Last week’s press conference by President Joe Biden, his first since taking office, was a deliberate exercise in calm. It was not, unfortunately, a similarly deliberate exercise in fact-seeking. This was not entirely the fault of the president; the folks he shared that room with seemed to have lost the tether on their job description after four years of enforced mayhem.
The so-called cream of the Washington, D.C. press corps leaned into garish stories their phone algorithms appeared to tell them were important — the border situation and “Is the president senile?” — while failing for most of the hour to ask about, for one example, effective strategies for addressing gun violence. Similarly, and remarkably, not one direct COVID question was asked, though Biden did take a fair portion of the time bringing the assembled up to date on that crisis. The man baked bread with the dough he was handed; what else can you do?
One question, however, elicited a dramatic response from Biden. When pressed on abolition of the Jim Crow-era filibuster, Biden went silent in a drawn-out moment of pause so wide you could have sailed the Ever Given through the gap without scraping the paint. Locking eyes with his questioner, Biden finally replied in a hushed tone, “Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible.”
The line was lifted from Otto von Bismarck, the formidable “Iron Chancellor” who dominated German politics at the close of the 19th century, and in using it, Biden was throwing down a clear marker: This administration is going to be about adhering to the passage of a few very specific policies. We cannot do everything at once with Congress in its current state. COVID-19 takes top priority, followed (if indications are accurate) by a massive infrastructure bill to help salvage the economy.
A thorough search of the press conference transcript reveals the word “climate” was used exactly twice — both times by a reporter — while the word “environment” was used once by Biden himself: “How will people adjust to these significant changes in science and technology and the environment?” When pressed by an Associated Press reporter on the huge slate of issues to contend with, Biden replied, “And the other problems we’re talking about, from immigration to guns and the other things you mentioned, are long-term problems; they’ve been around a long time.”
COVID and the economy, then. Immigration, guns and climate can take a number for now. The fate of H.R. 1 (also known as the For the People Act) and H.R. 4 (the Voting Rights Advancement Act) hinge on the dismantling of the filibuster; if Biden chooses not to pursue that course, it will be a clear indication that the defense of voting rights will be on the back burner for a while, as well.
From a purely political perspective, this decision makes unequivocal sense. This Congress is a bag of cats. The COVID bill was needed desperately by the people, and still required reconciliation for passage. It was also the means by which this new administration announced its presence with authority. On infrastructure, there are at least a dozen GOP senators who would love to be a part of a massive rebuilding package. The only thing standing in the way is the partisan sand in the gears, but then again, that’s like saying the only thing keeping you from getting to Nepal from China is Mount Everest and the Himalayan wall.
On its face, the seeming decision to de-emphasize climate disruption appears to be a terrible error in judgment, yet another short-sighted view of an existential threat unlike any other we currently face. There are wheels within wheels here, however. The proposed infrastructure bill, for one example, is about far more than fixing bridges and filling potholes.
“Biden and Democrats see an infrastructure package as the best way to tackle climate change and get the country to net-zero electricity emissions by 2035,” reports Vox, “by installing more electric vehicle charging stations on the nation’s roads, modernizing the electrical grid, and incentivizing more wind and solar projects. It could be financed at least in part with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.”
Biden is also organizing a 40-nation climate summit that seeks to include both China and Russia, two major polluters (along with, of course, the U.S.) whose lack of participation in any future climate endeavors would essentially render the entire effort moot. Biden has also rejoined the Paris climate accord, a further step in re-establishing a U.S. presence in the global climate fight after four years of pollution-happy chaos.
Let us not delude ourselves: These measures are but a teardrop in the bucket of what will be required to stave off our collective environmental doom. As we creep ever closer to fire season out west, the climate will again become as pressing a national political issue as the children at the southern border. Meanwhile, COVID-19 taps us daily on the shoulder and whispers, “This is the future, this is what environmental degradation can do to you, there is much more to come, and you are woefully unprepared.”
The COVID example, though, is telling. One year ago, when we were locking down and taking shallow breaths and afraid of everything, the word “vaccine” became almost a prayer. There was only one problem: The record for fastest development of a vaccine was four years, for the mumps. Were we really facing four years of this nightmare before something vaguely normal returned?
For the moment, the answer to that question appears to be, “No.” In what is arguably the single most incredible human scientific achievement in history, vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness rates were developed, tested and distributed in about as much time as it takes to build a house. Over 100 million doses have been injected into arms so far, and a moment will come soon when we have to start giving vaccine away because we made more than we needed. This is known as a “happy problem.”
It is all is simultaneously awe-inspiring and not in any way surprising. The awe comes from the astonishing leap made by scientists and researchers to shoot that formidable gap. The unsurprising part? People found a way to save themselves against all odds and with their asses hanging way out over a steep cliff. “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else,” Winston Churchill once famously said. This is that, but with needles and test tubes.
Cracking the COVID vaccine took funding, cooperation, and the will to get it done in the face of impending catastrophe. That is exactly where we are with the climate. We have proven to ourselves once again that solutions are there to be seized, and the ocean is coming. Let us all remind this president of that truth, of the art of the possible wed to dire necessity, before nature once again decides to do so for us.