In his second State of the Union address, President Joe Biden hailed his administration’s significant accomplishments over the last two years and called on lawmakers to “finish the job” on a wide variety of policy issues. He uttered the phrase over and over — more than a dozen times, in fact — in relation to everything from repairing the economy and controlling the cost of prescription drugs to expanding access to affordable health insurance and making the tax code fairer.
About a third of the way through his 73-minute speech, he called on the country to “finish the job” when it comes to climate change.
“We have an obligation, not to ourselves, but to our children and our grandchildren to confront it,” he said. “I’m proud of how America at last is stepping up to the challenge. We’re still going to need oil and gas for a while. … But there’s so much more to do. We’ve got to finish the job.”
We must finish this job (if that phrase can even be applied to such a “super wicked problem,” as the climate crisis is often called).
And yes, there is “so much more” our nation must do to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the goal of the international climate accord that America reentered on Biden’s first day in office back in January 2021.
Global average temperatures have already risen about 1 degree Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1880s. The rise sounds small, but we’re already living with its huge, and deadly, effects: more extreme heat, more intense storms, more wildfires, and more scary news for all of us earthly inhabitants, human and otherwise.
Not Enough Attention on Climate Change
Last night, though, Biden didn’t go into much detail about how we might actually finish this monumental job, other than to point to existing incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to address climate change and accelerate the transition to clean energy. He pointed specifically to tax credits that enable families to purchase electric vehicles and energy-efficient appliances and efforts to conserve public lands.
“We’re just getting started,” he continued, and then took an opportunity to poke those Republicans who voted against the infrastructure law. “I’ll see you at the groundbreaking,” he quipped, referencing the many important (and likely popular) government-funded projects in the offing.
These laws are important steps our nation is taking to address the climate crisis — historic even. But again, we must do much more and go much further to, quote, “finish the job,” and our nation’s public officials need to spend more time talking about it.
To wit: In Biden’s address last night, the word “climate” appeared three times.
In a speech of more than 9,000 words. On arguably the defining issue of our era.
As mentioned above, the president did go into more detail than the three specific mentions of the word “climate.” And to be sure, the economy polls much higher on the list of Americans’ priorities than climate and the environment.
But our changing climate is affecting “everything, everywhere, all at once,” to quote Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, who was herself quoting the eponymous sci-fi action flick.
“We live in a world that demands that we put climate at the center of everything we do,” she said yesterday during a webinar on how to effectively communicate about climate change.
While Biden touted climate and clean energy progress in his speech and laid out plans for more work ahead, his message was at times muddled. And it was pretty far from the “center” of his address.
No Mention of Climate Justice
The word “environment” didn’t appear in the president’s address, either; nor did the word “air” (though it did show up in the word “airlines,” which he also mentioned three times).
What’s worse, he made no mention of the phrases “climate justice” or “environmental justice”; indeed, neither phrase appeared in the speech (though, in fairness, he did discuss some related issues, such as the need to ensure access to clean water, to replace toxic lead pipes that damage brain function and disproportionately affect low-wealth people and communities of color, and to cut pollution in and bring clean energy jobs to “communities often left behind”).
To be sure, Biden pledged to address environmental justice on the campaign trail, and he signed an executive order on his first day in office to direct at least 40 percent of federal investments to disadvantaged communities.
The administration needs to promote this important work and do more to ensure the most marginalized among us no longer bear the greatest brunt of pollution, floods, extreme heat, and other climate impacts.
One place to start is by promoting — and convincing Congress to pass — the Environmental Justice for All Act, which, as my former colleague Hannah Klaus noted, would “pave the way for remedying a long history of environmental harm and racism and ensuring the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of health and environmental laws and regulations.”
We at the Center for Progressive Reform are making climate justice a top priority — and we want to hear more about it from our public officials. In fact, we demand it. It’s gratifying that Biden will be touting climate and energy policies in a climate messaging “blitz” in the days to come, but as Aronczyk argues, climate must be at the center of his communications, starting with his major annual address to we, the people.