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Age-Old Crises

Yes, Biden Should Step Down—for the Sake of the Planet

By refusing to do so, he’s not only imperiling American democracy.

Biden in the White House
Samuel Corum/Sipa/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Climate and energy policy barely came up in last week’s debate between President Biden and Donald Trump. That might have been a good thing. Throughout the night, Biden struggled to string together coherent sentences to counter Trump’s lies and bluster. The humiliating spectacle kicked off a panic among Democratic Party elites about whether a visibly diminished Biden can beat Trump in November. Some of them claimed to have been misled about the scale of the problem, alleging that Biden’s inner circle hid evidence of his decline. With the time for straightforward solutions having passed, it might simply be too late to ward off a looming crisis of potentially untold magnitude. While some are proposing radical fixes, none offer the certainty of avoiding horrific outcomes.

The outlines of this crisis should sound familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in climate politics: A disaster sparks outrage among people who’ve been warned repeatedly—often by those to their left—about what was coming and how to avoid it, but who brushed off proposed solutions as hyperbolic and unhelpful. They had years to avoid this sort of destruction and now need a Hail Mary in both meanings of the phrase: a desperate bid to overcome terrible odds, and forgiveness.

But it’s not clear what success looks like in either of these cases. When it comes to the climate, some of the most apocalyptic worst-case scenarios might now be off the table, though the decidedly less chaotic future of a planet that’s 2.5 or three degrees Celsius warmer—as opposed to six or seven—is still a much more painful one that further risks breaching catastrophic tipping points. For Democrats, eking out a win in November doesn’t promise to fix the party’s nearsighted and self-destructive tendencies.

This isn’t all just a convenient metaphor: The Democratic Party’s problems are problems for the planet too. For the foreseeable future, the Republican Party will keep trying to kill anything called climate policy and peel back the modest restraints on corporate polluters. In a two-party system, this means that decarbonization depends on electing Democrats at all levels of government and keeping them in power for decades. The trouble—now more widely recognized—is that many of the party’s top leaders seem more concerned with closing ranks around their favorite elder statesmen than they are with building a twenty-first-century governing agenda and the durable electoral coalitions needed to support it.

Biden isn’t the only example. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s refusal to resign during the Obama administration—and the bizarre lionization of that choice among liberals—paved the way for the Supreme Court’s wrecking ball of a right-wing supermajority, now diligently chipping away at (among other things) basic human rights, presidential accountability, and the government’s ability to do its job. A declining Dianne Feinstein held out until the end too, with the full-throated support of then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; just a few years before she passed, Feinstein took the time to scold children asking her to support a Green New Deal.

When it comes to Ginsberg, Feinstein, and Biden, the problem is less with their absolute age than the bizarre idea that these figures have somehow earned the right to continue holding extraordinarily important posts until they drop dead, however impaired they might be. As we’ve seen over the last week, defending that position requires telling voters to ignore the obvious and root for government officials like superheroes: not as public servants with a distinct set of responsibilities, but as characters with backstories compelling enough to merit their showing up in the sequel. Trump has lent them a helping hand in providing a big boss scary enough to discipline dissenters within the Democrats’ ranks, casting criticisms of top Democrats’ policies and performance as boosts to the bad guys.

The nuance here is that climate policy has very likely benefited from Biden’s weakened state. Climate-conscious advisers have been granted leeway to help craft an “all of the above” approach to decarbonization. It’s an embarrassingly low bar to clear, but the Biden administration has almost certainly done more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than any of its predecessors. That Biden has a relatively smart and competent team of climate advisers surrounding him is a terrible argument for keeping him around, though. However much they might have been able to do these last four years, steaming ahead as if nothing has changed—as if more than 50 million people haven’t seen Biden struggling—risks more than just losing to Trump in November. Since 2016, top Democrats have campaigned on the idea that nothing is more important than keeping Trump out of the Oval Office. The man they’re saying is up to the task publicly struggles to speak cogently.

Pretending nothing is wrong with Biden is an insult to voters’ intelligence. As genuinely grave a threat as another Trump administration is to U.S. climate policy, Democrats continuing to burn through their credibility—particularly with the younger, less enthusiastic voters who represent the party’s demographic future—could mean abdicating their chance to govern boldly (or at all) for the foreseeable future, let alone enact adequate climate policy. Talking up the Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits for wind, solar, and electric vehicles won’t change that. It’s hard to make the case for a party whose headline offerings are a rambling octogenarian and the threat of something worse. As with rising temperatures, there’s no quick fix to prevent the catastrophe of Republican rule. An open convention is risky. So is passing the reins to Kamala Harris. Continuing to close ranks around Biden seems even riskier.