Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avert full blown climate catastrophe. It’s not too late to stave off the worst impacts, they urged – indeed, it’s “possible within the laws of physics and chemistry”. But we need to act fast.
Presidential candidate Joe Biden, 79, seems to have a very different understanding of the climate crisis than the world’s leading climate scientists. Several top advisers to the former vice-president previewed his “middle of the road” plan on the issue for Reuters on Friday. He’ll have the US rejoin the Paris agreement, which Trump has said he will leave exit as soon as that document’s terms allow in early 2021. He’ll preserve existing regulations on emissions and fuel efficiency that the current administration has targeted. Like Obama, he’ll embrace an “all of the above” energy strategy, with plenty of room for new natural gas development and exports as well as carbon capture and storage, to indefinitely extend the life of the coal industry.
The Sunrise Movement – one of the leading groups pushing for a Green New Deal – has rightfully called Biden’s plan a “death sentence for our generation”, advocating instead the kind of economy-wide mobilization scientists have urged.
“Right now, we need a little bit more reality around this dialogue,” Heather Zichal told Reuters, taking a swipe at such plans. Zichal, “who has become Biden’s informal advisor on climate change policy,” Volcovici writes, also served as a top climate advisor to the Obama administration.
Until recently, she sat on the board of directors of Cheniere Energy, a natural gas company that would stand to profit handsomely if federal policy stands by natural gas as a so-called bridge fuel to renewables. Her resignation from Cheniere, an official statement of theirs clarified, “was not due to any disagreement with the company or its management with respect to any matter relating to the company’s operations, policies or practices”. And why would she? Before leaving Cheniere last summer, she made over $1m through her four year stretch there, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The only reality Zichal seems concerned with is one where the the fossil fuel companies that she has gotten rich off of keep realizing fat profits.
Scientific reality is a different story. A recent report from Oil Change International found that allowing the industry continuing to explore for and extract all the new fuel deposits they intend to would run directly counter to the goals inscribed in the Paris agreement. As the IPCC report indicates, meeting those will mean that global natural gas usage decline by 74% by mid-century – and arguably much faster in the US. Staying below 2C means keeping 80% of known fossil fuel reserves buried underground.
As out of touch as they are with the scale of the climate challenge, Biden’s industry-friendly plans aren’t surprising. In a video announcing his White House bid, Biden painted Donald Trump’s presidency as an aberration. His promise? Get the country back to business as usual. Presumably, that also means the business of digging up and and burning as many fossil fuels as humanly possible. Last November, Obama bragged to a crowd in Houston about the explosion of oil and gas drilling during his time in office. “Suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas – that was me, people,” he said, fishing for an applause.
The upshot here isn’t complicated: Biden does not have a plan to keep warming below 1.5 or even 2C. If every country fully lived up to its pledges in the Paris agreement, for instance – including the Clean Power Plan the Obama administration crafted to satisfy its contribution – we’d be on track for a little over 3C of warming, displacing tens of millions of people from the world’s coastal cities, submerging low-lying island states and gravely threatening the world’s food supply. As atmosphere scientists Andrew Dessler told HuffPost’s Alexander Kaufman, Biden’s plans would “be more in line with stabilizing at 3-4C of warming, rather than staying below 2C”.
“Middle Class Joe” may well believe that the climate crisis poses an existential threat, which is more than can be said of the current administration. If his climate plan is to get us back to 2016, he’s not any more in touch with reality than they are.