Joe Biden chose Earth Day (April 22) to convoke world leaders to a virtual climate summit and pledged to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. This has understandably left some breathing easier after four years of crude environmental revanchism by the Trump administration. But do these meetings and the high-profile announcements they generate make enough of a difference?
On the first day of his presidency, Biden announced that he would bring the United States back in line with the Paris climate accord which Trump had pulled out of. The United States signed on to the Paris agreement while Biden was Vice President under Barack Obama in 2016. The agreement was in some ways a landmark recognition by world governments of the need for increased cooperation to address the rapidly worsening and very real climate crisis. However, the non-binding accord was widely criticized by activists and environmental experts for being toothless in terms of accountability and for not going far enough to prevent a rise in global temperatures that would be catastrophic and irreversible.
By 2019 the United States was already falling short of its Paris accord pledges. On Thursday, Biden announced that the United States would almost double that Paris accord commitment. He stated the goal by the end of this decade is to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions equivalent to 50-52 percent of 2005 levels. If fulfilled, Biden’s target could make a significant global impact.
Capitalism will never be “green”
How does the president intend to turn the worst per capita polluter among the major countries into a green leader in the next eight or nine years? Though details are still scarce and may remain so, what we do know about the Biden administration’s plans indicate they will rely heavily on incentivizing rather than mandating private industry into compliance. Historically this has meant handing over public funds to big corporations and trusting that they decide to “do the right thing”.
Much of the language in the White House fact sheet on Biden’s announcement is vague or confusing. Unproven-at-scale technologies like carbon recapture and ocean wave power generation are hinted at in the fact sheet. Elsewhere in the document, nuclear power is proposed as a partial solution. Nuclear waste is impossible to store or transport safely and the reduction of nuclear power for this reason is a focus of the climate justice movement. The fact sheet also features a head-scratching suggestion of using more induction cooktops in American kitchens among other proposals that are certain to have no appreciable impact whatsoever on the species-threatening crisis.
Joe Biden still stubbornly refuses to support a nationwide ban on fracking, an especially environmentally devastating method of fossil fuel extraction.
Unsurprisingly, there was no mention of reigning in the most polluting enterprise on the face of the earth: the U.S. military. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines did indicate during the climate summit that “to address climate change properly it must be at the center of a country’s national security and foreign policy.” But no details about what exactly this means were provided, and Biden’s recent request for an increase in the already record-high war budget makes it difficult to be optimistic that his administration will take the matter seriously.
Another likely outcome is that “address[ing] climate change” in the sphere of foreign policy will mean taking a hypocritically tough stance against targeted countries such as China and Russia for their emissions and environmental policies.
A popular concept in the socialist environmental movement is that of climate debt. This is the recognition that the major capitalist world powers used whatever means available to them during their processes of industrialization, heavily relying on labor and resources exploited and extracted from the consequently under-developed and colonized parts of the world. The developing world is now being asked to refrain from using the same extractive technologies to power their own industrializations, which had been delayed artificially by imperialism. The advanced capitalist powers therefore owe a “climate debt” which could be paid back in debt forgiveness, no-interest no-strings loans, sharing green technology or other forms of payment.
Karl Marx observed a “metabolic rift” in his study of capitalist production. More is extracted from the earth than can be replenished by natural processes. While it is important to continue to press on the centers of power to do more, it is important to understand the hypocrisy of ruling class politicians’ grand statements about their concern for the climate. So-called “green capitalism” of the type that Biden is halfway promoting is after all still capitalism — a system where profit must come before people and planet.
For centuries now, this system of seeking profit above all else has wreaked havoc on the future habitability of the earth and the health of its inhabitants. Too often the most affected sectors of society are those who have the least capacity to escape those effects. This is by design. Only a persistent and informed movement understanding the unity of the anti-imperialist, anti-racist and climate justice struggles can form the new socialist system that the planet requires to heal and thrive.