President Biden stands at a podium to deliver his speech to a crowded room of legislators and guests.
President Biden delivers his second State of the Union address on 7 February 2023. Credit: The White House, Public Domain

In his second State of the Union address, U.S. president Joe Biden briefly highlighted the threat of climate change and its hazardous impacts while providing reassurances that the country’s reliance on oil and gas would continue for “a while.”

“Let’s face reality. The climate crisis doesn’t care if you’re in a red or blue state. It’s an existential threat,” Biden said in his 7 February address. “We have an obligation, not to ourselves, but to our children and our grandchildren to confront it. I’m proud of how America at last is stepping up to the challenge.”

Climate scientists reacting to the speech were simultaneously excited that climate and environmental issues garnered a few minutes of coveted airtime and disappointed that the president did not go farther in offering solutions.

“Historic” Climate Progress

In 2022, the Biden administration passed the most ambitious climate legislation in U.S. history, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The law promises a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, provides tax credits on electric vehicles, directs 40% of the benefits of those investments to communities most affected by climate impacts, and could cut the social costs of climate change by up to $1.9 billion by 2050.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022 Chips and Science Act also aim to combat climate change by investing in green energy and creating new energy-efficient infrastructure. In his address, the president touted his wins with all three pieces of climate-relevant legislation.

“President Biden has overseen more climate progress than any other U.S. president.”

“President Biden has overseen more climate progress than any other U.S. president” with these laws, said Leah Stokes, a political scientist who specializes in energy and climate politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She called the IRA “historic.”

Ahead of the speech, Stokes commented that “climate change is a top issue for voters.…Americans need to know how much climate progress we made in 2022, including all the money that’s now available for them to purchase clean technologies like heat pumps and electric vehicles.”

“It’s also critical that President Biden chart a course for the future,” she said. She had hoped that Biden’s address would do this, but it did not. “We want to know how he plans to pair effective IRA implementation with ambitious executive action to achieve his justice and climate goals.”

However, like other U.S. environmental policies, the IRA’s goals are still “dependent on the historical ways in which U.S. energy and infrastructure has developed” with a reliance on fossil fuels, said Andrea Simonelli, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Mixed Signals

Biden mentioned some of the devastating impacts of climate change, including wildfires, flooding, storms, and drought, but also assured the nation that “we’re still going to need oil and gas for a while.” The president recently green-lighted a multibillion-dollar oil drilling project in the Alaska wilderness just after finalizing protections for the state’s Tongass National Forest.

“In Alaska, President Biden is certainly sending mixed climate signals,” said Stokes. Allowing the drilling project to move forward “would be a dangerous environmental injustice that would undermine President Biden’s climate goals.”

“The IRA was a solid step in the right direction, but allowing more drilling in fragile ecosystems undermines U.S. environmental credibility at home and abroad.”

“The IRA was a solid step in the right direction, but allowing more drilling in fragile ecosystems undermines U.S. environmental credibility at home and abroad—especially in those nations most acutely threatened by climate impacts,” Simonelli said.

Moreover, despite promises to increase electric vehicle access and electrify the power grid, it’s not realistic to expect an immediate end to the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, said Simonelli. “These are definitely mixed messages but represent the realities of U.S. politics.…The mainstream of the Democratic Party wants to do right by the climate but is still very dependent on an economy of extraction.”

How should Americans interpret the administration’s sometimes conflicting climate signals? “It is important to remember that the Biden administration is trying to manage short-term challenges and push forward with a long-term vision,” explained Umesh Haritashya, a geoscientist at the University of Dayton who studies natural hazards in mountainous regions. “I do like that he tried to calm the nerves by saying that we will need oil in the near future while we transition.…Most people don’t want oil prices to jump significantly or the market to crash, so in the short term, some of these drilling projects may have to be started even if they are very unpopular with environmental groups and scientists.”

Which Way Forward?

Haritashya expressed disappointment that Biden’s speech did not spend longer on the climate or reference any concrete direction for future climate action. “President Biden stated this is an existential crisis, but not providing an aspirational argument or ways to mitigate this crisis was a huge miss, in my opinion. In a divided government, getting full support for lofty ideas is hard, especially when some don’t even consider this a threat. However, this is the time to start the groundwork if you believe in this crisis.”

While waiting on the federal government to take action and reduce carbon emissions, “it is also important to recognize and support community efforts to adapt to the climate change that has already happened and that which will happen regardless of future carbon reductions,” said Alexander Robel, a glaciologist and climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “The ocean and ice sheets will continue responding to our past emissions for decades to centuries into the future. Incentivizing coastal communities to incorporate the best existing guidance on future climate and sea level change into their planning and zoning codes will ensure that they are resilient to these coming changes.”

“We need creativity and imagination to begin to conceive of a new way of life,” Simonelli said. “Kennedy did not know when he called upon America to put a man on the Moon how it was going to happen, and yet Americans stepped up to the challenge. Climate change is very much the same.”

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer

Citation: Cartier, K. M. S. (2023), Biden calls climate change “existential threat,” Eos, 104, Published on 9 February 2023.
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