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The Biden White House Is Strangely Calm About Our Burning Planet

Jennifer Granholm, John Kerry, and the rest of the Biden climate team consistently downplay how much we need to do.

Jennifer Granholm speaks in front of microphones, with Pete Buttigieg in the background.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks to members of the press outside the West Wing of the White House.

Last week, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm joined San Francisco–based radio station KQED’s Political Breakdown to talk about the task of running the Department of Energy at this critical juncture in the climate crisis. The conversation was a perfectly pleasant one. To a casual listener, it would have seemed like little was amiss, which was in all likelihood Granholm’s intention. The problem is, it’s time to stop coddling the casual listener.

America desperately needs to ditch its coal mines and pipelines for more sustainable, less toxic energy sources. As the head of the Energy Department, Granholm wields the power to kick-start a rapid transition away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. In her interview with KQED, Granholm could have laid out the stakes of our currently dire situation, explained the pills America needs to swallow to survive said fight—i.e., shutting down current and planned natural gas pipelines, curtailing existing oil fields, and cutting all fossil fuel subsidies—and tried to convince America to take them.

Instead, Granholm toed a more hopeful line, just like John Kerry a few weeks ago, claiming Americans didn’t need a deadline for giving up coal. The secretary—acting as an extension of the White House—offered the same overarching message of incrementalism, job creation, and America-first rhetoric that the Biden administration has made its bread and butter: “You better believe our other economic competitors, other countries, are in the game, and they are in it to make sure that they create jobs for their people,” Granholm said on KQED, hitting her mark perfectly. “And the president strongly believes that we should be doing that for our people.”

For a certain class of people along the Beltway, this is a perfectly fine, if unimaginative, message. It’s the one that Deb Haaland used in her confirmation hearings to stave off the bad-faith right-wing criticism of the Biden administration, pointing to her relationship with Alaska Representative Don Young and her commitment to job creation. It’s the same one that Gina McCarthy voiced in her interview with Axios last month, where the White House national climate adviser said that framing the climate crisis through what people will have to sacrifice is “never going to be a winning strategy,” and in the wake of the pandemic, “it’s ridiculous.” And it’s the same one Kerry trotted out during his now-infamous interview with the BBC, wherein he pooh-poohed America’s continued coal operations, downplayed the need for reform regarding America’s meat production and consumption habits, and just generally seemed incredibly relaxed about the topic of a warming planet in comparison to host Andrew Marr.

This milquetoast approach represents the postprimary, pre–general election vision of a campaign that still sees conciliation and aisle-crossing as the missing ingredient to convince on-the-fencers that Democratic officials are the adults in the room. If Biden officials feel a sense of urgency on climate—if they are anxious about the millions of people who will soon be displaced or in mortal dangerit’s nearly impossible to detect.

Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, this policy of genteel tact would have been a sensible pathway toward solving and mitigating the worst of what humanity had in store for the planet. But this is 2021, and the climate crisis is precisely that—a crisis, enabled and worsened by years of politicians and policymakers kicking the can down the road. In order for the world to stave off the absolute worst-case scenarios, we now must use our existing, slow-moving governmental apparatuses to respond with unprecedented speed to an increasingly dire set of consequences. A gradual, incremental approach, with a P.R. front touting all the forthcoming jobs, could once have been a viable path; instead, four successive administrations kept printing permits for drilling, mining, burning, and dumping, while the alarm bells sounded by every leading climate and environmental expert fell on uninterested ears.

The true problem, of course, is our political system. As Granholm pointed out in her KQED interview, proactive policies concerning climate change poll supremely well—in fact, two-thirds of Americans believe that the federal government is doing too little on climate and the environment, while support for prioritizing climate-specific policy has jumped from 34 percent to 52 percent in just six years. However, as with almost every major topic of political debate in the United States, such public polling hardly matters in our two-party, Senate-addled reality. Congressional debates over climate have turned every facet of the practical steps we need to take into an inane culture war. The reason Granholm, McCarthy, Haaland, and Kerry can’t step in front of a camera or microphone to speak honestly about how the nation and the world need to respond is that the right is dead set on riling up its base over what will soon be taken away from them, be it their meat, their diesel engine, or their gas range stovetop.

The message of job creation and American ingenuity could actually be a sound approach for the White House if it were simultaneously advancing an actually ambitious series of climate policies: a Trojan horse of incrementalism, if you will, carrying the necessarily radical solutions and updates America so dearly needs. But that’s not what we’ve gotten so far.

This week, Granholm is touring West Virginia with Senator Joe Manchin to discuss the administration’s energy plans for the region. On KQED, Granholm spent time discussing the potential for the state and the region to use its existing mining infrastructure to pivot to geothermal energy extraction and production. (As my colleague Kate Aronoff reported last year, while geothermal currently constitutes just a slim portion of overall American energy supply, the U.S. has barely tapped into its available deposits.) As Biden pointed out on Tuesday during a visit to commemorate the Tulsa Massacre, he can only count on “a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republicans friends.” Granholm’s visit, clearly, is an attempt at convincing Manchin—and the contingency of Democratic senators who likewise revel in their aisle-crossing abilities—to get on board with a progressive-ish climate agenda.

At the same time, however, the Biden administration has spent the past month reassuring various groups that gas and oil will continue to have a presence in the American energy system. After a tour of a liquefied natural gas plan in La Porte, Texas, Granholm touted carbon capture and sequestration technology—a recent fad adopted by gas and oil companies hoping to profit in the short term—as a potential way to decarbonize gas production. She repeated the same solution on KQED. Beyond the Energy Department, the White House and the Department of the Interior have thus far leaned heavily on the cancellation of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and the recent suspension of drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as proof of their commitment to climate-mindful action. But it’s done little to hide the limits of that commitment, for example the way the administration has stood aside as the Dakota Access pipeline carries oil across the Canadian border and through Indigenous lands, or the way the administration is actively defending the extractive development of Alaska’s North Shore.

The time has come to bridge the gulf between the way that the climate crisis is discussed by White House and Cabinet officials and how it is currently being experienced. In March, Kerry visited with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis for one of his first international in-person interviews. “If we don’t act right now, in this next decade, we do not have the ability to hold it to 1.5 degrees,” Kerry said. “We lose the ability to have net-zero by 2050.” Kerry is choosing not to speak of the issue in a material, physical way. The answer to “What if we don’t meet those goals?” is a horrific one, as we’ve already seen. Species and entire ecosystems will die out. Families, communities, and entire nations will continue to be forced from their homes, either by extreme heat, rampant and unnaturally chaotic wildfires, increasingly frequent hurricanes, flooding, drought, or outright pollution. To talk about climate change without naming the stakes specifically and constantly is to leave the door cracked open just wide enough so that fossil fuel corporations and their conservative cronies can squeeze out another few years of gas, oil, and coal production.

A moment after Kerry spoke about missing the 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target, Maitlis—pushing Kerry on a comment he made about high-emissions countries like America and China needing to take accountability—asked whether it was imperative for the U.S. to put forth the most ambitious plan to lead the way. “Well, it’s imperative that the United States step up with a very realistic and achievable, measurable level of our reductions, and we will,” he responded. Inspiring.

To point again to my colleague: The White House’s goal should be a simple one—to “do as much as possible, as quickly as possible.” There are countless combinations of public messaging, backroom dealmaking, and policy enactment that could achieve that objective, and not all of them involve playing the doomsday, man-on-the-corner bit. But the window for this administration to oversee lasting, impactful legislation and policy is rapidly closing. The 2022 midterms are storming closer with every minute that ticks off the clock, and the ability to call on Joe Manchin to tip the Senate over the edge in close votes will very likely be rendered moot on the other side of that election. If, in order to quickly transition away from fossil fuels, the team needs to twist arms, make Americans a little uncomfortable, and stir up the ire of the Fox News crowd, then so be it.