Last Friday, Case Western Reserve University welcomed Sonia Aggarwal, President Biden’s Senior Adviser on Climate Policy and Innovation, as the keynote speaker for Climate Action Week. I’m not going to lie—I did not go in with high hopes, as Aggarwal was representing an administration that has failed to deliver on the climate mandate it promised, which Aggarwal has even acknowledged.
Aggarwal tried to portray the administration as one that has gained back its legitimacy as a leader on climate action on the world stage due to re-entering the Paris Climate Accords and passing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The Paris Climate Accords are the same non-binding global agreements that exempt militaries from emission limits—the United States Military is one, if not the single biggest polluter globally. Despite some positive provisions, the infrastructure bill will barely lower emissions and does not even come close to making any meaningful progress towards decarbonization.
The Build Back Better Act could have been the beginning of making meaningful climate investments. That effort is all but dead, killed by conservative Democrats in Congress who were aided and abetted by Biden’s priority of cutting deals with Republicans over fighting the climate crisis. Biden does not seem to have much interest in restarting negotiations either.
Still, President Biden could act without Congress simply by picking up a pen any day now. The Build Back Fossil Free Coalition has laid out a sweeping set of executive actions the president could make immediately. The president could declare a “climate emergency” and use the Defense Production Act to scale up the use of renewable energy rapidly. He could instruct the Army Corp of Engineers to cancel Line 3 and the Mountain Valley Pipeline permits. These are just a couple of the many options still at his disposal that the coalition has outlined.
Instead, the Biden administration has overseen the sale of 80 million acres of land in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling leases, marking the single largest auction of its kind in U.S. history. Initially, the administration had attempted to quell outrage over the announced sale by claiming it was legally obligated to hold it. However, a memo written by the Justice Department in August made clear that this claim was false. Fortunately, a federal judge canceled the sale, citing that the administration had not considered the climate impacts of such a sale. Additionally, during his first year in office, Biden’s Department of the Interior approved more drilling permits than Trump did in his.
In short, the remarks made by Aggarwal at CWRU were essentially a glorified live reading of the White House website—which was unsurprising and avoidable. Last week’s keynote could have been an opportunity to hear from an Indigenous water protector on the front lines of the struggle to stop the Line 3 Tar Sands pipeline, or any of the other folks who’ve been on the front lines fighting for climate action as well as climate justice. Organizers in Chicago successfully pressured the Chicago Department of Public Health into canceling the permit for a scrap recycling plant that would have further polluted affected impoverished communities. Rise St. James, a grassroots organization that works for environmental justice, has been opposing the construction of a new Formosa Plastics Plan in St. James Parish, Louisiana. For next year, the good news is that there remains no shortage of those fighting for environmental justice. They are the ones who can truly provide valuable perspectives on actual climate action.