My title is actually an understatement. To “fiddle while the climate burns” would be to stand by. Joe Biden’s current stance toward climate change can’t accurately be characterized as “fiddling while the climate burns,” because approving new fossil fuel projects and jeopardizing international climate talks is not doing nothing. It is more like pouring kerosene on the planet and tossing in a lighted match.
Biden decided to skip this year’s United Nations climate conference (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates, sending the vice president instead. It’s “a significant snub by a president who has vowed to fight global warming” and has been condemned by the major climate activist groups. Jean Su, director of the Energy Justice Program at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Biden’s absence “really shows a lack of commitment to climate right now when it’s the most important time to get to a climate talk,” and is “extremely worrying.”
The climate talks were already set to be a disaster. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus called the event a “sick joke,” saying that it was “hard to imagine anything more cynical or more evil” than holding a climate change conference in a petrostate and having it presided over by a fossil fuel executive. (The president of the conference, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, is the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.) Unsurprisingly, he has used his position to try to broker new oil and gas deals, leading one of the conference’s advisory board members to resign in protest (she is the former president of the Marshall Islands, one of the countries that will suffer most from the consequences of climate change).
“Do you take us for fools?” Al Gore asked when Al Jaber was announced as the head of the conference, saying fossil fuel interests had “brazenly seized control of the COP process.” But as Politico reported, Al Jaber had “a defender in his corner: Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry, who has pursued “aggressive courtship of al-Jaber as a partner in the fight against greenhouse gas pollution,” with Kerry calling him a “terrific choice” to head the conference. Al Jaber opened the conference with a call not to eliminate fossil fuels and said we don’t actually need to phase them out, in alarming remarks bordering on climate denial.
Kalmus says that as a climate scientist, he is “appalled, frustrated, disgusted” and “losing my faith in humanity” to see the fossil fuel industry, which needs to be wound down as soon as possible, being allowed a leading role in responding to climate change. As Kalmus notes, with the industry in charge, we get fake solutions, “greenwash crap about ‘carbon capture’ and ‘blue hydrogen.’” One of the most touted accomplishments of the conference is an international fund to help developing countries “cope with” climate change. In other words, we won’t stop it, but we’ll toss some money at the people who are starved and drowned by its consequences.
As Su notes, Biden could have “challenge[d] the fossil fuel interests that are blatantly running the conference.” Pope Francis couldn’t go for health reasons, but has done his best to implore the attendees to end fossil fuel use. Biden did announce new rules limiting methane emissions, but as Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International said, “none of the methane actions announced by the U.S., the world’s largest oil and gas producer, meet the bar” for what is necessary to curb global emissions sufficiently. Biden is making it clear that protecting the domestic fossil fuel industry is more important than adequately addressing the climate crisis, even though we’re the single largest cause of that crisis.
But as I say, Biden isn’t just not doing what is necessary. He’s presiding over a disastrous increase in U.S. oil production, as Business Insider reports:
US oil production reached an all-time high of 13.2 million barrels a day last month and has remained that high since. The country is on pace to produce more oil in 2023 than any other year. US natural gas production [has] also set a record-high this year, and show no indications of slowing. The numbers poke a hole in arguments made by Republicans who claim Biden administration policies have thwarted US energy production. In fact, in Biden’s first 21 months in office his administration approved 74% more new oil and gas wells than former President Donald Trump did during the same timeframe, according to federal energy data compiled by Politico. The US also produced more crude oil in that period of time under Biden than under Trump.
More than under Trump! Now, remember, Trump is someone who insists climate change is an outright hoax and promises to maximize fossil fuel production. An argument can be made that this makes him one of the worst criminals in human history, because the consequences of his plans will create unprecedented amounts of destruction and human misery. And yet somehow Joe Biden is outdoing him! The New York Times observes that while Biden campaigned on addressing climate change, as president he “has taken a much different tack” to the point where he has “hectored oil companies to increase production.” Some Democratic groups are even encouraging Biden to brag about the increased oil production, touting it as a “moderate” policy achievement. (In the bizarre propaganda language of American politics, destroying the future of the world is a “moderate policy achievement.”) Notably, the last Democratic president did the same thing.
In reporting the UAE’s cynical use of the climate conference to promote fossil fuel projects, the New York Times reminds us that the UAE is not uniquely sinister in this respect: “other fossil fuel-producing nations, the United States chief among them, continue to double down on expansion plans. That’s despite unequivocal science linking the burning of fossil fuels to a dangerously heating planet.” Why is this happening? We have a Democratic president who supposedly believes in climate science! And yet even his signature piece of “climate” legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, was a “boon for [the] fossil-fuel sector.”
And it gets worse. As part of the ridiculous bipartisan attempt to “contain” the “threat” of China, Biden is actually jeopardizing electric vehicle production. The Biden administration is trying to “advance its ambitious climate agenda while at the same time breaking Chinese dominance of the batteries and critical minerals needed to fuel the transition to EVs.” But who cares about Chinese “dominance” of battery manufacturing? Stopping climate change is a global project requiring international cooperation. If China is good at making batteries, we should be delighted. Instead, because irrational nationalistic assumptions are deeply baked into American politics, we have to try to “choke China’s role” in supplying parts for electric vehicles.
I don’t believe Joe Biden is serious about addressing climate change. I believe he cares about appearing to be serious about climate change. But these actions are madness from the perspective of actually taking the problem seriously and trying to solve it. As climate scientist Bill Hare told the Associated Press:
“Continuing to expand oil and gas production is hypocritical and not at all consistent with the global call to phase down fossil fuels…. The US support for expanded fossil fuel production will undermine global efforts to reduce emissions…. It’s clear that the Biden administration is not running a war against fossil fuels, or if it is, it’s a very unsuccessful war.”
I argued in favor of voting for Biden in 2020, and one of the main reasons was Donald Trump’s complete recklessness on climate change and his promise to accelerate the march toward the abyss. But if Biden is actually approving more fossil fuel projects than Trump did, what happens to that argument? I’m forced to the depressing conclusion that we are ruled by a bipartisan gang of sociopaths, none of whom care about the future, and voters who want the U.S. to join with the rest of the world in addressing this crisis have absolutely no meaningful electoral choices.
As Kalmus writes, and as Stockman told me recently, the basics of the climate crisis are really not complicated. Fossil fuel use is at the root of the problem and it has to be ended, so our task is to figure out how to do that equitably. Unfortunately, because future fossil fuel use represents a lot of potential profit, powerful interests have incentives to try to destroy efforts at solving the problem, to spread lies downplaying the problem, or convince us to adopt fake solutions that leave their profits intact. The difficulty of addressing climate change is not scientific; it’s economic. It comes from the fact that a small group of very powerful people just make far too much money from creating the problem and stand to make much less money from solving it. They have to be fought. We need many more climate activists right now. And it’s becoming alarmingly clear that even a Democratic administration will continue to escalate the crisis unless they are forced by external pressure to change course.