President Joe Biden possibly fell asleep during the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which, from an American perspective, might’ve been the most useful thing that happened Monday.
When he was awake, Biden did pretty much exactly what was expected. He apologized for his predecessor pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords, which probably rang a bit hollow considering Trump’s decision to pull out proved the U.S. government’s word is only as good as the politics of the administration occupying the White House. And concerning his own government’s attitude to combatting climate change, he went with the tried-and-true approach of promoting almost entirely market-based solutions, in line with what’s in the Build Back Better framework.
“We’ll demonstrate to the world, the United States is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example,” Biden said during his leaders’ statement, adding that since taking office in January, “our administration has been hard at work on locking clean energy breakthroughs to drive down the cost of technologies that will require us to achieve net-zero emissions and working with the private sector on the next generation of technologies that will power a clean economy of the future.”
This line of thinking—that we can incentivize our way out of the climate crisis with payoffs to the same sectors that ruined it—has been the Democratic playbook for decades. It might be forgivable if we didn’t have such a robust body of evidence showing it did not work, but here we are.
Biden’s Build Back Better plan, the cornerstone of his climate policy, has been slowly whittled down in a process so agonizing it’s made a root canal look like a birthday party. What’s left after President Manchin pulled the clean energy standard, arguably the single most useful part of the entire bill back when it was $3.5 trillion, is a smorgasbord of tax credits and incentives. And as Manchin made quite clear Monday, he’s not finished taking a knife to the bill that Biden himself has reportedly admitted will define his presidency.
What the broken debate in Congress and another conference of bored world leaders underscores is that while our leaders may technically have the tools to deal with the climate crisis, they don’t have the political imagination or institutional flexibility to deal with it. As long as the only solutions offered are effectively giving polluters money to not do so much of it—rather than handing the means of energy production to the people or even substantive regulations leveling heavy penalties against those who violate them—there will be no meaningful action on the climate crisis. As long as the filibuster exists and the Congressional Exxon Caucus continues to dominate the government, there will be no meaningful action on the climate crisis. As long as capitalism is the remedy, the patient will continue to get sicker.
What’s heartening is that even though the political conversation surrounding climate grows more and more detached from reality, there are people fighting for a less dystopian future. You can see it in coalitions of community groups battling for years to stop the Atlantic Coast pipeline and winning, and in young activists so often ridiculed by liberal and conservative pundits alike who are willing to risk their lives for the movement. As cliché as “don’t mourn, organize” may be, our government’s pitiful inaction continues to stress it’s the only real option we’ve got.