Year in and year out, America continues to burn. As of July 20 this year, nearly 5.5 million acres of land had succumbed to fires around the U.S. In the first half of the year, the number of acres burned was more than double the rolling average for the winter and spring over the past 10 years.
The fire outlook across the American West is bleak, part of a global pattern.
In Europe, temperatures soared well north of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The result was calamitous: Huge fires broke out in Portugal, Spain, France, and Greece, and thousands of people have died of heat-related illnesses. In the UK, so many fires broke out in homes in London that the metropolitan fire department had its busiest single day since World War II.
Large swaths of the U.S. saw temperatures approach 120 degrees. In India, the food production system is under threat because of a delayed monsoon season. Australia has been battered by record flooding. Greenland’s ice sheet has been shedding an astonishing 6 billion tons per day during a particularly warm spell.
Biden has opted for rhetoric over substance.
By any stretch of the imagination, what is happening now is a climate emergency. Yet politics are so disastrously broken that the tantrums and ego of one senator, Joe Manchin, can effectively put the kibosh on meaningful climate change legislation.
Joe Biden came into office pledging to halve U.S. emissions over the course of the next decade, committed to pushing through legislation that would free up hundreds of billions of dollars to tackle the climate crisis and accelerate America’s transition to clean energy. Yet, over the past 18 months, Manchin has stymied every effort to enact these goals. Biden’s climate agenda has become a disappearing act, just at the moment when U.S. leadership is most needed. In 2021, U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions actually rose more than 6 percent. Globally, emissions also increased in 2021 and look set to continue to grow this year as well.
Progressives in the House and Senate, as well as an array of climate activists, are urging Biden to declare a climate emergency, and to enact as much of his agenda as possible without buy-in from a dysfunctional Congress. Instead, Biden has opted for rhetoric over substance. He has given a series of speeches saying that it is indeed an emergency, yet he has failed to use his presidential powers to officially declare a state of emergency.
Biden unveiled a plan to channel $2.3 billion to climate change mitigation work. That sounds bold, until you realize that it is less than half a percent of what he had hoped for. It’s also less than the U.S. military spends in a single day. It’s one-fiftieth of what Americans spend on their pets each year.
Over the coming weeks, we have been told, the administration will unveil other actions on the climate. I hope I’m wrong and that a slew of ambitious presidential orders will meet the urgency of the moment. But I’m not holding my breath.