US green groups see new leverage from Biden’s COP28 promise

“Saying that they believe in the phase out of fossil fuels, is actually one of the biggest moves from the Biden administration” on climate, said Jean Su, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Then why is the Biden administration continuing to expand fossil fuels?”

The agreement at COP28 was the first time in the nearly three decades of annual U.N. climate summits that nations agreed to language explicitly calling for curtailing fossil fuels. While the language is not legally binding and it allows each country to chart its own path, simply sending a signal to the world that moving off fossil fuels was necessary was hailed as a major accomplishment.

“It’s definitely a huge step forward that people are even talking about transitioning from fossil fuels,” Collin Rees, U.S. campaigns manager for Oil Change International said from Dubai.

But green groups have stepped up their attacks on individual projects they say will lock in consumption of fossil fuels for decades — like the Venture Global liquefied natural gas project in Louisiana now under consideration at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department. That planned expansion, called CP2, is part of a network of LNG plants built in recent years that have made the U.S. the world’s largest exporter of natural gas.

“People are looking at things like CP2 and these other upcoming decisions on expanding fossil fuel production and will want to see the proof in the pudding,” Rees said.

Stevie O’Hanlon, communication director for the Sunrise Movement, a progressive group of young activists, warned that young voters were increasingly watching these projects.

“If [the Biden administration officials] keep saying yes to these projects, they’ll lose credibility with the international community and with young voters. We need to make sure that these are not just words. President Biden needs to walk the walk on climate change.”

Biden had promised to end new oil and gas production on federal land and water during the 2020 campaign, a pledge that attracted young climate-minded activists to support him. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic-driven economic disruptions scrambled global energy markets, sending crude oil prices spiraling higher and lifting U.S. gasoline prices to record highs above $5 a gallon.

That forced the administration to adopt a softer tone toward the oil and gas industry and prompted it to release some 200 million barrels of crude oil from the U.S. strategic oil reserve to cool off prices. Spurred by high energy prices, oil companies boosted output, lifting U.S. production to record levels.

While the Republican National Committee was quick to assert the COP28 outcomes reflected “Biden’s anti-U.S. energy agenda,” experts on public sentiment see little evidence the global agreement in Dubai will shift many Americans’ opinions in next year’s presidential contest.

“To the extent that climate change is a theme of the ‘24 elections, I think it will just help sort of highlight those contrasts between the two parties and their overall approach to the issue,” said John Kotcher, a research associate professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

Polling from GMU and Yale has found the majority of Americans believe the U.S. should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. But about a quarter of Republicans believe the U.S. should only reduce its emissions if other industrialized nations follow suit — which conceivably puts that segment of the GOP in line with this agreement, Kotcher argued.

But with much of international news coverage focused on the war in Ukraine and the Israeli offensive in Gaza, the number of Americans who will care about this agreement will be slim, according to Anthony Leiserowitz, director and founder of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

“COP just becomes another exhibit in a much larger debate over the future of energy policy in this country,” he said. ”So I just don’t think this is going to really cut through to most voters. They’re not going to even know this event happened.”