On Wednesday, the White House asked the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to pump more oil in hopes of stemming the rise in gas prices in the United States.
President Joe Biden administration’s request to increase production of a major source of planet-heating pollution came just days after the United Nations issued a dire new report on climate change, which begs the question: Is the president denying the reality of the global emissions crisis?
Biden’s seven-month tenure abounds with climate contradictions. On the one hand, the Democrat has blocked a major pipeline project, revived U.S. carbon diplomacy, and requested unprecedented levels of climate spending from Congress. On the other, he’s charged ahead with other pipelines, approved more than 2,000 permits to drill for oil and gas on public lands, cut a coal company’s royalty payments, and asked Congress for significantly less money than experts say is needed to rapidly cut emissions. In short, he’s doing more than ever before on climate, and still very far from enough.
While asking OPEC for more oil may look like a softer version of climate change denial than the last four years of U.S. leadership, what it really demonstrates is two far more pernicious forces preventing policymakers from taking rational steps to avoid disaster: inertia and inequality.
In a country where a surprise $500 expense would thrust 57% of adults into debt, major fluctuations in commodities like gas prices pinch the most vulnerable first. The national average for gas prices has climbed over the past year, crossing the $3-per-gallon mark in May for the first time since 2014. The price for regular blend fuel hit $3.185 this week, up from $3.144 a month ago, according to AAA.
Those cents add up for the vast majority of Americans who rely on a gas-powered automobile to get around. The price flux can also affect the cost of various household goods, which become more expensive to ship as fuel prices increase.
They also make it difficult for the average person to think about the long-term potential advantages of short-term suffering, like paying more for gas to avoid disastrous climate effects in the future, especially when the policy causing that pain isn’t even designed specifically to deliver those benefits. In an economy where the price of basic needs like health care and housing is subject to investor speculation, it’s easier for most people to see a choice between real, immediate expenses and modest potential climate benefits in the long term, and decide that, on the latter, it’s better to roll the dice.
In an email sent after this article was initially published, a White House official said the administration needs “to do two things at once: Achieve our climate goals while ensuring the energy transition is one that takes into account the interests of the middle class, who experience changes in energy prices very directly, and meet global energy needs as the economy recovers from the pandemic.”
Inflated prices — which are starting to level off in some sectors of the economy, but remain worst in energy — pose a political threat to the president as his party tries to use its razor-thin majorities in Congress to fund new investments in electric vehicles and clean energy, mandate zero-carbon electricity, and inject billions into scientific research. And, while allowing prices to remain high may force some in the U.S. to lower their emissions by driving and consuming less, that burden will fall on the poorest people who, over the course of their lives, are responsible for far less greenhouse gas pollution than the wealthy, who can simply pay more without changing their behavior.
That’s the definition of a regressive tax ― except that it wouldn’t even deliver the benefits of actual tax.
France tried that in 2018. It imposed a new tax on diesel, aiming to raise money for its transition away from fossil fuels and incentivize French drivers to use less and opt for cleaner transportation. In response, the Yellow Vest protest movement ― named for the safety garb drivers keep in their vehicles to wear if they face trouble on the road ― erupted. Within weeks, and with polls showing more than two-thirds of the country supporting the protesters, the French government backtracked.
The incident demonstrated the delicacy with which governments in democracies must implement policies to curb emissions, and the attention that must be paid to whose lives face the greatest disruption in the short term from efforts to scale down fossil fuels. It also sparked the then-nascent movement for a Green New Deal, a climate policy framework that prioritizes social safety nets and government-led industrial planning over pricing mechanisms that impose a cost on polluters.
Sarah Hunt, CEO of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, said in a series of tweets that Biden’s request of OPEC highlights how “we are not going to choose a habitable planet tomorrow over quality of life today.”
“People want cheap energy more than they want clean energy. People don’t want cheap energy produced in their backyard,” she wrote.
The “only answer,” she added, “is to innovate for better energy with fewer externalities.”
Biden’s ask of OPEC unsurprisingly drew fire from conservatives, who argued the administration is destroying energy jobs at home and making the nation more reliant on fossil fuels produced overseas, and progressive climate advocates who questioned his commitment to rapidly confronting greenhouse gas emissions.
Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst at the climate advocacy group Oil Change International, said the move this week showed why the Biden administration should be taking every possible step to reduce demand for oil and increase production of zero-carbon alternatives.
“Energy independence and energy dominance were myths spun by the American Petroleum Institute and its lackeys in Washington,” Stockman told HuffPost in an email. “The United States will only ever be free from manipulation of the international oil market when it ends fossil fuel subsidies, supports a just transition to clean energy, and ends the pernicious influence of the oil lobby.”