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Demonstrators rally outside the White House as part of the "Climate Chaos Is Happening Now" protest on October 13, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Biden's Climate Action Woefully Inadequate to Meet Escalating Crisis

Joe Biden must end U.S. climate obstructionism, or else future generations will mark his leadership on climate in this time of great need as a complete and abject failure.

Adrien SalazarKate Alexander

The Biden administration's rhetoric about confronting the climate crisis obscures a frightening reality: Joe Biden's policies are keeping us on a path to climate catastrophe. The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the climate crisis is happening faster and more intensely than predicted. We need urgent action, instead, we have the Biden administration.

The week after the UN climate conference (COP26), Biden launched the largest oil and gas lease sale in US history, of 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. A federal court blocked the sale, citing the administration's failure to consider climate impacts. Climate investments in the Build Back Better Act are in a state of limbo while Senator Manchin, a coal tycoon Democrat from West Virginia, holds the package hostage. As Greenpeace reports, this administration's policies entrench the interests of the fossil fuel industry and prioritize profits over the survival of our planet and communities at the frontline of climate catastrophe, with Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, and women and girls paying the highest price.

Biden's climate rhetoric is undermined by the US strong-arming developing nations who demand climate justice, while domestically, Biden pushes to expand fossil fuel extraction and fails to deliver on climate investments he promised throughout his campaign.

Failing on Climate Financing

Corporate-friendly false solutions that the US champions, including net-zero emissions targets, carbon markets, and restrictions on coal–but not oil and natural gas–amount to carbon colonialism.

As a historic emitter, the US bears significant responsibility to provide funding for global adaptations to climate impacts. The IPCC reported a deep need in adaptation to confront climate risk, and a large gap in adaptation funding. The World Resources Institute suggests the US should contribute 40-47% of the $100 billion annual fund that donor nations committed, and failed to meet by 2020. Instead, the US average annual contribution from 2016 to 2018 was around $7.6 billion.

Corporate-friendly false solutions that the US champions, including net-zero emissions targets, carbon markets, and restrictions on coal–but not oil and natural gas–amount to carbon colonialism. Through carbon-trading schemes these programs let donor nations buy their way out of the crisis by shifting the burden of financing climate adaptation to already impacted Global South nations, deepening climate inequality.

Net-Zero, a corporate-friendly loophole

The US frames emissions goals around "net-zero" targets. Why "net" and not just "zero"? Under net-zero, business can continue as usual by "offsetting" emissions with activities elsewhere to remove emissions from the atmosphere–like planting trees in Brazil to offset emissions in California. This approach allows companies to pay to pollute. It also places human rights at risk by enabling ongoing pollution of communities and land grabs for forest areas globally, including Indigenous lands.

Biden's ailing Build Back Better package includes subsidies for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that advances net zero emissions. A Government Accountability Office report recently found that subsidized CCS projects mostly failed and were a black hole for government funds. If every existing carbon capture and storage project under development were active today, they would mitigate only 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions. . Relying on carbon capture to "scrub" carbon emissions to meet net zero targets is an expensive and insufficient false solution that harms vulnerable communities.

Carbon Markets: Burdening the Global South

The US promotes carbon offsets domestically and globally. Carbon markets will expand net-zero to the global marketplace, shifting the burden of climate adaptation from wealthy nations onto the Global South. Article 6 of the Paris Climate Agreement sets up the creation of an international exchange where nations and corporations can trade emissions credits. In practice, this means corporations and wealthy nations with significant emissions can maintain business as usual if they buy emissions credits from low-emitting nations. This will exploit the low-emissions labor of Indigenous women and girls in the Global South as the backbone of supply in the global carbon market.

This isn't a transfer of resources to enable climate adaptation in poor nations: it's forced extraction of natural resources and wealth from the Global South to meet the political interests of wealthy nations and corporations. That is colonialism disguised as aid.

Eluding Historic Responsibility

The US consistently scapegoats emerging economies to avoid confronting its historic responsibility for climate pollution. At COP26, wealthy nations committed to phasing out coal, a key resource for developing nations, but were unwilling to phase out oil, a resource for wealthy nations that has led to environmental degradation and exploitation particularly impacting Indigenous, Black, and brown communities.

The US military alone is a bigger polluter than approximately 140 countries and is the world's largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gasses.

Apologists for US global climate policies blame the weakened language on coal, from "phase out" to "phase down" in the Glasgow Climate Pact, on India and China, but ignore that the exclusion of similar limitations on oil and gas is the result of US interventions.

The US must focus on its own emissions and historic responsibility for the climate crisis. The US military alone is a bigger polluter than approximately 140 countries and is the world's largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gasses. But since the Kyoto Protocol, military emissions have been exempt from these climate negotiations--a position the US congressional delegation defended at COP26

Global South countries least responsible for the crisis are experiencing its most brutal effects, a result of historic inequities. At COP26, vulnerable countries called for the creation of a loss and damage financing structure to address ongoing climate disasters, but the US, Australia, and the EU coerced climate-vulnerable countries into compromising and blocked their central demand. This is not the climate leadership that Biden pledged.

Climate Obstructionism

Ambitious action to prevent climate catastrophe is possible, but Biden isn't pursuing it. The Indigenous Environmental Network identified ten executive actions Biden could take to confront the climate crisis, from rejecting new fossil fuel projects to stopping pipelines. Public Citizen reports the Biden administration has approved more onshore oil and gas drilling permits in its first year than the Trump administration approved in its first three years. The Gulf of Mexico lease was blocked by a federal judge on the grounds that the Biden administration did not adequately consider the climate consequences, but the Biden administration could still challenge that ruling.

Indigenous organizers, including women and youth, are mobilizing to shut down pipelines that threaten their lands and sovereignty. Indigenous resistance has prevented 1.587 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equal to 24% of US and Canada's combined annual emissions. The Biden administration must respect Indigenous leadership and land rights, and commit to ending pipeline construction.

Finally, Biden's hallmark climate investments in the Build Back Better Act are indefinitely stalled because the President has failed to confront Senator Joe Manchin, who single-handedly is blocking the largest investment in climate solutions, like renewable energy, public transportation, and green housing, in decades.

From Biden, we have seen more of the "America First" strategy that blocks bold climate action for the world, and equity and repair for the Global South. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the latest IPCC report "a damning indictment of failed climate leadership" and that in the face of accelerating climate chaos, "delay means death."

Joe Biden must end US climate obstructionism, or else future generations will mark his leadership on climate in this time of great need as a complete and abject failure.


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Kate Alexander

Kate Alexander is the Policy and Campaigns Officer at MADRE, a global women's human rights organization and feminist fund. Follow MADRE on Twitter at @MADREspeaks.

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