Climate Carbon Net-Zero: Biden’s Fancy Footwork

By James Fortin

Both the Democratic Party and much of the major media have doted on the progressive steps the Biden administration will take regarding the climate crisis. While legislation addressing the climate catastrophe on our doorstep has not yet been forthcoming, Biden’s flurry of executive orders portray him as seriously addressing the issue.

Indeed, Biden’s initial executive orders are intended to impress many citizens especially his supporters in the anti-climate change movements. Climate activists already claim that he is earnest about ending global warming particularly when compared to former president Trump’s overt anti-science, pro-Big Oil agenda. By a stroke of the pen Biden has rejoined the Paris Climate Accords, mandated all branches of government to consider climate ramifications in their actions, and cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline intended to carry oil across Native American lands to refineries in the south. 

Corporate history of concealment and lies

Biden no doubt has projected the look of the good guy, trying to do the right thing about climate. Yet he has been mostly silent on what his climate plans may eventually entail. Close advisors to Biden indicate that he will seek “middle ground” on solutions though, and in fact support as one “solution,” the lesser-evil fossil fuel natural gas. Still others say Biden favors nuclear power. Where the scientific facts of climate change have encountered a corporate wall of concealment, denial, and inaction spanning 60 years will Biden take on the scientifically-backward, and even criminal, environs that have stymied action on climate solutions for decades? TBD, but it does not look good.

While the scientists at ExxonMobil knew as early as 1977 of the emerging dangers that greenhouse gases posed to the Earth’s stability, they did nothing. In fact, the world’s largest oil and gas producer hid this information from the public while internal corporate management repeatedly exchanged memos on the issue. It took an entire decade, but only after alarming testimony about global warming had been presented to Congress, that Exxon finally acted. It initiated an onslaught of misinformation. Using consultants to confuse the public and paid climate denier operatives to offer “expert” testimonials, the company became what Scientific American magazine called “a leader in campaigns of confusion.”

Exxon was quickly joined in sowing doubt by other fossil fuel players as well as a host of individuals on the payroll of Big Oil. Brenden DeMelle of DeSmog has identified what amounts to a professional, climate-denier school of mis-thought describing them as having “made a living out of denying the science of climate change.” Flooding the newsrooms, talk shows, and anywhere they might get an invitation, these so-called “experts” often started out their statements with “I’m not a climate scientist, but…” before launching into a series of carefully rehearsed talking points meant to confuse the public on the climate change issue.”

The fossil fuel industry has had many defenders. The Koch brothers, Heartland Institute, and American Petroleum Institute have expended millions of dollars to sway public opinion, also promoting climate change confusion and disinformation. Not to be denied a fair share of the booty in exchange for doing their part to protect the fossil fuel despoilers have been well-financed members of Congress. Based on records from the Federal Election Commission, for the single campaign cycle, 2019-2020, the top 20 Congressional recipients of fossil fuel campaign contributions have received between a quarter million and one million dollars each in campaign contributions, hundreds of other Congresspeople receiving lesser amounts. One such recipient, James Inhofe, Senator from Oklahoma, has returned the favor over the decades with comments such as “man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Money well spent according to some.

The magnitude of harm caused by the concealment and then denial of the consequences of global warming cannot be overstated. While the profits accrued over a half-century by the fossil fuel corporations have been endlessly thrilling for the 1%, the consequences of the relentless destruction of our planet have been frightfully mind-numbing for the 99%.

We are again witnessing for the first time in millennia the simultaneous rapid melting at the two poles — the Antarctic ice shelves and the miles-thick ice of Greenland — with a corresponding sea level rise just in its infancy. Entire ecosystems are under attack as evidenced by the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the bleaching of coral reefs, and extinction of plants and animals, north and south. Ocean storms of previously abnormal proportions and frequency are now regular features of our climate. They join the massive wildfires consuming a million square miles in the American West, broad sections of the Australian continent, and those fires occurring in the Russian Arctic itself. Even the small Pacific archipelago nation of Tuvalu is planning to relocate its entire population to Fiji, their current islands soon to be swamped by rising seas. These features in their composite are telling tales for the average person for whom environmental science is abstract that something just is not right. 

As ever-increasing millions of Americans came to believe that climate change was occurring, Big Oil and its cohorts again changed course. Realizing they could no longer simply deny the global facts, their tactics would need to change. The American Petroleum Institute tells us that we cannot jeopardize jobs while seeking solutions to climate change. Pundits in the service of fossil fuel maintain that it is our fault, the majority, due to our wasteful habits, and that the 99% need to be more prudent. While privatizing profits, but socializing the impact of carbonized air, the spokespeople for the interests of the ruling class and their oil firms now inform us “we are all in this together,” wanting to isolate and minimize those demanding that oil be kept in the ground.

The accommodation to carbon pollution is on

For the majority, how society will now tame the climate monster unleashed by the fossil fuel giants has reached paramount importance. For the ruling class, it’s how do they best throw a bone while leaving their towering financial status mostly untouched. It is here that Joe Biden has an important role to play.

Democratic climate legislation is yet to be seen but Biden’s initial executive actions hint as to where he is headed. His executive order to pause new oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands and offshore depths, pending review, changes little. It does not affect the tens of millions of acres already leased from the government where drilling and fracking can continue unabated. It also ignores oil and gas development on state and private lands where 90% of fracking now occurs. While Green New Deal supporters welcome his order and hope for even more action, the reality is that oil and gas producers can continue their current level of drilling and production for years, likely decades.

As for Biden rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, most climate scientists acknowledge that the Paris Agreement has been ineffectual over the course of 5 years to reverse the onward march of the warming atmosphere. Rejoining is just for show, and in effect a “hail Mary” pass just for his climate fans.

Similarly, with the permit revocation for the Keystone XL pipeline Biden has allied with the rights and aspirations of the Indigenous, but its effect on oil production will be negligible as noted by Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab: “If every day from here on out we make progress equivalent to shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline it might be OK. We need a Keystone a day. That’s what “out of time” really means.” 

Falling back to net-zero emissions

Notwithstanding the hopes of his campaign supporters, Joe Biden made clear during his run for President his climate intent. “I never said I opposed fracking … we can capture emissions from the factory and capture the emissions from gas, we can do that.” Instead of an aggressive campaign against the fossil fuel criminals, being “bold” so to speak, Biden in effect will make it a decades-long slow march – without a predictable positive outcome.

Key to Biden’s climate plan is the promotion of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Net-zero emissions, however, is a fossil fuel-friendly charade that obscures the real needs of our overloaded carbonized atmosphere. In a net-zero scenario, oil and natural gas can continue to be drilled and pumped, fracking will proceed with more and deadlier destruction to water supplies and community health, atmospheric warming emissions of all manner will proceed with abandon to possible cinch world death by carbon. In theory, and as if by magic, proponents maintain that enough offsets to the rising levels of carbon dioxide will be developed to balance out carbon dioxide emissions, pound for pound.

Numerous examples of carbon reduction schemas have been offered up by the anti-climate change movement. No doubt, over time some actions will have the capacity to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from particular economic sectors, but several questions are posed. Will there be sufficient, genuine carbon offsets overall to reach net-zero by 2050? And what will become of the overwhelming current, and massively expanding volume of carbon dioxide already in place and growing?  Can humanity wait 30 years to see if the experiment will work?

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that it will take the removal from the atmosphere of somewhere between 100 billion and one trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the remaining century to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, far more than can be achieved by planting new forests. While contributing to a carbonless future at some point, it is an inadequate solution at this time. Hence, the introduction of technology by the Bidenites. 

Much of the technology upon which net-zero heavily relies is risky, untested, or unproven. But the one hoped-for solution that most excites the parties that just cannot bring themselves to say “keep the oil in the ground” is carbon capture. Carbon capture is technology in its infancy. Technologically, it can be done. Experiments are occurring. Right now it is massively expensive.

An experimental, carbon-dioxide extraction plant being built by Occidental Petroleum in Texas is expected to come online by 2025. It’s goal: remove one million tons of carbon per year through direct air capture to offset emissions. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? One million tons of CO2.  At this rate of extraction over 50 years, however, we will need 20,000 of these complex plants operational by 2050, each about a half city block square in size, scattered across the globe to solve the carbon question. And where exactly do we park one trillion tons of carbon dioxide? Occidental says it will pump it deep underground, where it will remain for millions of years. And, as many scientists fear, the carbon may escape back into the atmosphere.  It’s science fiction imaginable, climate change regrettable. Too little too late. It’s easier to keep oil in the ground no matter the tears the fossil fuel giants will shed. But not according to Joe Biden.

We should expect that Occidental and all the others will claim carbon capture to be the silver bullet for the climate crisis, and why wouldn’t they? They have no reasonable or palatable alternatives at present to get to net-zero carbon emissions. And that is where we in the anti-climate change struggle must be on guard. It will not be long before we again hear that nuclear power is the solution to getting to net zero.

Based on the amount of CO2 now in the atmosphere, some elements of climate change are already baked in, such as rising sea levels. The half century of concealment and denial, setting back the time frame for initial work to alter climate warming, has made certain that global temperatures will rise for decades more, even if efforts to cut back on fossil fuels were in place today. As one environmental writer for the New York Times commented, “Again and again, climate scientists have shown that our choices now range from merely awful to incomprehensibly horrible.”

Compounding the science of course, will be the efforts of fossil fuel industry mouthpieces, lobbyists, and their Congressional accomplices. Who will decide what programs constitute a carbon dioxide offset? How will the program be administered to ensure that offsets are in fact enacted? The obstacles to a net-zero 2050 will be legion.

Biden has commenced his slow walk down the hope-and-pray road to net-zero greenhouse gases. As to be expected, neither Biden, nor any cabinet choice, nor any Democratic member of Congress has mentioned curtailing the single largest user of fossil fuels and the greatest single contributor to climate change — the U.S. military. That, or even token cuts, is off the net-zero elimination table for both Democrats and Republicans alike. The fossil fuel-frenzied military instrument of subjugation of people around the world, and its protection of the ruling class’ economic interests, anywhere and everywhere, will forever take precedent over the need for a habitable Earth.

Climate salvation means breaking away from fossil fuel capitalism

All the yet-to-be-implemented proposals from Biden to solve the climate crisis surely will dazzle some, but likely will not solve the crisis we face. Not by 2050, not ever. In effect partnering with Big Oil, Biden has chosen to ally with the very same climate criminals who brought us to this point in the first place. The 99% need a plan that is the antithesis of what serves the interests of the 1%.

For starters socialists call for a national emergency declaration in which the first step is the nationalization of Big Oil and the banks that finance their rapacious destruction of the planet’s ecosystems. The 99% cannot partner with institutions that are complicit with the criminal past and who continue to place profits above the needs of humanity and global climate rescue. They need to be placed under democratic control of the majority. As during WWII, when working people proved they could run the country in every detail under a national wartime footing, socialists demand that the economy be mobilized again, this time to create a clean, just, and environmentally sustainable economy and infrastructure.

Science — not corporate lobbyists and NGO mouthpieces — will assume a leadership role in guiding an alliance of environmental scientists, democratically elected workplace councils, labor unions, and representatives of the oppressed communities to ensure that all the resources of the nation are laser focused on a just transition. In practice, science must be placed at the sails and working people at the helm in order to defeat climate change.

Editor: Future articles of socialist analysis will provide additional insights to the climate crisis and the movements in opposition . Please be sure to follow us.

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