Climate activists got bad news on Monday, when word trickled out that Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond—among the top Democratic recipients of fossil fuel money in the House—had been tapped to lead the Office of Public Engagement in Joe Biden’s White House. Having served as co-chair of Biden’s presidential campaign, Politico reports, Richmond will now have a role that includes being a “liaison with the business community and climate change activists.” The latter were decidedly nonplussed. The Sunrise Movement called the appointment a “betrayal,” citing not just the $340,000 Richmond has received from the oil and gas industry during his career but his miserable track record on climate—he has voted in favor of building more pipelines, for repealing the crude oil export ban, and against regulations on fracking.
The most alarming thing about the appointment wasn’t necessarily the selection of Richmond itself but what it foreshadows: Getting Biden to break with business as usual may be a more uphill battle than climate advocates hoped.
The president-elect picking Richmond is aggressively on brand. Biden boosted fossil fuels enthusiastically while serving as vice president and had few qualms about inviting advisers who’d spent years taking big checks from the fossil fuel industry, like Ernie Moniz and Heather Zichal, back to his inner circle for 2020. If Joe Biden can be said to have an abiding political commitment, it’s to compromise—specifically, compromise between people Biden knows personally who disagree with one another. After decades in Washington, he mostly knows politicians and the people that surround them—a statistically unrepresentative bunch uncommonly committed to a destructive status quo.
Richmond’s appointment indicates that one group Biden is content to compromise with is the fossil fuel industry—never mind its central role in torpedoing climate policy the last time he worked at the White House. Whatever his own personal leanings, Chevron, Valero Energy, and Phillips 66 wouldn’t send him tens of thousands of dollars without expecting to see some return on their investment.
The trouble is that there’s no way to deal with the climate crisis that keeps the kind of elite comity Biden strives for intact. Trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuel profits will need to go unrealized to keep the planet from warming to catastrophic levels. Coal, oil, and gas companies—and their emissaries in Congress—will fight to the death to avoid that fate. By averting a conflict with the fossil fuel industry and its beneficiaries, Biden is siding with catastrophe.
Richmond himself is a case study in the perils of compromise. He represents an area dense with chemical and fossil fuel infrastructure, much of it owned by firms who’ve donated generously to his campaigns. The industry’s build-out there over the last 30 years has turned parts of his district into “Cancer Alley,” a majority-Black stretch of communities between Louisiana and Baton Rouge where cancer risk is as much as 50 times the national average. When two Cancer Alley residents met with Richmond about reining in a toxic chemical plant there, he brushed them off. Apparently embarrassed by a Guardian report about the incident, he wrote a letter vaguely criticizing air pollution. Having gotten a similar treatment, constituents of Richmond’s district who have battled fossil fuel infrastructure there sounded off to Earther against his appointment. “He’s never liaised with any environmental justice groups working on issues with the petrochemical industry in Louisiana. He might have liaised with business, but he hasn’t talked with us,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer with Sierra Club in New Orleans. “He may have had one meeting with organizers, but there’s been no ongoing discussion.”
Biden has pledged to focus on climate change and certainly talks about it a lot. Reportedly, his team is already drafting executive actions and planning for new climate-focused Cabinet posts and to make climate a top priority across agencies. That’s all well and good. But it’s perfectly possible for him to roll out shiny new offices and executive orders while keeping the likes of ExxonMobil happy. He can rejoin the Paris Agreement without offering many details about how to meet its goals. He can enlist academics and former White House officials housed at campus energy centers bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry who will pitch the White House on how to keep that industry’s core business model intact despite all the evidence that it should be dismantled. He can slowly wean the power sector off fossil fuels while expanding export markets for them abroad. And he can appoint more people like Richmond, centrist standard-bearers who’ll give industry a voice on the inside. No one should confuse this with making the world a better place.
After he ran a primary campaign that was decidedly light on climate details, it was pressure from climate campaigners that made Biden take the issue seriously in the first place. Postelection, he seems to be running with it. If he ices progressives out of the administration—entrusting his climate agenda to industry-friendly centrist technocrats—he stands to demobilize the people he’ll need to boost Democratic ranks in Congress come 2022. Compromising with polluters out of the gate is a recipe for getting nothing done on climate.
Progressives put climate change on Joe Biden’s radar. The question now is whether they can convince him to fight against it. Richmond’s appointment seems to suggest he isn’t up for a fight.