Just seven days into President Joe Biden’s administration, he declared that the United States must "meet the moment" and raise our "climate ambition." He backed that sentiment up with a set of sweeping executive orders directing the government to place the climate crisis at the center of domestic and foreign policy decisions. It was a welcome change from past presidents who have too often waited until the end of their terms to take any bold action to protect the environment.
To many in the conservation movement, Biden’s words sent a signal that perhaps the U.S. was finally willing to address the climate crisis with the urgency it demands. However, now eight months later, Biden’s climate signal has not only faded — it’s been replaced by a series of confounding mixed messages.
On Sept. 20, a federal judge in California rebuked the Biden administration in a lawsuit involving the failure to protect the Joshua tree, a species so iconic in the Western landscape that a national park bears its name. WildEarth Guardians brought this suit because the Trump administration refused to list the tree as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act — despite all available scientific evidence indicating that Joshua trees will be in danger of extinction by the end of this century from climate-change-driven habitat loss, wildfire and other stressors.
The Trump decision not to protect the Joshua tree was fundamentally grounded in climate change denial. The Biden administration went along with that position and defended it in court. Judge Otis D. Wright II, appointed by George W. Bush, ruled that the Department of the Interior acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in ignoring the scientific evidence of climate-change-related threats to the survival of the species.
The ruling was handed down one day before Biden took the stage at the United Nations General Assembly and asked, "Will we meet the threat of challenging climate — the challenging climate we’re all feeling already ravaging every part of our world with extreme weather?"
As the executive director of the organization that brought the Joshua tree case, I welcome all allies. Still, I was surprised that a judge appointed by a Republican president would understand the effect of climate change on an imperiled species better than the Biden administration.
Donald Trump spent four years eviscerating our environmental safety nets through the gutting of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws. Environmental and public interest groups filed lawsuit after lawsuit to challenge those decisions and many of the cases outlasted the Trump administration.
Disturbingly, when presented with the opportunity to reverse course, the current administration has elected on multiple occasions to defend these policies in court, wasting federal resources and contravening Biden’s own mandate to raise our climate ambitions.
In late August, the Interior Department finalized a Trump proposal to lease 80 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas extraction. Weeks later, the agency drafted a separate plan to open 700,000 acres of public lands to fracking, the majority being in the Rocky Mountain states, including my home state of New Mexico.
Both actions came despite Biden’s own executive order placing a moratorium on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters. In its environmental documentation on the gulf sale, the Biden administration went so far as to say that a recent United Nations report highlighting the severity of the climate crisis "does not present sufficient cause" to reconsider the Trump decision.
To be clear, Trump didn’t merely gut environmental laws, he hollowed out the institutions that would enforce the few remaining protections left. Thus, the impact of Biden not restoring those laws isn’t just damaging to wildlife, clean water and the climate — it further corrodes the morale of the civil servants charged with carrying them out.
That’s why we desperately need the president to direct his Cabinet secretaries to move more aggressively to use the "whole of government" — as he said in his Jan. 27 climate executive order — to protect our endangered planet. Moreover, we need citizens to raise their voices and demand accountability from our political leaders.
We will be joining partners in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11 for People vs. Fossil Fuels, a week of direct action led by Indigenous, brown and Black communities living on the front lines of the climate emergency. The demands are clear: Biden must direct agencies to reject fossil fuel projects and start treating the climate crisis like the emergency it is.
We’re asking him to live up to his commitments. That could begin with standing up for the right side in court, but it must not stop there.