Is U.S. President Joe Biden’s January 27 Executive Order to address ‘climate crisis’ as good as many activists claim, enough to reverse earlier scepticism?
To be sure, it’s great that the word crisis is consistently deployed, not just ‘climate change.’ Applause is due Biden’s commands to halt fossil fuel subsidies and new oil and gas drilling leases on national government lands, and phase out hydrofluorocarbons. There is a welcome promise to instead subsidize new solar, wind, and power transmission projects. Cancelling the nearly-finished Keystone Pipeline extension (from Canada to Nebraska) is praiseworthy, although surely the Dakota Access Pipe Line should be shut, too.
Moreover, a weakened and often climate-unconscious U.S. labor movement did extremely well, with quite a few paragraphs of the Executive Order – e.g. in the box way below – promising well-paying union jobs in a Just Transition. There is an unusual race consciousness, too, as ‘environmental justice’ is invoked to address the discrimination that so often characterizes pollution in the U.S. Much of the Order resonates with Green New Deal demands, so the Sanders-AOC team pulling Biden leftwards can claim some excellent language.
However, caveats and hard-hitting criticisms of the Order were immediately offered by long-standing Climate Justice organizations, e.g.:
- Indigenous Environmental Network: “we stand by our principles that such justice on these stolen lands cannot be achieved through market-based solutions, unproven technologies and approaches that do not cut emissions at source. Climate justice is going beyond the status quo and truly confronting systemic inequities and colonialism within our society.”
- Food & Water Watch: “Biden’s orders fall well short of what’s needed and must be paired with serious plans to stop our deadly addiction to fossil fuels. We need a White House that is committed to stopping all drilling and fracking, and shutting down any schemes to export fossil fuels.”
These are absolutely valid misgivings, and apply locally and globally. My additional concerns are about how during the 2010s, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) policy was manipulated by Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry (Secretary of State from 2013-17) and other staff from the Obama-era State Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (including former pro-fracking EPA head Gina McCarthy, now Biden’s senior climate advisor). From Copenhagen’s 2009 United Nations Conference of the Parties COP15 to the 2016 Marrakesh COP22 – and especially at Durban COP17 in 2011 and Paris COP21 in 2015 – their corporate neoliberal agenda held sway. This group’s climate-policy imperialism did enormous harm and it’s vital to recall why.
What characterizes Washington’s durable squeeze of UNFCCC policy in that era are eight fatal-flaw silences, which justified climate scientist James Hansen’s critique of Paris as ‘fraud, BS,’ a sentiment also expressed at the time by progressive groups – especially from the Global South, as well as Friends of the Earth International – dedicated to Climate Justice. The Paris Climate Agreement failed to:
- adopt sufficiently deep and binding global emissions reduction requirements, fairly distributed (in contrast to voluntary 2015 Nationally Determined Contributions that will cause at minimum 3-degree heating by 2100 – with only vague hopes of ratcheting up ‘ambition’), combined with a make-believe 1.5 degree aspirational target which is simply a talk-left distraction, while walk-right pollution continues unabated;
- establish accountability mechanisms including penalties (e.g. ‘border adjustment tax’ climate sanctions);
- apply carbon taxation judiciously and democratically (not regressively and top-down, as imposed in France and Ecuador in 2018-19), and dispense with failed carbon trading and offset gimmicks (implicit in most scam-riddled ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon-neutral’ claims, within the resurgent emissions-trading markets);
- respect historical ‘polluter-pays’ responsibilities for the ‘climate debt’ to cover ‘loss and damage’ and to compensate for poorer countries’ unused carbon space;
- ensure a job-rich Just Transition away from carbon-addicted economies (thus entailing new commitments to localized, labor-intensive production processes that had been eviscerated by neoliberal globalization);
- allow poor countries to adopt climate-friendly technology without Intellectual Property restrictions;
- convincingly incorporate and cut military, maritime and air-transport sectoral emissions (three areas long considered by imperialist powers as illegitimate for regulation); and
- compel fossil fuel owners to cease new exploration (and most current extraction) and simultaneously revalue their ‘unburnable carbon’ as ‘stranded assets’ accordingly (instead of allowing an extremely chaotic global commodity market and unreliable fossil financiers to bear this burden).
Post-Paris degeneracy began with Copenhagen discord
Since 2015, matters have become much worse and a global climate emergency is regularly declared. The Paris Climate Agreement’s slacker authors and irresponsible signatories should be condemned, not relegitimized. And now that we know how international climate do-nothing policy of this sort unfolds, warning lights are now flashing about Biden’s plan. Here are some examples:
Biden: “Responding to the climate crisis will require both significant short-term global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and net-zero global emissions by mid-century or before.”
Actually, given what we know about politicians’ propensity to shape-shift, the words ‘net-zero global emissions’ will continue to imply ongoing unsustainable levels of Global-North emissions – but now with even more carbon-offset or emissions-trading gimmickry boiling down to Dr.Strangeloveian ‘false solutions’. Such wording would, in a just world, be replaced by phrases like ‘gross-zero,’ ‘paying our climate debt’ and ‘genuine nature-based sequestration strategies.’
Biden: “In implementing – and building upon – the Paris Agreement’s three overarching objectives (a safe global temperature, increased climate resilience, and financial flows aligned with a pathway toward low greenhouse gas emissions and climate‑resilient development), the United States will exercise its leadership to promote a significant increase in global climate ambition to meet the climate challenge… and alignment of financial flows with the objectives of the Paris Agreement…”
These financial flows are, in reality, farcical, in large part because of prior U.S. ‘leadership.’ At the Copenhagen negotiations in December 2009, Kerry’s predecessor as U.S. Secretary of State – Hillary Clinton – had promised $100 billion in annual North funding for poor countries starting in 2020, if the latter supported the Copenhagen Accord. Newsweek called this “a global bribe… political hardball, Hillary style.”
Nasty episodes of spying, phone-tapping, bullying and bribery have characterized U.S. tactics dating to Copenhagen, too, as we know thanks to WikiLeaks State Department Cables and Clinton’s email leaks, and Ed Snowden’s disclosures about National Security Agency bugging inclinations. The integrity of any Washington negotiator residual from that era (or any other) is dubious, to put it mildly.
Nearly all countries did ultimately sign on to Copenhagen, but many did so under coercion. As the main G77-bloc negotiator, Lumumba Di-Aping, explained to a civil society meeting at the COP15, some of his own home continent’s delegations were “either lazy or had been ‘bought off’ by the industrialized nations. He singled out South Africa, saying that some members of that delegation had actively sought to disrupt the unity of the bloc.”
If Washington, Brussels and London represent the primary sites of climate-imperialist power (usually backed by Ottawa, Tokyo, Canberra, Riyadh and other high-carbon capitals), then Pretoria – along with Beijing, Brasilia and Delhi (and Moscow too) – have served as the main climate subimperialists. The leaders of the latter four – South Africa, China, Brazil and India – joined Obama and Clinton in cutting a backroom Copenhagen deal just after Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. It represented, Bill McKibben remarked at the time, the U.S. president’s greatest failure:
He blew up the United Nations. The idea that there’s a world community that means something has disappeared tonight… He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super-polluters… George Bush couldn’t have done this — the reaction would have been too great. Obama has taken the mandate that progressives worked their hearts out to give him, and used it to gut the ideas that progressives have held most dear.
McKibben was right, because in coming months and years, the Copenhagen signatories and moderate ‘Climate Action’ NGOs whose leaders actually believed Clinton’s bribe promise found themselves conned, just as if they’d shaken hands with Donald Trump. Clinton’s advertised vehicle for the money, the Korea-based Green Climate Fund, last year only funded 37 projects worldwide costing a measly $2.1 billion.
The typical Global North rebuttal is that there’s plenty more climate money available outside that particular fund, such as in development banks allegedly lending to mitigate emissions or assist in adapting or making countries resilient to climate chaos. But a loan is a loan and most must be repaid with interest, so as Timmons Roberts and Romain Weikmans wrote in a Brookings Institute paper in 2016, “three-quarters of the projects counted as helping developing countries adapt to climate change in fact do not stand up to rigorous criteria.”
And Trump’s 2017 default on paying into the Green Climate Fund only put the U.S. into what is now merely a $2 billion deficit; that’s how little ambition the negotiators to subsequent UN climate summits possessed, and how unaccountable lying U.S. officials can be.
The Paris pantomime – no substitute for genuine climate policy
When Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, there were diverse calls for punishment – e.g. carbon taxes or other sanctions – against the U.S., from rightwing former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, centre-left economist Joe Stiglitz and climate justice strategist Naomi Klein. But no other Paris proponents had the gumption to do so, confirming that Paris was not worth fighting for, at the cost of offending inter-corporate relations, even in their eyes.
Another confirmation that the deal is a dud came at the end of last month when new voluntary targets updating the Paris emissions-reduction commitments were due, but only 23 countries met the deadline, and by January 27 there were still only 39 according to CarbonTracker, covering only a third of world emissions.
Of those that did, several climate slackers stand out for not having increased their commitment from 2015 levels: Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Switzerland and Vietnam. And major polluters Canada, India, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Venezuela and the U.S. didn’t even bother to submit new Paris Agreement proposals for emissions cuts.
Another reason Paris is worse than useless is the return of the carbon trading strategy. Biden speaks of “promoting the protection of the Amazon rainforest and other critical ecosystems that serve as global carbon sinks, including through market-based mechanisms.”
But since Kerry pushed this as a U.S. Senator in 2009-10 – as a failed ‘cap and trade‘ law – there has been profound conflict associated with privatising the air and selling the right to pollute. Some of these relate to broad neoliberal theory and policy, as a lecture by Tamra Gilbertson at the University of California/Santa Barbara here shows, and some to recent experiences in ultra-chaotic financial markets, I recently argued at the same conference.
For example, two years ago, more than 100 scientists wrote a letter to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), asking them to reject carbon offsets and trading permits on grounds the existing market-based mechanisms – especially as witnessed in the Amazon – provided minimal compensation, constrained community access to forest resources, and undermined local governance.
A consistent critic of these gimmicks – including CARB’s Tropical Forest Standard – is Amazon Watch, but rather than checking in with these experts, the Biden-Kerry team is committed to the corporate neoliberal agenda, and is not watching how market-based mechanisms actually work in the Amazon or anywhere else.
America First financing = climate-debt denialism
Biden: “The Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Energy shall work together and with the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the Chief Executive Officer of the DFC, and the heads of other agencies and partners, as appropriate, to identify steps through which the United States can promote ending international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy while simultaneously advancing sustainable development and a green recovery.”
Weasel words like ‘identify steps to promote’ would, in a just world, be replaced by ‘veto international financing’ – and indeed where such monies have been committed but not yet fully disbursed, cut them off. And the U.S. must pay reparations where those are required.
Recall South Africa’s plight: sickly parastatal energy supplier Eskom’s two new coal-fired power plants (4800 MW each, the largest in the world) were given irrational support from Washington in 2010-11, when Biden was Vice President. One drew the World Bank’s largest-ever loan (which the U.S. could have vetoed) and additional funds came for coal-mining equipment from the U.S. Ex-Im Bank, in spite of both climate concerns and widespread (confessed) corruption of the local ruling party by Eskom’s main construction firm, Hitachi. (And then late last year the International Development Finance Corp. promised Eskom more billions to buy 2500MW of dangerous nuclear energy from U.S. firms, in spite of a recent history of corruption in the sector which had contributed to President Jacob Zuma’s ouster in an early-2018 palace coup.)
Biden would be taken seriously if he changed the U.S. ‘denialist’ position on the climate debt. The U.S. negotiating team at the UNFCCC was led by diplomat Todd Stern, who repeatedly violated the ethical core of the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. That declaration acknowledged both that “The largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries,” and that when it comes to the financial resources required to remedy the crisis,
The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.
But by 2009 in Copenhagen, Stern had spun the combined equity and responsibility mandate upside down: “We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere up there that are there now, but the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that.”
The ugly-American ultra-polluters’ refusal to pay victims of climate change their due reparations – as would even any garden-variety economist committed to ‘internalizing the externalities’ of imperfect markets using the ‘polluter pays’ principle – was dogmatically maintained by Stern through the 2010s. At the time, U.S. climate damage was estimated at $4 trillion. Stern and other rich-country negotiators insisted that a rider to the Paris Climate Agreement specify that any loss and damage acknowledgement “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation” by the guilty parties – so if you sign Paris, you sign away your rights to demand climate debt payments.
The spirit of financial evasion continues in Biden’s Executive Order, which ignores the need for concrete funding commitments: there is not a single costing of any of his commands. On the one hand, Biden has a Senate Budget Committee chair – Bernie Sanders – who is more progressive than any in modern history, and who will advocate as much climate-related spending (via the ‘reconciliation’ process, requiring 51 votes) as can be accomplished with the bare majority the Democrats have at least until the next Senate elections in late 2022.
On the other hand, not only had Sanders wrung an actual dollar commitment out of his mid-2020 task team negotiations – “Biden’s climate and environmental justice proposal will make a federal investment of $1.7 trillion over the next ten years” – but most of the actual legislation required to cement in climate sanity in the U.S. (and to put down a time-wasting Republican filibuster) requires 60 votes in the Senate.
And in any case, there’s now a fair question that cuts to the heart of financing: can Biden be trusted with such promises – because justifiable fury has emerged in the U.S. working class, that the $2000 Covid-19 survival and stimulus check per adult that Biden promised he would send out when he assumed power last week will actually be only $1400 and will only arrive in March.
U.S. technological and militaristic selfishness
Biden: “The Secretary of Energy, in cooperation with the Secretary of State and the heads of other agencies, as appropriate, shall identify steps through which the United States can intensify international collaborations to drive innovation and deployment of clean energy technologies, which are critical for climate protection.”
Another slow-poke promise to ‘identify steps’ – and what’s the underlying catch here? Typically U.S. corporations add a huge price mark-up on new technologies, through patent licensing, fees and royalties. The traditional demand from Climate Justice activists is to end the monopolistic ‘Intellectual Property’ (IP) protections enjoyed by corporations (whether from West or East, North or South), especially when such claims prevent diffusion of vital public goods – and also where usually there have been generous state subsidies involved.
This simple principle was accepted in fighting AIDS, when in 2001 the World Trade Organisation agreed that IP protection would be relaxed on Big Pharma’s patented medicines; South Africa’s life expectancy rose rapidly from 52 to 65 as a result of publicly-supplied generics.
The next test of this principle is on February 4 when just as urgent a demand – from the global health justice movement as well as the governments of South Africa, India, Kenya and Swaziland – again reaches the WTO Trade Related Intellectual Property System council in Geneva. Activists and even some of these objectionable governments justifiably insist on a waiver from IP restrictions that prevent generic supply of Covid-19 vaccines and treatment, at a time unethical Global North governments like Canada’s have acquired five times more vaccine doses than its citizens require.
Biden: “Agencies that engage in extensive international work shall develop… within 90 days of the date of this order, strategies and implementation plans for integrating climate considerations” – yet even though ‘military installations’ are mentioned, this Order applies “without prejudice to existing requirements regarding assessment of such infrastructure.”
But the catch is that existing requirements are negligible, since Paris exempts the military from emissions scrutiny. The Pentagon does understand one thing consistent with U.S. imperialism’s needs, as Biden reminded: the “security implications of climate change (Climate Risk Analysis) that can be incorporated into modeling, simulation, war-gaming, and other analyses.”
The military threat and anti-refugee stance of the ‘deporter-in-chief’ Obama and openly xenophobic Trump regimes are symptoms. But as the Democratic Socialists of America explained the core underlying problem, “John Kerry’s signature climate strategy seems to be selling out the working class to corporate Republicans.” And when the neoliberal, technicist approaches Biden’s team insists upon likely crowd out his promises of Just Transition and Climate Justice, another rightwing backlash and renewed climate-denialist surge will be felt in the U.S. populace.
Rethinking support for both Biden and Paris
Given all this evidence of how the Executive Order falls short, perhaps a rethink is needed. One basic question we’re asking this week in some of the World Social Forum debating about the UNFCCC, is the same one we asked each other when the WSF was founded in 2001, when we were concerned mainly with the World Bank, IMF and WTO as the key vehicles of economic imperialism: “Fix it or nix it.” If the fix-it reform requirements are not properly set out, then the danger is legitimizing a process without applying sufficient pressure to the principals involved.
Without that pressure, the Biden regime will naturally adopt a George H.W. Bush (Rio, 1992) yankee-consumer-imperialism negotiating standpoint, as did Kerry himself last week “Tackling climate change did not mean a diminishment of lifestyle.”
The greatest danger here is the combination of Biden’s neoliberal market-orientation (he hails from his country’s leading bank tax-haven zone, Delaware, after all) with his neocon imperial-military tendencies (the foreign policy appointments are hot off the Military-Industrial Complex revolving door). This mix will make the Biden Administration just as wicked a UNFCCC negotiating partner as was Obama’s team; indeed, Biden’s recycling many of the same people – with the sole apparent exception of a progressive Interior Department leadership nomination, Deb Haaland. That means climate activists in the U.S. should from the outset be as critical as reality demands.
Youth activist Greta Thunberg sent this message to the World Economic Forum on January 26, condemning the elites for:
creating new loopholes, failing to connect the dots, building your so called ‘pledges’ on the cheating tactics that got us into this mess in the first place. If the commitments of lowering all our emissions by 70, 68 or even 55 percent by 2030 actually meant they aim to reduce them by those figures then that would be a great start. But that is unfortunately not the case. And since the level of public awareness continues to be so low our leaders can still get away with almost anything. No one is held accountable. It’s like a game. Whoever is best at packaging and selling their message wins.
Given the prevailing evidence, claims made about Kerry’s new-found ‘humility’ should no longer lull observers into allowing another decade of U.S. sabotaging global climate policy. And that means a totally different perspective is needed on how U.S. and international progressives treat the U.S. re-entry to Paris: with eyes wide open – and protest placards at the ready.
Some of Biden’s most pleasing words
We must listen to science – and act. We must strengthen our clean air and water protections. We must hold polluters accountable for their actions. We must deliver environmental justice in communities all across America. The Federal Government must drive assessment, disclosure, and mitigation of climate pollution and climate-related risks in every sector of our economy, marshaling the creativity, courage, and capital necessary to make our Nation resilient in the face of this threat. Together, we must combat the climate crisis with bold, progressive action that combines the full capacity of the Federal Government with efforts from every corner of our Nation, every level of government, and every sector of our economy…
To secure an equitable economic future, the United States must ensure that environmental and economic justice are key considerations in how we govern. That means investing and building a clean energy economy that creates well‑paying union jobs, turning disadvantaged communities – historically marginalized and overburdened – into healthy, thriving communities, and undertaking robust actions to mitigate climate change while preparing for the impacts of climate change across rural, urban, and Tribal areas. Agencies shall make achieving environmental justice part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, environmental, climate-related and other cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities, as well as the accompanying economic challenges of such impacts. It is therefore the policy of my Administration to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care…
It is the policy of my Administration to put a new generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters. The Federal Government must protect America’s natural treasures, increase reforestation, improve access to recreation, and increase resilience to wildfires and storms, while creating well-paying union jobs for more Americans, including more opportunities for women and people of color in occupations where they are underrepresented. America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels. Coastal communities have an essential role to play in mitigating climate change and strengthening resilience by protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems, such as wetlands, seagrasses, coral and oyster reefs, and mangrove and kelp forests, to protect vulnerable coastlines, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity and fisheries… The plan shall also aim to ensure that the United States retains the union jobs integral to and involved in running and maintaining clean and zero-emission fleets, while spurring the creation of union jobs in the manufacture of those new vehicles…
It is the policy of my Administration to improve air and water quality and to create well-paying union jobs and more opportunities for women and people of color in hard-hit communities, including rural communities, while reducing methane emissions, oil and brine leaks, and other environmental harms from tens of thousands of former mining and well sites. Mining and power plant workers drove the industrial revolution and the economic growth that followed, and have been essential to the growth of the United States. As the Nation shifts to a clean energy economy, Federal leadership is essential to foster economic revitalization of and investment in these communities, ensure the creation of good jobs that provide a choice to join a union, and secure the benefits that have been earned by workers…
Such work should include projects that reduce emissions of toxic substances and greenhouse gases from existing and abandoned infrastructure and that prevent environmental damage that harms communities and poses a risk to public health and safety. Plugging leaks in oil and gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mine land can create well-paying union jobs in coal, oil, and gas communities while restoring natural assets, revitalizing recreation economies, and curbing methane emissions. In addition, such work should include efforts to turn properties idled in these communities, such as brownfields, into new hubs for the growth of our economy. Federal agencies should therefore coordinate investments and other efforts to assist coal, oil and gas, and power plant communities, and achieve substantial reductions of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector as quickly as possible.
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