As the U.N. Warns “The Era of Global Boiling Has Arrived,” Biden Resists Declaring a Climate Emergency
Written by GRB on 29/07/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the climate crisis as temperature records continue to be shattered across the globe. On Thursday, the World Meteorological Organization announced July is on pace to be the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. Here in the United States, 170 million people are under heat alert. On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the world has entered the age of “global boiling.”
SECRETARY–GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: For vast parts of North America, Asia, Africa and Europe, it’s a cruel summer. For the entire planet, it is a disaster. And for scientists, it is unequivocal: Humans are to blame. All this is entirely consistent with predictions and repeated warnings. The only surprise is the speed of the change.
Climate change is here, it is terrifying, and it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived. The air is unbreathable, the heat is unbearable, and the level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable.
Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy. No more excuses. No more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that. It is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the very worst of climate change, but only with dramatic, immediate climate action.
AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, President Biden unveiled new measures Thursday to combat the crisis but resisted calls to declare a climate emergency.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don’t think anybody can deny the impact of climate change anymore. There used to be a time, when I first got here, a lot of people said, “Oh, it’s not a problem.” Well, I don’t know anybody — well, I shouldn’t say that — I don’t know anybody who honestly believes climate change is not a serious problem.
Just take a look at the historic floods in Vermont and California earlier this year; droughts and hurricanes that are growing more frequent and intense; wildfires spreading a smoky haze for thousands of miles, worsening air quality. And record temperatures — and I mean record — are now affecting more than 100 million Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Dharna Noor is fossil fuels and climate reporter at The Guardian. Her recent piece, “Biden announces new measures to protect Americans from extreme heat.” Her new investigation, “’Project 2025′: plan to dismantle US climate policy for next Republican president.” We’re also joined by David Wallace-Wells, writer for New York Times Opinion and columnist for The New York Times Magazine, who’s been writing about climate change, how it’s accelerating. His latest piece is headlined “A Grim Climate Lesson from the Canadian Wildfires.” He’s also author of the book The Uninhabitable Earth.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! David, let’s begin with you. If you can respond to what President Biden announced yesterday, and does it go far enough?
DAVID WALLACE–WELLS: I think the short answer is, no, it doesn’t go far enough. We’re talking about a really dramatic summer here in the United States. I think many Americans are living with some amount of climate fear, 170 million Americans under extreme heat advisories. And what the president offered was a pretty meek rhetorical gesture mixed with some very small policy gestures. I’m glad that he’s speaking about climate as opposed to being silent, as he has been for a long time, but, to my mind, he is not meeting the American public where they are at all.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Dharna Noor, your response? You wrote a whole piece on this.
DHARNA NOOR: I would have to agree. I agree with David that I think most of what we saw was rhetorical gesture from the Biden administration. I did speak with experts who described some of the steps that he took as positive, you know, for instance, rolling out new funding to help cities plant trees to make sure that people can have shade in extreme heat, making sure that cities can fund cooling centers, improving weather forecasting. But as you mentioned earlier, Amy, what Biden did not mention at all was the term “fossil fuels.” He didn’t really say anything about the need to end the fossil fuel economy. He certainly did not declare a climate emergency, which is something that activists have been pushing him to do for years at this point and could unlock a number of powers to help him take on the crisis without congressional approval. And so I think that what we saw from Biden was, you know, really awareness raising and some kind of modest policies, but nothing that takes on the scale of the crisis that we’re seeing right now.
AMY GOODMAN: He also ordered the Department of Labor to put a hazard alert for outdoor workplaces. Dharna, can you talk more about this and the other measures around workplaces? Could he also mandate paid water breaks and workplace protection gears, like canopies of shade, fans, mist machines, etc.?
DHARNA NOOR: The heat hazard alert that Biden issued yesterday was interesting. In one sense, it was unprecedented. It was the first heat hazard alert that will go out to employers across the nation, sort of reminding them of the rights that workers have on the job and the ways to best protect workers from extreme heat.
But I think what it really also made many experts think about is the fact that his Department of Labor is still working right now to craft a heat standard that would do much more to protect workers. Last year, the Department of Labor said that they were working on one of these standards. Officials have been talking about it for something like 50 years. And that would drastically expand, you know, the ability for the government to do things like recommend or even mandate water breaks or shade breaks and things like this. But that process could take years to complete, and so I think that what we saw, again, was an attempt to use the powers that already exist. But I think what experts would say is that we really need to expand those powers in a huge way.
AMY GOODMAN: David Wallace-Wells, we recently interviewed a TV meteorologist in Iowa who just quit, because as he reported the connection between weather — which is what so many people tune in to on radio and television, just to find out what the weather is, but when he made that connection between weather and climate change, he got death threats. You are constantly talking about the connection between weather, climate change, and your most recent piece is about the Canadian wildfires and how they connect to all this. Can you explain?
DAVID WALLACE–WELLS: Well, global heating produces much more intense fire conditions. In Canada, it’s produced a totally unprecedented fire season. We’ve already seen more than 25 million acres burned in Canada, which is two-and-a-half times the size of the largest American wildfire season in modern history, that those fires are still burning. They are still burning out of control. And to some extent, this is actually by design. Canada is so large that firefighters can’t possibly suppress those fires when they begin. It’s understood to be better forest management now, better fire policy, to let fires burn so that forests can regenerate on their own. But when you’re dealing with fire conditions like climate change has created, that means some unbelievably large and intense fires, producing huge amounts of carbon emissions, in this case probably more carbon this year than Canada will produce from all of its other industrial and economic activities combined, and also the smoke that we’re so familiar with in the U.S., and which is not just bothering cities in Canada and the U.S. but even across the Atlantic in Europe.
Now, I think when most people see the news, see news events about — you know, news coverage of heat waves or wildfires, I don’t think it’s that hard for them to make the connection to climate change these days. I think the jumps that are a little bit harder and would be a little bit more helpful for more people to make is the jump from climate change to the question of climate action, why we’re not doing more, and who is standing in the way. So, when I see — you know, when I see news coverage of extreme heat, you know, extreme heat warnings, I don’t worry too much that we don’t put the word “climate change” in those headlines. I think most people understand that. What I think fewer people understand is why we’re not doing more to protect ourselves against this really quite dramatic threat, which is coming at us, as you say, considerably faster than we anticipated even just a few years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what those kind of measures would look like. Again, as you say, you talk about not only wildfires across Canada, as well as Greece, Algeria and dozens of other places around the world.
DAVID WALLACE–WELLS: Well, I mean, the short answer is, to limit all of these impacts, we need to reduce carbon emissions very rapidly. And while we have had an incredibly impressive renewable rollout over the last couple of years, all of the graphs are pointing way up. The next decade looks much more promising for renewable energy than most advocates even believed was possible just a few years ago. Nevertheless, they’ve barely dented, if they’ve dented at all, the emissions that we’re producing from fossil fuel generation. So we haven’t actually reduced the share of global power production that comes from fossil fuels from this remarkable renewable rollout. We’re just using those renewables to add to our power capacity.
And that’s really, you know, the change that we need to make. We need to be producing so much renewables now that we can actually draw down fossil fuels, and draw them down relatively rapidly, rather than simply using them to supplement our consumption patterns and power production. And unfortunately, we haven’t really seen a sign of that. At best, it looks like we’re going to be looking at sort of a plateau for emissions over the rest of this decade. And we know from all of the scientific warnings that that’s simply inadequate if we have any hope of meeting some of our more ambitious climate targets.
AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, David, I want to ask you about what would be the most effective legislation in the United States to deal with climate change. But, Dharna Noor, I wanted to first go to your piece. If you can explain what Project 2025 is and what you found in your investigation?
DHARNA NOOR: Absolutely. So, Project 2025 is, essentially, a group of dozens of right-wing organizations. We’re talking about think tanks, publications and the like. And it was convened by the Heritage Foundation, which is, I think, in the climate world, very well known for promoting climate denial for decades, and for even longer promoting this sort of anti-regulatory stance. So, these groups came together in an attempt, essentially, to advise whoever the next president is, if that person is a Republican, so any Republican who takes office in next year’s presidential election.
This is the second time that the Heritage Foundation has led the creation of a sort of transition plan aimed at a Republican president. In the early ’80s, we saw the Heritage Foundation create one of these plans, that actually went on to have a huge influence on the Reagan administration and was framed as a sort of way of taking on the out-of-control regulatory state.
And in this particular iteration, there’s a lot of focus in their new transition plan on unmaking environmental regulations. I’m happy to talk more about this, but there’s a number of previous Trump appointees who have written, essentially, proposals to undo the many powers of the federal administration, from the EPA to the Department of the Interior, all in an attempt to sort of lessen the federal authority to regulate fossil fuels and, essentially, to boost those polluting industries.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting. Polls show now that Biden and Trump, even though he was indicted again yesterday, are neck and neck in the polls for president. You talk about the Department of the Interior part of the plan, in this 2025 plan, being written by William Perry Pendley. You note he controversially led the Bureau of Land Management under President Trump and worked to eliminate drilling regulations. Talk more specifically, and name names.
DHARNA NOOR: Absolutely. So, as you mentioned, William Perry Pendley very controversially led the Bureau of Land Management under President Trump, controversially because he was actually never confirmed by the Senate. This was the case for a number of Trump appointees. And he also was known, before he had a role in the Trump administration, for writing this book called Sagebrush Rebel, that was really in praise of Ronald Reagan, of Ronald Reagan’s anti-regulatory sort of agenda. It’s, I think, unsurprising to see his name in a sort of proposal that’s aimed at, you know, ending the ability for federal regulations to have any real impact on the environment.
Previous reporting from E&E News, from Scott Waldman there, found that Mandy Gunasekara had written another chapter focused on remaking the EPA, really focused on shrinking its authority both by laying off staff, by cutting budgets, with an especially big focus on sort of cutting environmental programs, like environmental justice programming and public outreach programming.
Another name that was in the proposal was Bernard McNamee, who wrote a chapter on the Department of Energy, again sort of in an attempt to say we should shrink the authority of the Department of Energy. He previously served as an adviser to Ted Cruz. And before that, he led this far-right organization called the Texas Public Policy Institute — or, Texas Public Policy Foundation, rather, that really aims to undo environmental regulation and fight renewable energy at the state level.
And so, we’re really seeing, I think, a who’s who of the far right in this attempt to, you know, not only sort of be in the next president’s ear if they’re a Republican, but also, you know, sort of recommend personnel and say, “Hey, here’s who you should staff up with.”
AMY GOODMAN: What role does billionaire Charles Koch play in this project, Dharna?
DHARNA NOOR: So, the Heritage Foundation, who, again, are the far-right foundation that sort of convened this group, Project 2025, has historically had ties, financial ties, to the Koch brothers, who are, of course, billionaires who made their fortune in fossil fuels and related industries. The Heritage Foundation is also a member of the State Policy Network, which is a sort of coalition of these extreme right-wing groups that have targeted regulation, especially climate-focused regulation, in states for many years. And I think, you know, I would just say, I guess, it’s no surprise that an organization with ties to people who have made such a great fortune in the industries that must be regulated in order to take on the climate crisis, you know, have historically been tied to a group that is trying to push that agenda to the presidential level.
AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, I wanted to ask David Wallace-Wells to respond to what Dharna is describing right now, and also talk about what needs exactly to be done. I mean, we’re speaking today, the day after the Supreme Court has just OK’d, cleared the way for construction of the contested Mountain Valley Pipeline to resume, lifting a halt on a section of the project that had been issued by a lower court earlier this month after a challenge by environmental groups.
DAVID WALLACE–WELLS: Yeah, I think we’re in a situation as a country now where we’re pursuing what used to be called an all-of-the-above energy strategy. And that’s pretty catastrophic for our climate goals, which means, in general, I would say, at this point, the Republican Party across the country is mostly standing down in resistance to renewable energy. The Project 2025 memo is really concerning, but when I look across the political landscape, I see there was basically no campaigning against the IRA in the midterm elections anywhere. And in Texas, where there was an effort to kneecap renewable power a few months ago, ultimately that failed, because even conservative Republicans in Texas understood that doing so would raise energy bills for consumers there. Nevertheless, we’re also moving forward with a lot of new fossil fuel infrastructure. And we’re sort of — you know, that’s the path we’re following: We’re kind of doing both at once.
So, in the big picture, I think what we need to do is find a way to accelerate the good stuff and draw down the bad stuff. And functionally, for me, what that means is finding a way to ease the rollout of renewable power, build more transmission lines so that we can expand our grid and accommodate much more renewable electricity over the next few years, without at the same time giving benefits to new infrastructure on the dirty side. And unfortunately, to this point, most of the so-called permitting reform proposals that we’ve heard have been balanced in precisely that way. They do make some accommodation or allow for some acceleration of renewable buildout, but they also allow for a lot more dirty energy construction. And we just can’t have that if we are hoping to hit the targets that are not just set by the scientific community, but the somewhat less ambitious ones that have been embraced by the Biden administration.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, David Wallace-Wells, I mean, the phraseology of the U.N. secretary-general, Guterres, talking about “global boiling,” taking on the fossil fuel industry, seems to fly in the face of what’s happening with the U.N. climate summit, the one that’s coming up in UAE. In January, the UAE confirmed that Sultan Al Jaber had been appointed the president of COP28. He is the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the biggest oil producer in the United Arab Emirates, the 12th largest in the world. Your final thoughts on this?
DAVID WALLACE–WELLS: Well, just as context, I think it’s important for people to understand the U.S. is actually the world’s largest producer of oil and the world’s largest producer of gas. So, when we point our finger around the world and shake our hand at other people’s bad action, we should remind ourselves how poorly we’re doing.
But, in general, Guterres has taken a really unusual turn as secretary-general. He has made himself, you know, a climate-forward, climate-first rhetorical world leader, operating somewhat independently from the other structures of the U.N., including the COP process. He’s made himself the rhetorical leader on climate anywhere in the world, and it actually is a kind of a shaming contrast to compare the language that he uses to the language that leaders like, you know, Joe Biden here, but leaders all around the world have used, much more muted rhetoric. And I think while some of his language is a little overheated, at least for my taste, I do think it’s quite striking how few other figures of political prominence anywhere around the globe are speaking in these urgent terms.
And it’s a reminder of how far the world is from really reckoning with the state of the climate crisis in the near future that we’re now rushing headlong into. We need more people feeling the urgency that the secretary-general feels, and giving voice to it, so that, you know, the everyday Americans, everyday people all around the world understand that their leaders see the existential saga we’re living through in the same terms that they do, and are at least trying to move the ball forward, as opposed to letting things stay as they are, which is not an acceptable state.
AMY GOODMAN: David Wallace-Wells, we want to thank you for being with us, New York Times opinion writer, columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and Dharna Noor, fossil fuels and climate reporter for The Guardian. We’ll link to both of your recent articles at democracynow.org.
Coming up, Texas Congressmember Greg Casar will be with us. He just had an eight-our thirst strike on Tuesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to highlight the need for a federal workplace heat standard, as his state outlaws water breaks for people who work outside. Back in 30 seconds.