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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at COP26

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the opening ceremony of the U.N. Climate Change Conference on November 1, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Photo: Yves Herman—WPA Pool/Getty Images)

'Words Won't Save Us': Climate Movement Slams 'Empty-Handed' Biden at COP26

"It is humiliating and fails to meet the moment that we're in," one climate leader said of the U.S. president's speech in Glasgow.

Jake Johnson

President Joe Biden's speech at the opening ceremony of the COP26 conference on Monday was met with an icy response from the U.S. climate movement, which warned his lofty rhetoric will be meaningless if he continues to resist sweeping action to slash emissions, end all new fossil fuel projects, and swiftly transition to renewable energy.

"All the negotiation in the world is ultimately hollow unless Biden acts boldly to end the fossil fuel era at home."

"Biden is at Glasgow empty-handed, with nothing but words on paper," said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement. "It is humiliating and fails to meet the moment that we're in."

"Words won't save us from the climate crisis," Prakash added. "The stakes couldn't be any higher."

As he's done in previous addresses, Biden emphasized Monday that the climate crisis poses an "existential threat to human existence as we know it" and urged countries worldwide to join forces to kick off "a decade of transformative action that preserves our planet and raises the quality of life for people everywhere."

"There's no more time to hang back or sit on the fence or argue amongst ourselves," the president said. "And every day we delay, the cost of inaction increases. So let this be the moment that we answer history's call here in Glasgow... We can do this. We just have to make a choice to do it."

But climate activists replied that Biden's own actions during his first 10 months as president don't comport with the urgency expressed in his speech, which came shortly after new data from the World Meteorological Organization showed that the past seven years are on pace to be the seven hottest on record.

"For Indigenous communities, President Biden comes to Glasgow as a promise-breaker," Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe elder, said Monday. "He said he'd uphold the treaties and stop leasing public lands to fossil fuel polluters. Instead, he failed to stop the Line 3 pipeline and supercharged oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters. From the frontlines to Washington to Glasgow, we're telling Biden to reject Big Oil's lies, ban federal oil and gas leasing, and stop fueling climate catastrophe."

Ahead of the president's speech, the White House released a fact-sheet detailing its strategy to meet Biden's goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030—a pledge that climate campaigners have said is woefully inadequate to fulfill the countries obligations as the largest historical emitter of carbon dioxide.

As the New York Times noted, Biden's COP26 speech "did not lay out more ambitious short-term targets or pledges for American emissions reductions."

In addition to setting bolder emission-reduction goals, environmentalists have also pressed Biden to declare a climate emergency—a step already taken by dozens of countries around the world. Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, reiterated the demand Monday, describing such a move as "one of the swiftest actions he can take."

"All the negotiation in the world is ultimately hollow unless Biden acts boldly to end the fossil fuel era at home," Su continued, outlining other actions she believes the president should take. "Using executive power alone, Biden can stop oil and gas leasing on public lands, end fossil fuel exports and jumpstart a just and resilient energy system, but he refuses to do it. Biden contradicts his own moral imperative by leaving on the shelf his own tools to literally save lives and our planet from climate catastrophe."

Prakash, for her part, said that as Biden and other world leaders gather in Glasgow for the closely-watched climate summit, she is "thinking about the brave young hunger strikers who are currently outside of the White House, on their 13th day of no food, risking their lives to pass Biden's climate agenda—the agenda he and Democrats won on almost a year ago."

"Right now, Biden's inability to deliver the bare minimum is failing the five hunger strikers, our generation, and our futures," Prakash added. "Before telling world leaders what to do when on climate, he must use his power and immediately pass his full Build Back Better Act, in addition to sweeping executive actions, to reach his goal of cutting U.S. emissions over 50% by 2030."

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