Climate Conscious
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Climate Conscious

Biden’s New Climate Platform Lets Us Harvest More Oil

The VP’s progressive task force gesture doesn’t touch the most essential part of addressing climate change

A Shell Oil drilling platform. Recommendations from a progressive task force for Joe Biden’s climate change platform allow drilling, which activists say has to stop. Photo by Thomas Boyle.

When he became the presumptive Democratic nominee for this fall’s presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden commissioned a task force to develop a policy platform bridging the gap between centrist and progressive lawmakers in the Democratic Party. The group released recommendations in a 110-page report Wednesday. The climate section of the document calls to mostly end carbon emissions by 2050. It describes this goal as “net-zero” emissions, language that allows humans to keep emitting some greenhouse gases and make up for those emissions, presumably through squishy technological fixes like carbon sequestration, policy solutions like an emissions tax, or market mechanisms like cap-and-trade.

It does not leave the oil in the ground.

Scientists have for years determined that the continued burning of fossil fuels from the ground is the primary driver of climate change. But before we can burn it, we must get it. And if we get it, the logic goes, we will inevitably burn it. The Carbon Tracker Initiative writes in 2017 that burning the fossil fuel in current reserves would be enough to blow past what researchers consider a safe threshold of atmospheric carbon three times over. Since, these figures have certainly grown more dire, as humans have continued to use more carbon (except during the pandemic, which has people driving less) and climate scientists’ projections have broadly proven to underestimate the pace and effects of climate change.

Because of this, activists — many of them children — have canvassed the world to demand lawmakers force the fossil fuel industry to halt extraction, staging some of the largest protest demonstrations in world history. The campaign’s hashtag is simple: Leave it in the ground. If we do that, we know we won’t burn it. It’s the safest way to proceed.

Joe Biden, the presumptive challenger to Donald Trump in this fall’s election, is a conservative Democrat who for months lacked any climate change policy aside from media speculation that, if elected, he would reinstate most of President Barack Obama’s climate policies. He prominently made comments in the media saying radical leftism — of a part with ambitious policy frameworks like the Green New Deal — was not the ground from which to beat Trump.

Biden mostly struggled to gain ground in the first several primaries, ceding delegates to more progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Some commentators attributed this to a palpable hunger on the left for epic, unapologetic progressivism. Progressive members of congress released in 2018 their Green New Deal, a sweeping environmental policy vision that includes carbon net-neutrality by 2050, guaranteeing Americans access to clean water, a lavish infrastructure overhaul that would toughen the United States against increasing frequency of natural disasters, among many other ambitious goals.

(Obligatory explainer: The Green New Deal is not legislation but a resolution that has been proposed in Congress to acknowledge the scope and severity of the climate crisis and to propose a framework for responding to it. It’s the umbrella direction in which its proponents believe we should head.)

Political animals on both sides of this issue — which in America are perfect binaries — lined right up, the right saying the climate crisis is a Trojan horse to take everyone’s burgers away and the left that they were planning a utopia. One thing that’s undisputed is that the Green New Deal is far and away the most ambitious climate policy platform ever proposed by functionaries of a large government. It’s popular. Michael Grunwald of Politico reports last year that 81 percent of Americans support the idea of the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal’s popularity and the surge of progressive candidates — especially Sanders — in the primary seemed to cast Biden as being on the defense amid attacks from the left. But this spring, he took a commanding lead in a series of state primaries in the South and Midwest, effectively beating all other candidates, including Sanders, the most formidable.

But he still has a lot to do. In April last year, long before the primary was considered over, political journalist Errin Haines Whack reports in the Associated Press that white candidates “face a ‘woke litmus test’ on race.” Whack was interviewed for the Washington Post’s daily podcast this week, saying Joe Biden owes black women, who the Democratic Party has been accused of taking for granted. The same relationship exists between Biden and environmental activists.

So, when it became clear that Biden would be the nominee, he and Sanders formed a coalition of lawmakers from the left and the center to craft a platform they believe will stand up to a raft of broad issues. The campaign called it the Unity Task Force, and it addressed a series of progressive policy concerns like climate change, funding for police departments, and new workers’ protections and more generous labor benefits after the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic laid bare terrifying shortcomings in the American economic model.

Wednesday, the task force released a series of policy recommendations on these challenges that Biden’s campaign is free to take up. (This essay focuses on climate, but Vox has a primer on the recommendations as a whole).

The climate section echoes the Green New Deal in recognizing the tremendous losses Americans have suffered because of climate change, including catastrophic droughts, floods, and dam failures, resulting in thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damage that could have been avoided had humanity acted sooner on climate change.

It spells out the racial dimension of climate change, noting the disasters associated with the crisis impact minority communities on a larger scale than white ones. It grapples with America’s decades of waffling over and denying the climate crisis’s legitimacy.

“Democrats believe there is a better way,” the recommendations say. “We can and must build a thriving, equitable, and globally competitive clean energy economy that puts workers and communities first and leaves no one behind.”

The document intends to roll back the Trump administration’s litany of rescindments to Obama era and older environmental rules, a cynical campaign to allow extracting industries far more leeway in getting projects approved and letting corporations pollute water supplies and emit more greenhouse gases.

It wants to create “millions” of clean jobs and transition programs to fill them. It will strengthen unions.

It wants to eliminate emissions from power plants by 2035, impose methane caps, retrofit houses to be more efficient, make all buildings carbon free by 2030.

It will more closely work with states to achieve emissions reductions and provide federal money to replace the national school bus fleet with electric vehicles.

It will buy the materials for this rebuilding from within American borders.

It will decarbonize agriculture.

It ramps up the study of how pollution affects frontline communities and begins to atone for the United States’ sins against American Indians.

It establishes accountability mechanisms for polluting extractors.

It restores national parks, which Trump has curtailed.

And it will rejoin the historic Paris Climate Accord, which Trump pulled out of just after he assumed office, and reestablish the United States as a global leader in environmental initiatives.

But what it does not do is require that extractors stop mining for fossil fuels. This is not a trivial concern. It is the ground on which the fossil fuel industry stands most strongly in opposing any effort to combat climate change. It is a part of the ground on which Obama, who Biden served as vice president, lost this fight. Of all Obama’s climate-related shortcomings — mainly his inability to enact an environmental policy agenda over congressional opposition — the most deflating were his own concessions to drilling. In 2015, the former president caved to Shell Oil, allowing the company to drill off American shores in the Arctic.

350.org founder and journalist Bill McKibben ominously writes that fall in Scientific American: “For politicians, this lack of restraint has a simple source: the power of the fossil fuel industry. It is the richest industry on the planet, and it’s historically gotten absolutely everything it wanted.”

Obama, McKibben notes, went to Native communities in Alaska to draw attention to the climate crisis the week after he approved Shell’s drilling. The former action was simply swept under the rug, and not enough people noticed.

Which is why Biden’s platform strains credulity. While the moves outlined in the recommendations would do nothing to help fossil fuel extractors, it has no teeth to decisively drive the industry faster toward its impending demise.

Shahid Buttar, a lawyer and musician challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation’s most powerful Democrat, in the coming election, says this week on a podcast the Green New Deal’s shares this flaw.

“We’ve made a commitment in policy that you can’t sell your vote,” he tells Intercepted host Jeremy Scahill. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t, through public policy, commit to a similar restriction that you can’t sell natural resources that didn’t belong to us, that preceded us, that nobody here made, that are frankly things we hold in stewardship for the future.”

This is a moment when progressives can think big on climate change, and the first step is to stop taking oil out of the earth.

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Aaron Hedge

Aaron Hedge

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.