Multiple crises are upon the country and world: A war is raging in Europe, the US inflation rate is soaring, and though COVID-19 cases are dropping, we’re still feeling the effects of the pandemic. President Biden discussed all of those pressures during his first State of the Union speech Tuesday night, but notably absent was any serious discussion of the climate crisis.
“It was a missed opportunity,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
Biden did mention climate change a couple of times, calling out plans to create jobs and update infrastructure to “withstand the devastating effects of the climate crisis and promote environmental justice,” and later boasting that his American Rescue Plan lowered energy costs “by combating climate change.” He also called to incentivize climate-friendly building, grid, and vehicle upgrades.
“Let’s provide investments and tax credits to weatherize your homes and businesses to be energy efficient ... double America’s clean energy production in solar, wind, and so much more; lower the price of electric vehicles,” he said.
Still, discussion of climate change accounted for less than one minute of the 62-minute-long speech. That surely had some climate activists invoking Biden’s own words: c’mon, man.
The president has consistently referred to climate change as an “existential threat” and an “urgent” matter, which it is. A landmark United Nations report released just one day before the State of the Union confirmed that.
“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet,” the report’s authors concluded. “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
As though that’s not reason enough for it to get more than a few passing mentions in the State of the Union, climate change is also intimately connected to the other crises the world is facing.
Take inflation. As the Atlantic recently noted, climate change is already one source of rising prices. The Biden administration has also argued that one way to cut inflation over time would be to invest in climate-friendly projects, specifically through his proposed Build Back Better social spending package, which would have included historic climate investments.
Biden did mention that climate policy can cut energy costs and create jobs, but he didn’t mention that investing in green projects and kicking fossil fuels could also drive down prices.
“Increases in energy prices are a huge portion of inflation,” said Collin Rees, a program manager at the research and advocacy organization Oil Change International. “This could have been a perfect opportunity to be talking more about how doing things like installing the heat pump, switching to renewable energy, getting ourselves unhooked from the volatility of a fossil fuel economy could be a way to reach more stable and lower prices for energy for households.”
Nor did the speech highlight the linkages between the war in Ukraine and energy prices. Russia’s economy is powered by the sale of fossil fuels, some of which the U.S. purchases.
“Russia basically wouldn’t have the military it has, wouldn’t have this much power to wield, if it wasn’t for fossil fuels,” Hartl said. “Around the world, we see fossil fuels propping up governments that are repressive and autocratic, and we see they’re an underlying reason that we have conflict.”
In an effort to end reliance on Russian fuels, Germany has sped up its timeline for achieving 100% clean power. Rees said that kind of commitment from the Biden administration could have been powerful.
“There’s so many potential connections to climate that Biden totally missed,” he said.
The State of the Union is a crucial way for the president to signal priorities and pitch them to the American public. Rees said all but omitting the climate crisis from such a speech sends a troubling message.
“This was Biden’s first State of the Union. He had tens of millions of eyes on him across the nation and across the world,” said Rees. “This was a great spot to lay out the urgency of climate policy. That it was almost absent from the speech isn’t a good sign.”
This story has been updated to correct the attribution of one quote to Hartl instead of Rees.