On Thursday—after weeks of record-breaking temperatures and deaths, and as more than 150 million people face extreme weather alerts around the country—Joe Biden finally announced modest actions to protect Americans from the scorching heat.
The measures will help mitigate the serious gaps in how the country responds to extreme heat, against which there are few federal protections. As the Occupational Health and Safety Administration continues to develop first-ever workplace protections and standards around heat, the Department of Labor will issue a similarly novel Hazard Alert for heat and ramp up enforcement to protect workers under its more general mandate to ensure workplace safety.
Given how dire this summer has been, and the predictions for summers to come, such stopgap measures are welcome—but they’re no substitute for more robust protections. Some of those need to come from Congress, but advocates, including Public Citizen, have called on the White House to do everything to expedite OSHA rulemaking so as to keep as many workers out of harm’s way as possible.
The conditions that Americans are facing this month would be “nearly impossible” if not for climate change, researchers have found. Biden made climate change a central part of his campaign for president and has trumpeted climate-focused investments provided by the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Act as a central achievement of his time in the White House. A summer of round-the-clock news about climate-fueled extreme weather events, therefore, might seem like a a natural opportunity for Biden to highlight just how necessary that agenda is—and how heinous opponents to it are.
But while Biden’s gotten comfortable blaming corporations—including fossil fuel companies—for rising prices, from how he has talked about the heat this summer, climate change and its deadly impacts would still seem to be some tragic act of God washing over us. During his speech on Thursday, Biden was clear that the “existential threat of climate change” is driving extreme heat, floods, drought, and more. He detailed ways that the White House is tackling it. Absent, though, was any diagnosis of the disease driving all those symptoms requiring treatment.
The burning of fossil fuels accounts for 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Companies drill for oil and gas and dig up coal to be traded, marketed, and sold. As people baked in their homes and sweated out on the streets, Shell announced today that it will deliver $3 billion to shareholders through stock buybacks over the next three months; like ExxonMobil and BP, Shell enjoyed record profits last year and recently stated that it’s rolling back earlier plans to invest more in low-carbon ventures, committing to double down on fossil fuel extraction.
Biden did reserve some anger in his speech for a “MAGA extremist Congress” that wants to repeal the IRA and negate its investments in low-carbon technologies. Speaking with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who attended the event via video link, Biden made a jab too at a recent Texas state law that will abolish a long list of initiatives put in place by Nirenberg and other Democratic mayors, including workplace protections against high temperatures.
“What’s going on with some of this stuff?” Biden asked, off-script, referencing the fact that the “Death Star” law will end city-level provisions mandating that construction workers get regular water breaks.
That bill, extreme heat, and extreme MAGA Republicans’ climate revanchism share a common source: a fossil fuel industry that spends millions of dollars a year polluting our atmosphere and politics alike. Texas’s ability to act as a right-wing laboratory for extremist policies is thanks in no small part to drillers’ generous funding of reactionary think tanks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a key force behind both the Death Star bill and the nationwide attack on investors’ ability to even consider the possibility of climate change.
From the Koch brothers to ExxonMobil, fossil fuel money has played a central role in pushing U.S. politics far to the right since Biden first came to Washington and well before. They’ve stalled progress for decades, despite knowing full well the dangers their products pose. Fossil fuel dollars helped fund Republicans’ attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and undermined the climate credentials of what became the Inflation Reduction Act. Fossil fuel companies are reliably generous donors to Republican politicians dead set on dismantling the IRA and the administrative state as we know it.
But fossil fuels weren’t mentioned in Biden’s speech. This week, instead, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm appealed publicly to fossil fuel executives to drill more so as to bring down gas prices. As the death toll from this summer’s extreme heat continues to rise, the White House should stop groveling to the companies causing it and call them out as the killers they are.