President Joe Biden is a man of deep faith. While he is Catholic and I am a Jewish rabbi, I recognize a kindred spirit in Biden: Both our faiths urge us to work toward healing the world and the people in it.
Judaism teaches that all of God’s people are commanded to pursue justice for all humanity and to be responsible stewards of the Earth that God entrusted to us. These teachings of tikkun olam, of bal tashchit, of tzedek tzedek tirdof, of humble service to each other and to creation, are central to my faith. I believe these teachings are also central to Biden’s Catholic faith.
As Pope Francis reiterated last month in his call for the world’s leaders to act decisively to fight the global climate crisis, the poor and the vulnerable are the first to feel the impacts of climate change. The Vatican also backed an initiative calling for the end of new fossil fuel development. This decision is in accord with the conclusion of the world’s leading climate scientists that continuing to use the fossil fuel infrastructure currently in operation — let alone building more — would make it impossible for us to prevent global warming from shooting past 1.5°C and the dangerous, widespread destruction that comes with it.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) does not go nearly far enough to fight the root cause of climate change. These are the root causes of the global climate crisis that policy needs to address: The greenhouse gas pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation, unsustainable agriculture, toxic waste, and climate-altering industrial practices. Biden must use his executive authority to address the shortcomings of the IRA and act swiftly and decisively to protect the Earth.
It is absolutely worth celebrating that the IRA is the largest package of climate investments in U.S. history. But those investments came with a terrible set of trade-offs to get Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on board: investments in new oil and gas infrastructure, and a handshake agreement (an off-the-record agreement) that would extend the rule of the very fossil fuel industry that has brought us to the current climate disaster.
The IRA also offers few investments in Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities that have historically been sacrificed at the altar of “economic growth.” These communities have been the most vulnerable to the global climate crisis. Worse still, fossil fuel subsidies supported by the bill and the proposed permitting “reform” package would pave the way to extract further sacrifices from marginalized communities in exchange for more harmful, wasteful energy. The IRA would remove barriers to even more oil and gas developments in already burdened communities by opening up new federal land and water for drilling.
Biden has the power to use his executive authority to address these issues. If he were to use the authorities granted by his office, Biden could make measurable progress toward his administration’s climate goals — progress that would protect the lives of millions of vulnerable people from toxic air pollution and the impacts of the global climate crisis.
Stopping exports and imports of fossil fuels, canceling new pipeline projects, and halting offshore drilling would further curb pollution at the source of extraction and throughout the fossil fuel system. Unfortunately, Manchin’s deal with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) would do the opposite. In addition to forcing the completion of the unnecessary, unwanted, and destructive Mountain Valley Pipeline, the deal would impede communities from defending themselves by undercutting environmental reviews for oil and gas projects and limiting communities’ ability to fight those projects in court.
Biden must take just, world-repairing action by using his authority under the National Emergencies Act to reinstate the ban on crude oil exports, which would effectively turn off the fossil fuel spigot.
The explosive growth in crude oil extraction from the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico has come at the expense of marginalized communities. These communities have been poisoned by pollution from the many thousands of wells near homes and schools and endangered by living along pipelines and next to rail lines where “bomb trains” carry oil and gas through their neighborhoods. Others are choked by toxic fumes from refineries and compressors near the export terminals where liquified gas is loaded onto tankers and shipped around the world. Eliminating U.S. crude exports would cut 73-165 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. That would be the equivalent of cutting the emissions of up to 42 coal plants each year.
Using the powers of the Stafford Act — a law that gives the president authority to declare a national emergency and quickly deploy funds and disaster relief — Biden could deploy the Federal Emergency Management Agency to construct new energy sources powered by wind and solar, rather than fossil fuels to help communities adapt to climate impacts. The climate and environmental justice benefits of pursuing this action would be three-fold: Switching to renewable energies would reduce localized air pollution and improve the overall health of communities; it would also provide affordable, clean energy to communities; and lastly, it would include community and rooftop solar systems, which are more resilient to damage from extreme weather.
Thankfully, Biden has already deployed the Defense Production Act, another emergency statute that allows the president to direct private companies to prioritize government orders for services, materials, and facilities. Hopefully, this will spur the manufacture and deployment of clean energy, including building and installing solar panels. His top priority should be making sure that these solar panels and other renewables are affordable and placed in environmental justice communities first, which will help make those communities more resilient against future climate impacts.
So many world religions share teachings similar to that which appears in the Talmud, that to save a life is to save the entire world. Protecting the most vulnerable is a sacred task. Biden has immense power to combat the global climate crisis; it is his moral obligation to use it.