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The Democrats Responded to the Latest U.N. Climate Report With Business as Usual

Their tweets said they were concerned. Their actions said otherwise.

President Biden carries folders away from Marine One.

Last week I wrote about the gap between Democratic leaders’ rhetoric on the climate crisis and the reality of their actions, put in stark relief by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sobering report. Since then, even more data has accumulated, showing how big that disconnect really is.

In response to the release of the IPCC’s report, President Joe Biden tweeted, “We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis. The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. And the cost of inaction keeps mounting.” Yet as a letter sent Friday from several progressive groups to Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, points out, Biden still has at least one bona fide climate skeptic working for him. Trump appointee and former insurance executive Thomas Workman, an independent member of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, has in recent years cast doubt on whether the climate crisis is something to worry about. “I know there are many folks who are convinced that it’s the end of the world and we’ve got only 12 years left,” he said in 2019, “but then there are others who say it’s not an issue, but it certainly is a debate.” Biden could fire Workman whenever he wants. The groups behind the letter argue that this is particularly urgent given the outsize role Workman could play in crafting Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s forthcoming report on climate risk.

Biden’s cabinet members also issued vaguely worded calls to action in the wake of the IPCC report. “Only by understanding how the climate is changing,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote, “can we implement the solutions to meet this crisis. The latest report from the IPCC illustrates why every country must increase their climate ambition and action in the coming decade.”

The next day, Blinken announced he had appointed Amos Hochstein as the State Department’s ​​senior adviser for energy security. Hochstein previously worked as executive vice president of liquid natural gas marketing at the methane gas firm Tellurian. Prior to that, he served as the assistant secretary of state for energy resources under Obama, and headed up the pro-fracking Global Shale Gas Initiative. He was a close adviser to Biden while at the White House, accompanying the then–vice president on visits to help prime the pumps for U.S. fossil fuel companies to expand their presence in Eastern Europe. In 2016, Biden called Hochstein “one of the brightest guys I’ve ever known,” who “educated me on energy issues which I claimed no expertise when I got here.”

As Max Moran of the Revolving Door Project wrote for The American Prospect this week, Hochstein spent his time at Tellurian continuing to try to coat the world in gas. Calling gas “​​the bridge to the future, for a cleaner future” in one 2017 address, he added that “a bridge is not something where when you cross it you cut it off. A bridge remains.”

The narrative of gas being a “bridge fuel” has completely fallen apart since Hochstein last served in the White House. The IPCC’s report emphasized just how big a threat the methane emissions ubiquitous in gas supply chains pose to the planet. Hochstein backed a proliferation of gas that helped spike those emissions, destroying some of the climate progress the country and world made in shutting down coal plants. The IPCC report called for “strong, rapid and sustained reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions. Among greenhouse gases, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon emissions in the short run.

The day after the Hochstein announcement, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm—who told PBS last week that the IPCC’s report puts “an exclamation point on the president’s agenda to address climate”—praised the Senate’s confirmation of Andrew Light to serve as her department’s assistant secretary for international affairs. Light, she wrote, “brings a passion and vigor to his work that will help our nation—and our world—seize the opportunity of clean energy while reminding the world that America is back.” During his confirmation hearing, Light described his new role succinctly: “My job in this role is to make sure U.S. gas is competitive around the world ... more and more countries are looking for cleaner sources of gas.”

The same day, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, hectored OPEC+, 13 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and 10 other oil exporters that coordinate with them, to ramp up oil production. Sullivan argued that rising gas prices, now averaging around $3.17 per gallon nationwide, risk “harming the ongoing global recovery.... President Biden has made clear that he wants Americans to have access to affordable and reliable energy, including at the pump.”

Responding in his own way to the IPCC report’s release on Monday, centrist New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer tweeted, “The science is clear—if we want a planet that is inhabitable for future generations we must act NOW to protect our air, water, & climate. This is something that we should all be able to agree on.” And yet by Friday he was rallying eight fellow House Democrats to block what may be this country’s last best shot at passing something called climate policy in the next decade: the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation. In a letter, the group said it would refuse to support that reconciliation plan unless there was first a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal. (Under pressure from progressives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged not to bring the bipartisan infrastructure bill to a vote until the Senate moves ahead with the reconciliation budget.) Among those joining Gottheimer’s effort is Representative Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, who on Monday tweeted, “The U.N.’s recent climate report underscores the urgency of the climate crisis, but there is still time to act. We can—and must—have the courage to take steps to mitigate the climate crisis.”

It doesn’t take much for a politician to claim they care about climate change, or believe scientists who say it’s getting really bad. Getting them to act as if that’s true is much harder.