Climate crisis features as never before in President Biden’s first address to Congress

Louise Boyle
·4-min read
President Joe Biden speaks to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol  as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi listen (AP)
President Joe Biden speaks to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi listen (AP)

Joe Biden addressed the climate crisis as no president before him during his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening at the US Capitol.

The speech made history before it even began. It was the first time that sitting behind the president as he gave his speech were two women - Vice President Kamala Harris, and the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The president’s annual address is typically given in late January or early February, but the president chose to delay, given the pressing crisis of the Covid pandemic as he entered office.

By delivering the speech as he approaches his 100th day in office, it gave Mr Biden the rare opportunity to lay out what he’s already accomplished, along with his future plans.

A significant chunk of his hour-long remarks was dedicated to climate - which warranted seven mentions in total, and three when the president described it as a “crisis”.

It was a U-turn from 2020. In his final address last February, former president Donald Trump made no mention of the crisis, consistent with his administration’s four years of dismantling climate and environmental protections. Instead Mr Trump touted the US as “the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world, by far”.

Former president Barack Obama was the last US leader to truly tackle the subject in his State of the Union address. (Mr Biden’s address is not considered a “State of the Union” as is common for a president in his first year in office.)

In a sign of how far the needle has moved on the issue, Mr Obama’s final address made an appeal for belief in climate science.

“Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it,” Mr Obama said in January 2016.

Mr Biden’s speech made no such argument to the remaining climate crisis deniers. Instead he returned to a now familiar framing of the crisis as an opportunity to grow the American economy and provide millions of jobs.

“For too long, we have failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis,” he said. “Jobs. Jobs. For me, when I think about climate change, I think jobs.”

He described the American Jobs Plan, which he hopes Congress will pass, as “a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself”.

The $2.3 trillion infrastructure package has billions of dollars in funding to address climate challenges, among them modernizing the US public transport systems, roads, bridges and highways.

He claimed that independent experts estimated the plan will add “millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in economic growth for years to come”.

He also underlined that nearly 90 per cent of these jobs “do not require a college degree”, calling it a “blue-collar blueprint to build America”.

The President went on to say that in order to “win” the 21st century, America would need to compete on new technologies for renewable energy and electric vehicles with China.

“There’s no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing,” Mr Biden said.

He also pointed to the need to upgrade lead pipes, which still run to 10 million homes and more than 400,000 schools and child care centers, calling the impact on drinking water a “clear and present danger to our children’s health”.

He added: “The American Jobs Plan will put engineers and construction workers to work building more energy efficient buildings and homes. Electrical workers installing 500,000 charging stations along our highways.

“Farmers planting cover crops, so they can reduce carbon dioxide in the air and get paid for doing it.”

Last week, the White House held a virtual climate summit for 40 world leaders, and set an ambitious target to slash US greenhouse gas emissions up to 52 per cent by 2030, from 2005 levels.

While Mr Biden highlighted these moments, he also underlined that America could not fight the crisis alone. The US accounts for less than 15 per cent of global carbon emissions.

“It’s a global fight,” he said. Mr Biden rejoined the global Paris Agreement to reduce emissions on his first day in office after Mr Trump exited the deal.

“I wanted the world to see that there is consensus that we are at an inflection point in history,” Mr Biden said.

“And the consensus is if we act, we can save the planet – and we can create millions of jobs and economic growth and opportunity to raise the standard of living for everyone in the world.”

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