 ppm, is, as climate scientist Timothy Lenton and his coauthors write, “already at levels last seen around four million years ago,” a time when evidence suggests global sea level was over twenty meters higher than today. That concentration of CO2, they added, “is rapidly heading towards levels last seen some 50 million years ago  . . . when temperatures were up to 14°C higher than they were in pre-industrial times” and alligators lived north of the Arctic Circle.

Of course, given the innumerable, complex processes involved, and the necessarily incomplete understanding of how they might interact, defining any particular degree of increased warming as a threshold is really only defining what degree of risk one calls acceptable. But in 2009 the international community confirmed 2°C of warming (above the pre-industrial level) as a limit that should not be crossed. In 2011, an important study defined that amount as the threshold between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” warming, and in 2018 the IPCC report stressed the extreme danger of passing even the 1.5 degree mark. Though that report has itself been criticized for framing the danger too conservatively, it nonetheless calls for changes on a non-incrementalist scale, detailing how limiting heating to 1.5°C would require greenhouse emissions to be about halved by 2030 (relative to 2018 levels) and brought to “net zero” by about 2050. (Of course, in the two years since this report, emissions have in fact increased.) 

We’ve already warmed the planet about 1°C and, because the carbon we emit now stays in the atmosphere for a long time, we have baked in significant future warming. So we’re already very close to having committed to passing that 1.5-degree mark. This means that the amount of carbon we can still emit while remaining within that limit—our “carbon budget”—is very, very small, just as the time available to cut it down is very, very short. At the same time, in 2011, Bill McKibben pointed out that the world’s energy companies have on their books an amount of fossil fuel—much of it still below ground— that, if burned, would produce emissions exceeding our carbon budget by about 5 times. And they’ve continued to aggressively look for even more. If our planetary house is burning down, business as usual has responded by dousing the place with gasoline.

This is the problem: if the point is not just to put out an “ambitious” climate plan but to stop short of the looming, catastrophic threshold within the few years we might have left during which that’s still possible, then Biden’s plan remains ecocidally insufficient.

This is perhaps suggested by the relative modesty of its proposed cost: 2 trillion dollars over 4 years. That might sound like a lot, but it’s far less than the 16.3 trillion over 10 years that Sanders’s (possibly sufficient) version of the Green New Deal proposed to spend. It’s also 4 trillion less than the Covid-19 stimulus packages to date, less than a third of what has been spent on the “war on terror,” and many trillions less, by some accounting, than the Obama-Biden Wall Street bailout.         

But beyond questions of sheer cost, the plan’s drastic insufficiency manifests in at least three specific ways, each of which itself betrays the plan’s fundamental commitment to ecocidal business as usual.

  1. Don’t Leave It in the Ground. Far from addressing the question of how to remain within our small and rapidly dwindling carbon budget, Biden’s plan utterly ignores the question of how to reduce the extraction and burning of fossil fuels—the main source of greenhouse gas. Like the addled drama critic who asked, “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” the proposed plan turns aside from the extreme violence at the center of the scene. It keeps loudly silent about hydrofracking, for example—even as some studies suggest that the methane released by that process may, along with the burning of the mined gas, produce perhaps as much warming as coal itself. As if to resolve any ambiguity in that silence, Biden has recently insisted, “I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.” Commensurately, the plan leaves ample room for the exportation of that fracked gas and other fossil fuels, and for the building of fossil fuel infrastructure (such as pipelines) to transport them. The “egregious” result, Kate Aronoff writes, is that “there’s still no timeline for getting the country off fossil fuels, leaving U.S. producers largely free to dig up and export as many of those as they please, wherever they please.”

    Of course, the plan does feature the development of renewable energy. Like Biden’s election itself, however, that obviously necessary measure does not speak to—and functions largely to obscure—questions of sufficiency. “The big question,” Mike Berners-Lee writes, “is whether we will have the renewables as well as or instead of the coal, oil, and gas” (emphasis mine). Historically, simply increasing the amount of energy provided by one source does not by itself decrease either the use of another source or energy usage overall. When more energy has become available (or when energy efficiency has increased), we have simply used more energy. Thus, while, as Aronoff observes, in introducing his plan Biden “touted his experience overseeing the $90 billion invested in renewables as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” in fact “making clean energy cheaper and more widely available . . . is not in itself a plan for getting off coal, oil, and gas along the timeline the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends.” Indeed, even as it made modest investments in renewable energy, Forbes approvingly reports that “oil production rose during the Obama Administration at the fastest rate in the 150-year history of the U.S. oil industry.”  

  2. What Is NET Worth? The Biden plan can leave plenty of room for the continued burning of fossil fuel because its goal is not for the United States to stop emitting greenhouse gas. It aims, rather, to achieve, by 2050, “net-zero emissions”—a goal only to remove from the atmosphere as much gas as is emitted. Thus, the plan announces that “Biden will double down on research investments and tax incentives for technology that captures carbon [after or as it is emitted] and then permanently sequesters or utilizes that captured carbon.” There’s a crucial difference, however, between hoping such technology might play a part and relying on it to meet the necessary goal in the short time we might have left. Indeed, with the phrase “doubling down” (a blackjack term meaning to double the stakes of a bet), Biden half-acknowledges that his plan to preserve a viable human future is premised on a bogglingly reckless and unnecessary wager. Negative Emission Technologies (NETs) don’t currently exist at a scale that could make a significant difference, and research suggests that they are very unlikely to do so during the next few do-or-die years.  

    In the benumbed language of environmental science, a 2018 study in Environmental Research Letters concluded, for instance that, “given the biophysical and economic limits that are suggested by the available, yet still patchy, science,” the “large-scale deployment of NETs . . . appears unrealistic.” This confirms a 2015 study, in Nature Climate Change, which found that “a failure of NETs to deliver expected mitigation in the future, due to any combination of biophysical and economic limits examined here, leaves us with no ‘plan B’”; thus “‘plan A’ must be to immediately and aggressively reduce GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions.” Surveying these and other studies, Harold Herzog—a recipient of the Greenman Award “in recognition of contributions made to the development of greenhouse gas control technologies”—has decided “we cannot count on the future use of NETs to compensate for our failure to do enough mitigation today.” More vividly, in Science climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters conclude that counting on NETs as a crucial element of any adequate climate plan amounts to “letting someone jump into a raging torrent, and telling them that we may be able to save them with a technology that we have not yet developed.” Though in the ecocidal political discourse of our deranged day he is defined as “moderate,” in fact, Biden’s technophilic premise is thus recklessly radical. So that fossil fuel companies can keep mining and burning, his plan ignores the evidence and gambles with billions of lives.

  3. Winning the Century, Losing the World. Global warming demands a global response. But while Biden does dutifully acknowledge climate change as a global crisis, he adopts that ostensibly global vision only from within a framework of an extreme nationalism.  He conceives of other countries not primarily as partners in addressing an existential threat to all but mainly as competitors in an international economic marketplace, “pit[ting] the U.S. against the world,” as Aronoff puts it, “in the midst of a truly global crisis.”   In “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future” (confusingly separated out on the campaign website the rest of the climate plan itself), for instance, he defines one of its “key elements” as “POSITION[ING] THE U.S. AUTO INDUSTRY TO WIN THE 21ST CENTURY.”

    When the plan does turn to the question of global action, the point is not to urge global cooperation but to bleat American Indispensability. “We have to bring the world along with us,” the section on globalization in the plan’s introductory video begins—as if it were only the United States that really understood the problem and could provide sufficient leadership, the rest of the world, as the text of the plan has it, needing to be “pushed” and “persuaded.” “Thinking globally” in that plan means framing climate change as a problem produced mainly by the rest of a world that has to be whipped into shape by the indispensable nation. From within the cocksure confines of its categorical innocence, it’s up to the United States not merely to “rally,” “push,” “encourage,” and “demand,” but also to “stop countries from cheating,” to “not allow other nations, including China, to game the system,” and to “name and shame global outlaws.” Other countries thus appear to Biden not as collaborators in a global attempt to face a global catastrophe but, rather, as laggards and outlaws—or, again, as competitors in a race to become “the world’s clean energy superpower.”

    Chief among these laggards is China. Biden insists that “The United States accounts only for 15 percent of global emissions,” and so, as the introductory video puts it, “the rest of the world has to step up as well . . . especially China, by far the world’s largest emitter of carbon.” (In this formulation, the United States has already “stepped up.”) Here, Biden’s amnesiac accounting obscures that what causes heating is cumulative emissions, and on this crucial score the United States has (since 1750) emitted almost twice what China has. Indeed, on a per capita basis the United States still produces over twice what China does, and, of course, even these comparisons don’t account for the fact that a significant portion of China’s emissions trace to production for goods consumed in the United States. 

    Focused on “winning the century,” nowhere does Biden’s plan acknowledge that most of the greenhouse gas boiling the planet has been emitted by the Global North—with the United States leading the way—while it’s the Global South that has suffered (and in the short term will continue to suffer) the most severe consequences. To help address this historical and continuing injustice (which amounts to an atrocity), the U.N. Green Climate Fund was created as a means for richer countries to help poorer ones develop and decarbonize their own economies. Biden’s nationalistic requirement that “clean” technologies be Made in America, however, may well “shut off paths to green development for low- and middle-income countries” as Aronoff points out, many of which are the most vulnerable. 

    Biden does glance at the Green Climate Fund itself, though irrelevantly, promising merely to fulfill Obama’s original commitment, for 2015-2018, to throwing the Fund a few crumbs—a perfunctory $3 billion (15 percent of a single year’s subsidy for fossil fuels at the time), $2 billion of which Obama then declined to actually deliver before leaving office.  When it comes to the relations of the United States to the rest of the world, the plan makes quiet mockery of its titular trumpeting of “Environmental Justice.”

In calling Biden’s plan “a major step forward,” the Sunrise Movement also stresses that we still “have our work cut out for us.” Considering the plan in light of the question of its sufficiency indicates how much work that is. As I’ve tried to suggest, in the most crucial ways, the plan represents not a radical break with the Democratic Party’s climate history but an affirmation of the Party’s incrementalist premises. Indeed, during the primary, the Party’s power structure swiftly coalesced behind Biden precisely because he represented a continuation of the status quo, preferable—despite his obvious weaknesses as a candidate—to the challenge represented by Bernie Sanders, whose own climate plan arguably did in fact represent something like a sufficient response.  

Attempts to persuade Biden to accept the imperative of an adequate response to the climate crisis must reckon with this history. While Democrats have comfortably demonized climate “deniers” like Trump, their party’s own framings of climate change have in fact long peddled a more pervasive, normalized, denial—one that sometimes acknowledges the problem in general terms but then belatedly responds, if at all, with nationalist chest-thumpings and incrementalist policies absurdly inadequate to the existential scope and urgency of the dilemma. In the United States, commitment to ecocide has been a matter of bipartisan agreement

Indeed, that commitment was epitomized by the record of the Obama-Biden administration itself, to which Biden regularly and religiously alludes. It’s not merely that that administration put climate on the back burner, delaying until its last two years whatever minimal attention it eventually did bring to the issue, a delay that, as we speed toward the likely climate cliff, has made slamming on the brakes less and less possible. It’s also that, supported by Biden, Obama was an aggressive champion of fossil fuels. His “climate policy in his first term was largely indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s,” David Bookbinder writes in Vox. “Both fought mightily to avoid greenhouse gas regulation,” Obama succeeding to the point where, again, oil production rates reached record levels. In 2012, he boasted about his part in the unfolding atrocity:

Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.

Indeed, even as the prospects for preventing the most apocalyptic scenarios dwindle, and as paying pecksniffian obeisance to the “existential crisis” has for Democrats grown increasingly de rigueur, Obama’s ecocidal boasting has continued unabated. In November 2018—the month after the IPCC defined the necessity of immediate and drastic greenhouse gas emissions requiring “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”— Obama referred to the “rising energy output under [my] watch and sudden talk of America’s leading role in oil and gas production,” and beamed “That was me, people. Just say thank you.” 

The failure of Biden’s climate plan to mention any limitation on the mining and burning of fossil fuels, its reckless dependence on carbon capture technologies, and its extreme, amnesiac nationalism thus signify a continuation of the ecocidal history of his party. If the point is to stop the house from burning down, Biden’s election remains a necessary condition, but real sufficiency will mean his making—or being compelled to make—not merely incrementalist steps in the right direction but a radical and timely break from that history of pyromania. 

 A major obstacle in this regard is that, in the common sense of the political sphere, “climate change” is defined as an “environmental issue,” one of interest mainly to “environmentalists.” Might the Covid-19 pandemic present an occasion for disrupting this discursive business as usual? Making plain the uncommon sense that the “environment” constitutes not a political “special interest” but the very context and condition of human being, the coronavirus now speaks to us in literally arresting terms. As business as usual is arrested, the consequences of ignoring inconvenient scientific warnings have been made manifest. We might thus wonder, could the pandemic help make the normalized present sufficiently visible as a crisis of civilizational scope, an atrocity the present is in the act of inflicting on itself and the future? Galvanized by that awareness, might massive political activism yet rouse even a prospective Biden administration out of its ecocidal stupor? We have to hope and try to make it so. There isn’t much time left.

Lee Zimmerman is the author of Trauma and the Discourse of Climate Change: Literature, Psychoanalysis and Denial. He is Professor of English at Hofstra University and Editor of Twentieth-Century Literature.

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