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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden’s absence at climate summit highlights his fossil fuel conundrum

President Joe Biden boards Air Force One to return to Washington in Nantucket, Mass., Nov. 26, 2023.

By Jim Tankersley and Lisa Friedman

President Joe Biden signed the country’s first major climate law and is overseeing record federal investment in clean energy. In each of the past two years, he attended the annual United Nations climate summit, asserting American leadership in the fight against global warming.

But this year, likely to be the hottest in recorded history, Biden is staying home.

According to a White House official who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the president’s schedule, Biden will not travel to the summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Aides say he is consumed by other global crises, namely trying to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas in its war with Israel and working to persuade Congress to approve aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

At home, Biden’s climate and energy policies are crashing against competing political pressures. Concerned about Republican attacks that Biden is pursuing a “radical green agenda,” centrists in his party want him to talk more about the fact that the United States has produced record amounts of crude oil this year. At the same time, climate activists, particularly the young voters who helped elect Biden, want the president to shut down drilling altogether.

Internationally, developing countries are pushing Biden to deliver on promises for billions of dollars to help cope with climate change. But Republicans in Congress who control spending scoff at the idea and have been unable to reach agreement among themselves on issues such as aid to Israel and Ukraine.

In bypassing the climate summit known as COP28, Biden is missing an opportunity to strengthen his climate credentials, said Michele Weindling, the political director at Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group.

“If Biden wants to be taken seriously on climate by young people at home and by the rest of the world, he needs to use every tool at his disposal to mobilize the U.S. government to save lives,” she said.

David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California San Diego, was more blunt. “He’s really got to worry about holding the left together and his reelection,” Victor said.

Biden has angered environmental groups by permitting new oil leases, including the Willow oil project in the North Slope of Alaska. He also expedited liquid gas exports to Europe as it faced an energy crisis from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, helping to make the United States the world’s largest gas exporter.

The United States has produced a record amount of crude oil on Biden’s watch, and the president has urged fossil fuel companies to produce enough to prevent gas prices from spiking. At the pump, gasoline prices averaged $3.25 a gallon nationwide Monday, which is above pre-pandemic levels but down 30 cents from a year ago.

But he also signed the largest climate law in American history, the Inflation Reduction Act, which is pouring at least $370 billion in government subsidies into technologies, such as solar panels and electric cars, meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. His administration also has proposed tough new limits on emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks.

Republicans have accused the president of waging a war on American energy, and candidates running to try to unseat Biden have promised to open federal lands to far more oil and gas drilling.

That’s led some within the Democratic Party to urge Biden to talk up oil production. Earlier this month, a new polling group called Blueprint, which is dedicated to helping Democrats craft winning messages for the 2024 elections, said Biden was failing to make voters aware of what the group called “moderate” policy achievements — including “issuing historic numbers of oil and gas drilling permits.”

At the same time, some conservation groups are calling on Biden to stop any new drilling. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental action group, released a report Monday calculating that the greenhouse gas emissions from new oil and gas projects that Biden has approved will exceed the emissions reductions from all his climate policies put together.

Administration officials say privately that their hopes of Biden attending a third consecutive summit — which would have set an attendance record for an American president — were complicated by the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. Biden has devoted significant time and energy to that conflict, including a surprise trip to Israel.

He almost certainly would have needed to add another trip to Israel, and likely to other countries in the region, if he had chosen to attend the climate conference, aides said.

On Monday, some senior aides were mounting a last-ditch effort to persuade Biden to reconsider his plans and make a trip to the summit, which runs through mid-December, though they appeared unlikely to succeed.

More than 100 other world leaders are scheduled to appear in Dubai, including King Charles III, Pope Francis, French President Emmanuel Macron, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

But like Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping will skip the event. Instead, China, the largest current emitter of greenhouse gases, will be represented by Ding Xuexiang, a senior aide to Xi.

Xi and Biden met in California earlier this month and agreed to work toward a ramp-up of renewable energy that could displace fossil fuels.

If the two men were to reconsider and appear in Dubai, it would “give a moral boost to everyone” at the summit, said Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington.

“It’s a very fraught moment for the world,” he said.

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