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Joe Biden said all the right things after touring Ida disaster zones, but what's he going to do?

Flooding in Norristown PA from remains of Hurricane Ida.
Michael Stokes

In a coherent, rational world, Hurricane Ida would have been a wake-up call: a category 4 storm slammed into Louisiana and leveled several parishes, and then its remnants proceeded to wreck parts of Tennessee still recovering from a previous round of devastating floods, then make their way to the Northeast and cause even more flooding from areas of Maryland up through New York. In New York City, it was the first flash flood warning ever issued. There were dozens of deaths, tens of thousands displaced, as much as $95 billion in damage, and hundreds of thousands of Louisianans still do not have power.

Climate change is not the stuff of disaster movies, where the planet hits a tipping point that we’ve been building up to since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and seemingly decides to destroy human civilization into one go. But Hurricane Ida — like Harvey, Maria, Sandy, Katrina, and so on before it — is about the best demonstration we’re going to get of the far-ranging consequences of doing nothing to stop climate destabilization. Tens of millions of people in various distinct regions of the United States were directly impacted by this; hundreds in LaFourche Parish lost their homes, and so did people more than 1,300 miles away in Bergen County.

When President Joe Biden toured the damage in New York and New Jersey on Tuesday, his rhetoric reflected the urgency of the problem.

“We don’t have any more time. Every part of the country is getting hit by extreme weather, and we’re now living in real-time what the country’s going to look like if we don’t do something,” Biden said in remarks in New Jersey. “We can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse…we need to make sure we don’t leave any community behind.”

“They all tell us this is code red,” he said later in Queens, where flash floods killed 11 people in basement apartments. “The nation and the world are in peril. And that’s not hyperbole. That is a fact.”

Biden’s solutions, however, do not do what we need to do to “prevent it from getting worse.” The $1 trillion infrastructure deal, as Kate Aronoff wrote back in August, is both “the largest investment in climate resilience in American history” (the New York Times‘ language) and “a complete abdication of responsibility.” The better reconciliation plan backed by Biden and most Senate Democrats, which began at around $6 trillion and has already been whittled down to $3.5 trillion (and likely will be even further, due to complaints from right-wing Democrats), would provide funding and a patchwork set of regulations and incentives in order to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

All of these things are good, or at least relatively good given that we have a democracy that is, for all intents and purposes, barely functional. But they will not stop the effects of climate change, much less reverse them. In 2017, the OECD said that there would need to be $6.9 trillion in global investment annually in order to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. Biden’s plan means that at best, the government of the world’s largest economy by several trillion dollars will pump a few hundred billion dollars into the climate fight and most likely call it a day.

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At the same time, the Biden administration is undermining itself; last month, national security advisor Jake Sullivan lambasted OPEC+ nations for not drilling more. “President Biden has made clear that he wants Americans to have access to affordable and reliable energy, including at the pump,” Sullivan said in a statement at the time.

It’s unclear whether most Democrats grasp or will ever grasp the true magnitude of the crisis we’re in. The Green New Deal is the best model we’ve seen so far for tackling this crisis, and what some of its opponents get and some of its proponents say they do not is that it would result in nothing less than a massive challenge to American capitalism and a threat to uproot the existing social order. But that challenge would be a good thing: the existing order has not only exacerbated humanity’s impact on the climate, but it’s also successfully pitted the victims of capitalism against the climate and each other and resulted in the framing of even modest climate policy into an existential threat to American life. The leaders we have now simply can’t be trusted to get us out of it.

Because to be fair, Biden isn’t alone. Nearly everyone in a position of power in American politics today, even the “good” ones, are largely just looking to manage the American empire out of rapid and sustained deterioration or, at the very least, into something that makes our situation at least appear to be slightly less precarious. There is no easy answer to all of this, and admitting that we’re fucked unless our way of life changes dramatically does not often provide many political benefits.

But Biden has the biggest platform in the world to at least try to offer some vision of a future where we’re not lurching from one disaster to the next. It can no longer be enough to say that it’s bad, that we really should do something about it, or even outline what we should do. It needs to be about what he actually will do (not in the campaign promise sense) and what lengths he will go to in order to make that happen. That includes backing the end of the filibuster so it’s not necessary to ram four years of an agenda through in one bill, lending his support to reforming and expanding the courts to defang the Federalist Society’s grip over the judiciary, and directly threatening the positions of Democrats opposed to the bill because of “deficit concerns” or losing campaign investments from the Chamber of Commerce. None of these things are exactly revolutionary—and there’s little guarantee that they’ll definitely stem the tide we’re facing, both in a climate and political sense—but it’s more than reasonable to expect the country’s leaders to take relatively drastic steps when the situation calls for it.

More cynical people might say that this is the outcome Biden actually wants: the failure of this expansive piece of legislation, with just enough effort expended that he can claim he tried his best but that’s just how it goes sometimes. But if nothing else, Biden does not want even partial ownership over the death of the nation as it exists, which is what will happen if he spends his time in office as a placeholder for whatever comes next. You do not have to be a revolutionary to see that some kind of upheaval has already started and that it can only really be delayed or mitigated than stopped entirely. If the goal of the Biden era is to slow history down, he needs to admit that this new, dangerous era has already begun, and that the old solutions no longer work.