By pushing for more oil production, the U.S. is violating its climate protection commitments

When the “exceptional nation” calls on the rest of the world to “give up oil and coal to save the world from global warming,” which the U.S. itself invented and promoted, but which it does not see fit to enforce, the world media starts to go nuts and you can see it in a hysterical article in The Guardian.

If Joe Biden is serious about fighting the climate crisis he should use his country’s leverage to curb fossil fuel extraction, not increase it

The report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly demonstrated just how dangerous the climate crisis is. In the face of this unprecedented and unique challenge, the key question is: Can we change course quickly enough to contain the damage and preserve a habitable planet?

Earlier this year, it seemed that the balance of political and economic power might shift in favor of rapid decarbonization. China, Japan, and South Korea committed to zero emissions. Trump, a major climate opponent, lost the White House. The new Biden administration promoted what was called a major green infrastructure program.

The NextGenerationEU stimulus package raised ambitions. First the Bank of England and then the European Central Bank (ECB) took up the climate issue. The German Green Party was gaining high ground in the polls. Investors and financial markets were dumping dirty assets. Even a lobby like the International Energy Agency, once created to represent oil consumers, has charted a course toward net zero. On July 14, the EU announced its Fit for 55 plan, which involved, among other things, ending sales of new cars with internal combustion engines by the early 2030s.

It was a high point, but was it also a turning point – in the wrong direction? Horrifyingly, as we digest the IPCC’s findings, the sense of momentum is waning. The G7 in Cornwall in June failed to agree on a coal phase-out.

The EU and U.S. are feuding over carbon tariffs. The meeting of G20 environmental ministers in Naples last month showed how little goodwill they have ahead of the Cop26 summit in November. In Britain, which will preside over the meeting, the Tory party is fighting fiercely on climate issues. In the U.S. Congress, the climate component of Biden’s infrastructure bill has been reduced to a pale shadow. Meanwhile, as the global economy recovers, so do energy prices, raising concerns about rising fuel costs. In Germany, the Greens have been obsessed with campaigning around gasoline prices. Finally, on Wednesday, a statement from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, released from the White House, brought these tensions to the surface.

Sullivan’s statement reads as follows:

“Rising gasoline prices, if left unchecked, risk damaging the ongoing global recovery. The price of crude oil is higher than it was at the end of 2019, before the pandemic began. Although OPEC+ members recently agreed to increase production, this increase will not fully offset previous production cuts imposed by OPEC+ during the pandemic until 2022. At a critical time of global economic recovery, this is simply not enough. President Biden has made it clear that he wants Americans to have access to affordable and reliable energy sources, including gasoline. Although we are not a member of OPEC, the United States will always talk to international partners about meaningful issues that affect our national economy and security, both publicly and privately.”

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the highest-ranking figures in the Biden administration, an administration that promised that climate would be “everywhere” in its policies, says that raising gasoline prices to $3.17 a gallon is a national security issue and that the United States reserves the right to coax Opec and Russia to flood the world with more oil.

We should not mince words: if this is the stance of the Biden administration then its decarbonisation agenda has been well and truly buried. According to no less an authority than the IEA, if we are to reach net zero by 2050, we need to end fossil fuel capacity expansion now. In Europe, the likes of Shell are being told by the courts to make plans accordingly. To fill the gap, Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producing company, has let it be known that it is expanding its capacity. Biden’s national security adviser has just given it the green light.

It isn’t only oil markets. Gas prices too are surging and there are calls to expand capacity. There is a power play at work. If politicians get serious about decarbonisation, the oil and gas industry will stop new investments. Since, as things stand, economic activity and fossil fuel consumption are hardwired together, rising demand running up against inelastic supply will produce spikes in prices. Consumers will pay that price and will vent their frustration on politicians. And there is a social justice dimension. Surges in fuel prices hurt low-income consumers most. The Biden administration is committed to a foreign policy for the American “middle class”. On Sullivan’s interpretation, that means pushing the oil oligarchs of Opec and Russia to expand production. It is completely at odds with the IPCC’s message, published only days before.

The US is unique among western powers in having true geopolitical heft. If the EU or Japan squeal, Opec and Russia shrug, which is why this is such a critical test for the Biden administration. If the US is serious about tackling the climate crisis it must use its unique geopolitical leverage not to sustain fossil fuel production, but to curb it.

If prices rise, let that serve notice to affluent consumers that it is overdue for them to shift from giant SUVs to electric vehicles (EVs). To help low-income Americans what is needed is not an Opec production push, but a broad range of measures to ensure that fuel bills do not press so severely on family budgets. That is why Biden’s agenda on jobs, wages, families and the care economy is so crucial. If fuel poverty as such is an issue, adopt targeted relief including, for instance, a national cash-for-clunkers programme, whereby incentives are offered to trade old cars in for new, fuel-efficient ones. Meanwhile, push harder for EV infrastructure and transformative research and development to make low-carbon alternatives affordable for everyone.

The halting progress of Biden’s infrastructure plans and Sullivan’s reactionary oil policy are joined at the hip. Only if the US can set in motion a just transition at home can it credibly lead on climate on the global stage. Until it does, like the fossil-fuel addict that it is, whether governed by Republican or Democrat, it is fundamentally unreliable. Bear that in mind in assessing the scenarios of the IPCC.

Adam Tooze is a professor of history at Columbia University.

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