Schweiger: The importance of President Biden’s Global Climate Summit

Mountain yop mine removal in West Virginia. (Photo: L.J. Schweiger)

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

On the 51st Earth Day, President Biden will host a global summit on climate change.

The conference, set to begin today (April 22), will underscore and signal the administration’s commitment to returning to the promises made with the rest of the nations to lower carbon emissions to protect life on earth. Biden promised to make the climate crisis a central issue of his administration. Like President Obama, Biden is using his limited presidential powers through executive orders, rule changes, and memoranda to combat a raging threat to much of life on earth.

In his first days in office, President Biden stopped the Keystone XL Pipeline, bringing high-carbon tar-sand crude from Canada’s Athabaskan River basin. The Obama administration wisely denied this pipeline permit. Then Trump approved the now half-built pipeline from hell. 

President Biden also directed agencies to review and reverse Trump’s administrative actions on the environment since Trump revoked about 100 important environmental rules. Biden seeks methane emissions standards covering the growing gas infrastructure. (The flawed 2005 Cheney/Halliburton provisions that exempted fracking from all significant environmental laws will limit the regulatory reach.) Biden stopped plans for oil and gas drilling in the fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and ordered more consideration of the indigenous people in considering projects.

Biden also paused new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and offshore waters. At the same time, he ordered a “rigorous review” of the existing leasing and permitting processes. The pause will have little impact. According to an Associated Press analysis, oil companies stockpiled leases and pushed through drilling permit applications on public lands in the waning months of the Trump administration, leaving them a large inventory. 

President Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan if passed by Congress will address several unmet and much-needed investments. The plan will help to tackle climate and other environmental threats. Biden has proposed addressing the unfair corporate tax system to increase the tax rates that Trump dramatically cut to pay for the infrastructure plan. Biden has proposed making other needed changes to corporate tax structures, such as eliminating the fossil fuel industry’s outrageous subsidies. 

Biden has also proposed overhauling the corporate tax system that would close loopholes that have allowed nearly 100 major corporations to freeload. The plan increases the global minimum tax, and strengthens enforcement against cheating. The Biden plan would increase the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%. (The Trump administration and the Republican Congress reduced the rate from 35% to 21%.) While the proposed spending would occur over eight years, the tax increases would extend for 15 years and generate $2 trillion. If passed by a very reluctant Congress, the infrastructure plan includes:

  • $100 billion for energy infrastructure improvements needed to help the U.S. provide carbon-free electricity by 2035. Of that, $16 billion is targeted to clean up after the oil, gas, and coal industries’ failures by plugging orphan gas and oil wells and restoring abandoned mine lands. (Through strategic bankruptcies, the fossil fuel industry has mastered the art of privatizing profits while socializing costs.)
  • $100 billion for workforce development, including $40 billion to retrain dislocated workers for clean energy, manufacturing, and caregiving. About $48 billion to establish new apprenticeship slots and career pathway programs for schools.
  • $621 billion for transportation infrastructure to fix 20,000 miles of crumbling roads and 10,000 failing bridges, $80 billion to improve passenger and freight rail service, and $174 billion to boost the domestic electric subsidies and charging stations.
  • $111 billion for drinking water, including $45 billion to replace all lead pipes and service lines in the country, $56 billion to upgrade drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems including inadequate rural water systems, and $10 billion to monitor and remediate dangerous PFAS in drinking water.
  • $180 billion for research and development, including $40 billion in upgrading research labs and $35 billion on a “full range of solutions needed to achieve technology breakthroughs that address the climate crisis and position America as the global leader in clean energy technology and clean energy jobs.”
  • $300 billion for manufacturing to promote the domestic production of goods, jump-start clean energy manufacturing, and strengthen supply chains.

Environmental leaders at the state and federal level overwhelmingly support the Biden Infrastructure plans. Jacquelyn Bonomo, head of PennFuture observed, “Biden’s plan gets it right by leading with ambition, scale and vision that will go a long way for Pennsylvania’s economy and environmental future.”

The administration has called for a doubling of renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030 which will be easy to achieve because we lag the rest of the world in offshore wind production. It will update fuel efficiency standards that Trump gutted to promote faster deployment of electric vehicles. The Biden administration will not go back to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan proposed but blocked by the courts to curtail power plant emissions by about 32% by 2030. Instead, Biden has pledged to zero out the power generation’s contribution by 2035. EPA has not yet developed the policy or needed justifications for this action and the rules will be subject to lengthily appeals up through the courts. The courts have been stacked with justices and judges whose first loyalty appears to be corporate interests so we should keep our expectations low. 

It should also be noted, future presidents can reverse all Biden’s executive actions and rule changes as Trump did by gutting all of Obama’s climate and environmental efforts. 

Without congressional action to combat the climate crisis, President Biden will not achieve sufficient carbon emission reductions. While they are essential steps, President Biden’s efforts will be seen by climate scientists as half-measures that move the needle in the right direction but they are not sufficient alone. Because we have waited far too long to act, reductions to avoid a catastrophic climate crisis must be bold. To take bold resilient steps, Congress must step in and step up to the dangerous realities.

Recently, more than 300 chief executive officers from some of the nation’s largest companies urged Biden to call for a new Paris Agreement goal of cutting the nation’s carbon dioxide, methane, and other planet-warming emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This would nearly double the United States’ ambition for planet-warming emissions cuts most major environmental groups and scientists want. These corporate executives including Google, McDonald’s, and Walmart, called the target “ambitious and attainable.”

Congressional inaction tells us a great deal about the state of American politics, and none of it is good. For starters, it tells us that fossil fuel interests have overtaken our political process. The House and Senate need to enact climate legislation that authorizes the achievement of the necessary science-based reductions. The Senate is locked in a filibuster chokehold by the Republican minority. Members of Congress, including nearly all Republicans and even a few Democrats, believe Biden’s ambitious infrastructure proposal is too expensive and not realistic. Far too many politicians are beholden to fossil fuel interests and unwilling to tackle the climate crisis with Biden’s infrastructure plan. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia has signaled his unwillingness to support the Biden infrastructure bill. While he defends his position by saying he seeks bipartisan solutions, Manchin appears to care more for coal interests who are chopping the tops off West Virginia’s mountains than for the health of the planet.

More than 13,000 scientists from 153 countries have signed on to a report warning that the world is facing a climate emergency that requires bold action. Writing for Common Dreams, John Atcheson asked, “Ponder this for a moment. We are faced with a planet-wrecking problem something that, if left unchecked, could literally lead to the deaths of billions of people, the extinction of nearly half of all species, and the destruction of the ecological systems which allowed for the development of civilization, and the people who want to do something about it are labeled unrealistic, and those who advocate ineffective half-measures are considered “realists.”

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Schweiger: The importance of President Biden’s Global Climate Summit