January 27th was the most remarkable day in the history of America’s official response to the climate crisis, at least since that June afternoon in 1988, when nasa’s James Hansen told a congressional committee that the planet had begun to heat. On Wednesday, in the course of a few hours, the Biden Administration took a series of coördinated actions that, considered together, may well mark the official beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era.
The Biden Administration temporarily paused the new leasing of federal lands and waters for fossil-fuel production, while speeding up the process of permitting renewables. The President pledged that the federal government would start buying electric cars in volume. His order sets up or strengthens offices in the Justice Department, the Energy Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency to focus on what he called “environmental justice.” He announced that climate change would become a national-security priority for the Pentagon. And all of this came after his earlier pledges to rejoin the Paris climate accord and to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline. There’s a shock-and-awe feel to the barrage of actions, and that is the point: taken together, they send a decisive signal about the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. And that signal, most of all, is aimed at investors: fossil fuel, Biden is making clear, is not a safe bet, or even a good bet, for making real money. Coal, oil, and gas are the past, not the future. They’re the present, too, of course—but you don’t make big-money bets on the present.
We may not get to that future fast enough to stave off truly disastrous global warming—the natural world made some announcements of its own this week, including the news that the melt from glaciers and ice sheets is in line with the worst-case scenarios that scientists have produced—and we won’t get to that safer future easily. The fossil-fuel industry is already hitting back hard against the Biden announcements, using the only argument it has left: jobs. But the Administration’s team was prepared for the onslaught—Biden styled his announcements as a job-creation scheme, predicting, for instance, that electric cars would create a million new jobs for autoworkers. And his aides made clear that they understood the need to cushion the blow in areas where oil, gas, and coal jobs are disappearing. “We’re going to make sure that nobody is left behind,” the domestic climate czar Gina McCarthy told reporters. “We need to put people to work in their own communities. That’s where their home is. That’s where the vision is. So we are creatively looking at those opportunities for investment, so that we can get people understanding that we are not trying to take away jobs.”
The difference between these actions and the responses of previous Administrations is that Biden isn’t hedging his bets. Probably the day’s most important development was the least remarked upon. The White House made clear that America would stop letting public funds from agencies such as the Export-Import Bank flow to fossil fuels, and that it would use its leverage at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to support the goals of the Paris accord. And then, crucially, John Kerry, who is coördinating the Administration’s global climate policy, made clear in a speech to virtual Davos that this dictum applied to natural gas. “The problem with gas is, if we build out a huge infrastructure for gas now to continue to use it as the bridge fuel—when we haven’t really exhausted the other possibilities—we’re going to be stuck with stranded assets in ten, twenty, thirty years,” he said. “Gas is primarily methane, and we have a huge methane problem, folks.”