NEWSWEEK 01/10/24
By Michael Shank

With 2023 ranking as the hottest year on record and 2024 estimated to break last year’s record, one would expect the world’s biggest economies—like the United States, which is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas—to take climate change more seriously. Especially given the record number of billion-dollar weather disasters that hit U.S. infrastructure in 2023. And yet last year was another record-breaking year for global carbon emissions from fossil fuels—the highest ever—and attendees at the United Nations climate talks in Dubai last month were unwilling to phase out fossil fuel burning completely.

With the U.S. presidential election this year, there’s a lot on the line for the planet. But it’s not self-evident, based on what went down in Dubai, that Democrats will lead at the pace necessary to help slow the climate trends above. In Dubai, there was too much U.S. finger-pointing at petrostates and too little willingness by Democratic Party surrogates to call out their own party’s lack of climate leadership.

A common refrain in American climate circles before, during, and after the UN climate talks in Dubai was a vilification of Persian Gulf countries, implying that petrostates like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates were primarily responsible for the underwhelming talks. The criticism suggested that the climate talks, which ended with an unspecific “transition away” from fossil fuels instead of a full phase out, were doomed from the beginning.

Many American pundits talked about how captured the climate talks were—a criticism that’s now been extended to next year’s host, Azerbaijan, another oil-dependent state. The implication being, of course, that if the UN climate talks were hosted somewhere else, like in a Western city in the Global North, they would somehow be free of fossil fuel industry influence.

The reality is that wherever the talks are held, they, too, would be captured by Big Carbon. And, despite their claims, policymakers in the Democratic Party are among the captured. As climate campaigners in Dubai noted, “it’s too easy to blame Saudi Arabia” when the U.S. is still “the largest producer and consumer of oil in the world and still the largest expander of fossil fuel production in the world, way ahead of Saudi Arabia.”

Aggressive U.S. finger wagging at traditional petrostates lacks an equal targeting of its own environmental malpractice, and even appears aimed at protecting election-prepping party politicians, including President Joe Biden, who didn’t attend the climate talks.

With the U.S. in campaign mode, and tough contests for the presidency and Senate in particular, it’s hard not to read this as a distraction to keep petrostates as the boogeyman instead of allowing the focus to drift onto Democratic incumbents. Recall that Biden received $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry in the 2020 election cycle, and the Biden administration continues to actively support new fossil fuel projects. Further, oil and gas industries have increased their spending in Congress to keep Democrats’ hands tied on climate bills, with several Democratic lawmakers in the top 10 recipients of fossil fuel campaign contributions.

To be fair, it’s not just Democrats that are captured, with fossil fuel industries spending roughly five times per Republican member of the House in this 2024 election cycle compared to their Democratic counterparts. For the Senate, it’s roughly four times the spending.

Given that the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, the most responsible for global cumulative emissions, and one of the globe’s biggest per capita emitters today, it must get its renewable and reparative ducks in a row. Otherwise, pointing to others as the “bad guys” falls flat, especially in the Global South.

First, the United States should take responsibility for past emissions, something the Biden administration has been reluctant to do. It’s responsible for $2 trillion in climate damages but offered a measly $17.5 million for the Loss and Damage Fund at the climate talks, which amounts to what the federal government uses in less than three minutes of operating costs. It’s pennies, and it’s insulting, frankly. Meanwhile, the world is reeling from the climate change-caused loss and damage that the U.S. made possible with its historical emissions. With loss and damages headed toward $600 billion per year by 2030, the U.S. needs to take its polluted past seriously and clean up accordingly.

Second, if the U.S. cares about phasing out fossil fuels like it claimed in Dubai, it should lead by example and be the first to transition off its heavy production of oil and gas. The Biden administration’s Department of Energy is still promoting oil pipelines and gas exports. The administration’s walk doesn’t match its talk. Not only should the administration keep fossil fuels in the ground to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it should stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry entirely, which in the U.S. amounts to tens of billions of dollars annually. And it should start holding the fossil fuel industry’s feet to the global warming fire, especially as they try to reposition their industry as a carbon capturer and storer.

Third, instead of solely vilifying the fossil fuel industry, the U.S. should take seriously the demand side and start tackling heavy consumption. Biden’s Department of Agriculture, an example of captured politicians with an active industry-government revolving door, remains unwilling to promote plant-based diets and is doubling down on its carbon heavy meat and dairy industries, which spend millions of dollars in government lobbying in order to block climate legislation. This is just one of many examples. Fossil fuel industries are merely meeting demand where it’s at. Tackle consumption, too, and that helps undermine the influence of the fossil fuel industry. We need to tackle both sides of the problem.

All of this Democrats could do, as much of this sits within executive branch powers, instead of protecting the party’s candidates and finger-pointing at traditional petrostates. The U.S. should lead by example, show the way, and invite others to decarbonize and do the same. That is the kind of leadership we need.

Michael Shank, who attended the UN climate talks in Dubai, teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, and writes in his personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.