As an environmentalist living under the Trump administration, it felt like we had a marathon to run and had just started sprinting in the opposite direction. The scale and inevitability of the climate crisis has grown daily since then, and we were all holding our breath for the day when a new leader could turn us around and send us full speed back towards survival.
Now, after his first few weeks in office, President Joe Biden has taken his first steps toward undoing Trump's legacy but has set off at the leisurely pace you would expect from a 78-year-old in a footrace. After a series of executive orders, the president has paused new leases on federal lands and set a series of goals for carbon emissions and renewable energy production that have upset fossil fuel interests. Despite the fanfare these measures received from press secretaries and newspaper headlines alike, Biden didn't quite put petroleum executives in the pot to boil so much as run them a warm bath.
Leasing federal lands to fossil companies has only been paused "to the extent possible" and does not apply to tribal lands owned by the U.S. government, nor does it prevent leases provided under the Trump administration from drilling untouched public land.
Biden's newly announced climate goals are also underwhelming, rejoining the totally-symbolic Paris Climate Accords and making promises on wind production and carbon reduction with deadlines far beyond the scope of his presidential tenure. Many of his promises are based wholly on legislative action over which he has no say, like ending fossil fuel subsidies and protecting public lands. Like all executive orders, his actions are only in effect while a like-minded president is in office.
Biden has effectively wiped away all the terrible things Donald Trump wrote in dry-erase marker but will not and cannot create the permanent and fast-acting change our country needs to weather this climate crisis. Until he can convince Congress to take measures even more ambitious than his own, these executive orders are just a publicity stunt, not genuine climate action.
The Biden administration was very clear that America should and will be a leader on sustainability and climate action. Still, its proposed solutions have little to do with actually reducing fossil fuel production and consumption and more to do with pushing our problem onto other countries. Reducing American emissions – particularly those from extracting and refining fossil fuels – does not take carbon out of the equation. It just moves the refinery to a third world country and buys it all back in plastic.
America's energy sector should be entirely renewable, public natural resources should not be auctioned off to oil interests, and Trump's actions must be undone. But without acknowledging the full, global life cycle of how we create and consume energy, we don't stand a chance.
Biden's recent actions have been the first baby steps towards the end of the marathon. Whether or not this administration can follow through on global, rapid climate action will determine when, or if, we reach the finish line.