We’ve just had the hottest summer in recorded history, with runaway wildfires in Canada and Hawaii, ruinous floods from Slovenia, Sudan and Hong Kong to Vermont and Brazil. We’ve seen nearly half of the world’s ocean waters in a heat wave, having absorbed some 90 percent of the heat produced by our greenhouse gas emissions.
Amid those catastrophes a new report from Oil Change International, out Sept. 12, showed that despite its rhetoric on climate leadership, the United States accounts for one-third of planned oil and gas expansion across the globe between now and 2050 — more than any other nation.
President Biden, with both help and hindrance from Congress, has brought us federal funding for clean technologies. That’s a crucial step but brutally inadequate: If we keep drilling, pumping and using oil and gas, green-energy money will remain a sprinkling of sugar on a poison pill.
In advance of this year’s United Nations Climate Ambition Summit on Wednesday, Mr. Biden has made concessions to the environmental lobby, canceling oil and gas leases in high-profile Alaska refuges and reserves. Those gestures are welcome, but also easy. The more difficult and more essential task is to remove incentives for oil and gas companies to continue their frantic pace of production, transport and profiteering.
The president’s answer to the climate crisis has been, in one word, more: more money for solar and wind, sure! But also more oil production and more exports of planet-heating fuels. More of everything! It’s the path of least resistance. And after all, more is the American way.
But more won’t cut it with fossil fuels, whether we’re using them ourselves or selling them to other countries. U.S. crude oil exports have gone up almost 850 percent since an important export ban was lifted in 2015, and in 2023 domestic oil production will hit an all-time high. Cleaning up our domestic portfolio won’t mean much if we keep shipping out dirty fuels to be combusted abroad.
The race to decarbonize should be embraced as a race to emancipation and to a greater global peace. Fossils are currently subsidizing conflicts from Russia’s war against Ukraine to militias in Myanmar. In the United States, they also have a regressive influence, since the steep, local environmental costs of producing fossils are borne by frontline populations that are largely poor communities and those of color.
This means that the emerging fight against fossil fuel dominance is not a faint, symbolic echo of, say, the struggles for civil rights and the women’s vote, or of organized labor for fair treatment in the 1930s. It’s a fusion of the impulses behind each of these mass liberation movements, striving to unite the need for environmental justice with the need for racial equity, workers’ rights and an economic system that values the common good over narrow, elite interests. It asks our leaders to use science as the basis for policy — and for rational action. And it asks this not in the name of one group alone, but for all of us.
So far the United States is Goliath, not Samson. For the very first time, global leadership is naming and blaming fossil fuels for the crisis: while the Paris Agreement doesn’t even make mention of fossil fuels, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres is now targeting them directly by welcoming only nations that will commit to no new fossil fuel development and to concrete transition and phaseout plans to speak at the climate summit.
With its enormous economic, military and political clout, America is the colossus that stands in the way of a planetary crackdown on emissions. Congressis deeply entangled with the fossil fuel industry, and in the short term will stay that way. In time, we can hope for its corruption to wane and a belated survival instinct to kick in. But at this pivotal point, when science tells us we have to peak emissions by 2025, the only way forward is through the executive.
President Biden can’t stop oil companies from drilling on private or state lands, which are the source of the vast majority of our current output, but he can phase out oil and gas production on public lands. And he can reinstate a ban on oil and gas exports from private lands. He can stop saying yes to all new oil and gas projects — including the planned Sea Port Oil Terminal off the Texas coast, intended to increase our exports — and more exploration and drilling sites in the Gulf of Mexico.
He can declare the destabilized climate to be the emergency it is and stop the billions of dollars in fossil fuel financing invested abroad, which locks in decades’ worth of extraction.He can direct the Environmental Protection Agency to establish national limits for greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. He can end the Department of Energy’s fossil fuel financing programs and require that all new vehicle sales are zero-emission by 2030. He can prosecute polluters and utilities for the damages they cause under nuisance and fraud suits, as Gov. Gavin Newsom has just done in California, and bring antitrust violation suits against entities that obstruct the clean energy transition.
President Biden can do all of this. If he acts now with urgency and strength, he can replace the poison pill of carbon emissions with medicine. He can give us hope that the ones who come after us will not be subjected to summers of chaos that grow more ravaging every year.
Lydia Millet is the author of more than a dozen books of fiction, most recently “A Children’s Bible” and “Dinosaurs.” She is deputy creative director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.
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