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Biden Vows to Cut Emissions, But U.S. Continues to Subsidize Fossil Fuels Amid Climate Crisis

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The White House convened a virtual summit on the climate crisis this week, with 40 leaders representing the world’s major economies pledging cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. President Joe Biden said the U.S. would cut its emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade — nearly double the target set by the Obama administration six years ago. Biden’s pledge fulfills “a basic requirement of the U.S. being in the Paris Climate Agreement,” says New Republic staff writer Kate Aronoff, but still does not go far enough. “This is well, well below what the United States really owes the rest of the world, based on its historical responsibility for causing the climate crisis and the massive, massive resources this country has to transition very quickly off of fossil fuels.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Sign up for our daily news digest email by texting “democracynow” — one word, no space — to 66866 today.

Well, the White House is continuing to host virtual summit on the climate crisis today with 40 leaders representing the world’s major economies, including China. On Thursday, President Biden pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half, below 2005 levels, by the end of the decade — that’s nearly double the target set by the Obama administration six years ago.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half — in half — by the end of this decade. That’s where we’re headed as a nation. And that’s what we can do if we take action to build an economy that’s not only more prosperous, but healthier, fairer and cleaner for the entire planet. You know, these steps will set America on a path of net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050. … We know just how critically important that is, because scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade. This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. We must try to keep the Earth’s temperature to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

AMY GOODMAN: The European Union has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 55%, compared to 1990 levels. Chinese President Xi Jinping repeated his pledge for China to cap emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. He also vowed to reduce China’s dependence on coal.

Despite the new commitments, environmental groups warn more action needs to be quickly taken. Greenpeace has called on Biden to reduce U.S. emissions by 70% by 2030 and to phase out fossil fuels.

The climate summit continues today with a focus, in part, on the role of big business. Speakers include billionaires Mike Bloomberg and Bill Gates.

We begin today’s show with Kate Aronoff. She’s a staff writer at The New Republic. Her new book is just out; it’s titled Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—And How We Fight Back.

Can you respond to yesterday’s and today’s Earth Day summit of at least 40 world leaders, called by President Biden, what he has set as goals for the U.S. and what others are setting for their own countries?

KATE ARONOFF: Yeah. You know, I’ve been to a lot of these types of summits before. They’re not so strange in the realm of global climate policymaking, you know, leaders coming together, making pronouncements and, you know, generally feeling good about one another. So, you know, it’s good that this happened, right?

So, what Biden announced yesterday, this reduction of 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, this is fulfilling a basic requirement of the U.S. being in the Paris Agreement, which is to have an updated 2030 target, which we didn’t have before this and needed to update the previous 2025 target which Joe Biden had. That’s a lot of sort of U.N. minutiae talk. But all this to say, what happened yesterday was the U.S. fulfilling, again, this basic requirement of being in the Paris Agreement. So it’s good that we’ve done that, right?

But, as you mentioned at the top of the show — right? — this is well, well below what the United States really owes the rest of the world, based on its historical responsibility for causing the climate crisis and the massive, massive resources this country has to transition very quickly off of fossil fuels. And, you know, there is still no plan, really, even to fulfill that really basic requirement and even to fulfill the sort of low-bar target that Biden laid out yesterday.

You know, it’s good that, obviously, sort of China is coming to the table. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that that would happen.

This is, you know, a good step toward more concrete action. But also, these summits tend to play out in pretty similar ways, right? There isn’t a plan back home in the U.S. to make good on this. We haven’t passed any climate legislation yet. We might still. But what’s on the table, you know, does not get to that low-bar goal, certainly doesn’t get to the 70% reduction needed. And we’ve seen really weak commitments on climate finance. There should be $800 billion as a good-faith down payment, as Friends of the Earth has pointed out, and many other groups sort of looking at the concept of a fair shares of the United States’ historical responsibility. So, it’s just way, way too little, way too late.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in your new book, Kate, called Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—And How We Fight Back. You argue that the pro-business politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as organizations like the U.N. and World Economic Forum, mistakenly believe that capitalism and the market hold the best solutions for climate change. I mean, today, for example, Bill Gates — two billionaires, Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg, will address the global summit.

KATE ARONOFF: Yeah, and we see this even amid what, you know, to be really fair, have been pretty ambitious commitments from the Biden administration on climate, far more ambitious, I think, than anyone would have expected amid a Democratic primary in which he had the least ambitious climate plan, based on Joe Biden’s career as a real centrist who has never been out front on these issues. And, you know, he surprised a lot of people, including me.

But still, we see built into these plans — which, again, are much too small, including the American jobs plan he put out a couple weeks ago — a real focus on really spurring on the private sector to do this work, right? So, the theory — right? — is that if you just put a little bit of money into the private sector, sort of spur on research and development through things like tax credits, that that will catalyze the sort of action necessary, and doesn’t really see government as the protagonist in decarbonization, which it absolutely can be, right?

And having people like Bill Gates, people like Michael Bloomberg be posited as the sort of heroes, be putting corporations on a pedestal as the sort of protagonists of decarbonization, is both, you know, wrong on its face — right? We’ve never seen the private sector really take the sort of action needed, despite years and years and years of this rhetoric from not just the U.S., but in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change spaces. That is very much the sort of language of the day, is to catalyze private-sector action. And we just haven’t seen it happen, right? And there is just a real reticence, in particular, to go after the fossil fuel industry, which we know is fueling this problem and which has been, for years and years and years, delaying action and even funding people who deny the crisis exists at all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at the same time that the global summit, climate summit, was happening, there was a House hearing, led by Ro Khanna, on fossil fuel subsidies. California Congressperson Katie Porter grilled Frank Macchiarola of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents about 600 U.S. oil and natural gas companies. This was the exchange.

REP. KATIE PORTER: Why do I have to pay for you to shill for oil companies? Why do we, as taxpayers, have to pay subsidies to the oil and gas industry?

FRANK MACCHIAROLA: Thank you for your question, Congresswoman. So, the federal leasing of oil and — for oil and gas development produces a significant amount of funding for the Treasury. In fact, [inaudible] —

REP. KATIE PORTER: Reclaiming my time. Mr. Macchiarola —

FRANK MACCHIAROLA: I’d like to explain.

REP. KATIE PORTER: Mr. Macchiarola, excuse me, but the evidence is clear. We subsidize. We taxpayers subsidize the oil and gas industry. We did it this year alone in the middle of the world’s greatest pandemic: $15.2 billion in direct pandemic relief alone to fossil fuel companies. And the fossil fuel industry turned around in 2020 and spent $139 million on political donations and $111 million lobbying. Look, I get it. You drill in the Arctic refuge, you take out oil and gas, and you poison the planet. Bad enough. But why should taxpayers have to subsidize that activity? It’s a bridge too far.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Congressmember Katie Porter. Kate Aronoff, explain these subsidies and the significance of this interaction.

KATE ARONOFF: Yeah. And, I mean, ,Katie Porter lays out the case pretty well, I think. So, there’s a range of subsidies that the fossil fuel industry takes in, and it’s really dependent, in a lot of ways, on state support, and has been for a very long time, whether that’s things like the intangible drilling tax credit, where they can write off the expense for exploring for new oil or drilling for new oil reserves, or preferential land leasing, that they get to take up land leases on public land for oil and gas drilling, or even things like railroads — right? — the transport, transport of coal, for a long time, you know, export permits to send fossil fuels abroad. There is not a fossil fuel industry in the United States without state support for the fossil fuel industry in the United States. Its profits are entirely dependent on a huge amount of state support.

And, you know, I think the industry likes to make the case that, “Well, this creates jobs. This is a key part of our economy.” And as Katie Porter pointed out, the fossil fuel industry got a lot of support for the pandemic, in particular, through sort of emergency relief funding. And 77 oil and gas companies got $8.2 billion in support and laid off 16% of their workforce, you know? The idea that these companies are job creators and are interested in creating sort of a middle-class life for big parts of this country is just wrong, right? They are interested in union busting, as they have been historically. They’re interested in firing as many people as possible to bring down production cost. And they can’t exist.

So, I think, you know, when the fossil fuel industry comes out and says, as they do reliably, that climate action is a big imposition of government into the lives of the U.S., that we shouldn’t pick winners and losers in the energy sector — you know, the U.S. government has been picking winners for a very, very, very long time, and it’s time to pick new winners. It’s not a matter of, you know, that subsidies are bad. It’s that we’re subsidizing the wrong things.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to 18-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who also testified at that Ro Khanna House hearing as the global summit was taking place at the White House.

GRETA THUNBERG: I know I’m not the one who is supposed to ask questions here, but there is something I really do wonder. How long do you honestly believe that people in power like you will get away with it? How long do you think you can continue to ignore the climate crisis, the global aspect of equity and historic emissions without being held accountable? You get away with it now, but sooner or later people are going to realize what you have been doing all this time. That’s inevitable. You still have time to do the right thing and to save your legacies. But that window of time is not going to last for long. What happens then? We, the young people, are the ones who are going to write about you in the history books. We are the ones who get to decide how you will be remembered. So my advice for you is to choose wisely. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s now-18-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg testifying before the House Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment around the issue of the role of fossil fuel subsidies and preventing action on the climate crisis. Kate Aronoff, your final thoughts on your call for a nonviolent economy and other ways to transition to economy that you argue should not be centered around fossil fuels and other capitalist solutions to the climate emergency?

KATE ARONOFF: Yeah. Like I said before, the call for a nonviolent economy is really about redirecting the amount of state support we pour into violence — right? — in the form of fossil fuel subsidies, but also our enormously bloated military budget, our foreign presence in all corners of the Earth, and really thinking about what is the foundation of a good life. You know, how do we make a good life for most people, not just in the U.S., but thinking of ourselves as really intertwined with the fate of everyone on the planet, as we’ve seen through the pandemic, right? Our fates are all really deeply bound up in each other. And if there are emissions coming from one part of the world, you know, that hurts all of us.

And so, I think we need to redirect that enormous amount of state support, that is currently fueling the things that are killing us, into the type of world we need — right? — not just to scale up clean energy, but to do the sorts of valuable work that private sector consistently does not think are valuable, from caring for the elderly to healthcare jobs, which we have found out are a real crisis and are a big source of low-carbon, often unionized work. So, you know, I think it’s really about reorienting our priorities and thinking about what goals we’re chasing, which, to my mind, should be to bring down carbon emissions as quickly as possible, create a managed, orderly decline of the fossil fuel industry, which puts workers first and allows them a democratic say over what this transition looks like, and really to make people’s lives better in the short term, so that we can really, really have the sorts of society we need that’s cleaner, but also more democratic, more abundant, and more and more leisurely.

AMY GOODMAN: Kate Aronoff, I want to thank you for being with us, staff writer at The New Republic. Her new book, Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—And How We Fight Back. We’ll also link to your piece in The New York Times, out on Earth Day, “Biden Is All About Zero Emissions, But Who Do You Think Has Been Fueling Them?” As we continue to discuss President Biden’s climate summit, we continue.

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