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John Gibbons Biden may not be perfect on climate but he's our best hope

The environmental journalist and campaigner takes stock after Joe Biden’s visit and looks at the US president’s record on climate.

POLITICIANS, IT HAS been said, campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The soaring rhetoric of the hustings rarely survives the meat grinder of deal-making and realpolitik.

When US presidential candidate Joe Biden in 2020 promised “no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period” he unconsciously echoed a similar pledge made 32 years earlier by George H. Bush, when he said: “read my lips: no new taxes”.

That pledge was to come back to haunt Bush as, sure enough, taxes went up just two years later and this is widely seen as one of the reasons he failed to get re-elected.

Whether Biden’s apparent u-turn in recently authorising an $8 billion plan – known as the Willow project – to drill for 600 million barrels of oil on pristine federal lands deep inside the Arctic Circle comes back to hurt his re-election chances at the end of next year remains to be seen, but it has caused deep dismay in progressive and environmental circles as the latest political capitulation to Big Oil.

us-approve-alaska-oil-and-gas-development US President Joe Biden has approved a major oil and gas drilling project in Alaska that faced strong opposition from environmental activists. ABACA / PA Images ABACA / PA Images / PA Images

It appears that the Biden administration took the political decision not to fight oil giant ConocoPhillips, the company promoting the Willow project as a refusal would almost certainly be overturned in the (Republican-dominated) courts and could likely cost the US government up to $5 billion in compensation claims for lost revenues.

As an attempt to salvage something from the situation, the US government has forced the Willow project to scale back from five to three drilling sites, and ConocoPhillips has agreed to give up leases it held on around 68,000 acres.

Climate tug of war

The Biden administration is also issuing new rules to block future oil and gas leases on more than half of the 23 million acres with the area in Alaska known as the National Petroleum Reserve, as well as 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean.

While this sounds encouraging, bear in mind that a future Republican administration could simply overturn these protections, as Donald Trump did to a raft of environmental and climate measures put in place by Barack Obama.

While it may come as cold comfort, Biden was clearly deeply unhappy at having to sign off on the Willow project. During his recent address to the Oireachtas, he described climate change as “the single existential threat to the world”, adding that “we don’t have a lot of time, and that’s a fact”.

president-biden-visit-to-the-island-of-ireland US President Joe Biden with Senator Jerry Buttimer, Cathaoirleach of Seanad Eireann and Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Ceann Comhairle of Dail Eireann after addressing the Oireachtas Eireann last week. PA PA

Biden has seen the evidence with his own eyes. “I’ve flown over more territory in the United States since I’ve been President, in a helicopter, that has been burned to the ground equal to the entire state of Maryland”.

Our own record

Political talk is of course cheap. For instance, does anyone for a moment seriously imagine our own Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has even begun to grapple with the climate emergency as the key existential issue of his generation?

Biden, I believe, is different, and he proved it last year when he sunk huge political capital into delivering a $369 billion climate investment package, which he modestly described as “the most significant legislation in history” as part of his Inflation Reduction Act.

Expert assessments calculate this could lead to around a 40% reduction in US emissions by 2030, as it engages the levers of large-scale investment to nudge the entire economy on a lower-emissions pathway.

Yes, he lost the Willow battle, but in the overall climate war, Biden is using his decades of experience as a deal-maker and his reputation as a moderate to steer genuinely transformative change at a rate and pace than completely eluded his former boss Barack Obama.

Is it really enough, given the hellish threats posed by climate breakdown? Almost certainly not, but for progressives contemplating staying at home in the 2024 presidential election in protest at the Willow decision, they may need a reality check and to recall the ecocidal Trump regime and how it shredded decades of hard-won environmental regulations as well as attempting to sabotage global climate negotiations.

If either Trump or the equally worrying Ron DeSantis were to enter the White House in January 2025, the Willow debacle would be the very least of our worries. With potential global ecological collapse almost within touching distance, just one more term with a climate denier in charge of the world’s most powerful country should suffice to push us over the edge.

Collage Maker-18-Apr-2023-03-47-PM-9019 Donald Trump may run again for president, while Ron DeSantis is widely seen as his greatest rival. Neither has a great record on climate action. PA images PA images

While identifying as a progressive, I’ve never considered myself a US political fan-boy. When Bill Clinton and Barack Obama came to Dublin, I watched it on TV but stayed away, despite living locally. Yet last weekend I joined thousands of others on the long road to Ballina to witness Joe Biden’s final Irish address.

Why the change of heart? Partly, it was the sheer relief that Biden had – at least for now – saved US democracy from being dragged headlong into authoritarianism and fascism in 2020 by MAGA extremists. But mostly it was in recognition of the fact that Biden, Willow notwithstanding, has made real, sustained efforts to show leadership in averting climate catastrophe.

Whatever your politics, your personal or religious views or whatever issues are most precious to you, all of these will be wiped away if we fail to prevent global ecological and climate collapse. In short, if we get this wrong, nothing else will matter, ever again and the future itself will become little more than a rapidly fading memory.

I’m firmly on the side of whoever is fighting to make sure this doesn’t come to pass. Who can say if we’ll succeed? All I know for sure is we cannot afford to fail.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator.

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