Climate Looms Large Over Biden’s First State of the Union. Will the Coverage Say So?

Amid all else that weighs on the world, journalists must preserve space for the biggest story of all.

US President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applaud at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo by Melina Mara via Getty Images)

Tonight, before a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden will deliver his first State of the Union address. The backdrop is a frightening new war in Europe, which the president has described as a “brutal” and “unjustifiable” assault on the people of Ukraine. In a moment of great uncertainty, it will be on Biden to comfort and provide clarity to Americans about what the conflict might entail. He’ll also have on his plate threats to democracy at home, a struggling economy, and a pandemic whose challenges continue to evolve. Then there’s that other crisis, climate change, which threatens much of life as we know it but disappears so easily from our aperture because it is a slow-moving crisis. But it endures, and, as ever, humanity’s time to act remains short. Ukraine is rightly top-of-mind, but this evening journalists must also make room for climate in their coverage of the president’s address.

To his credit, Biden will arrive on Capitol Hill with more than a few climate wins notched in his belt: Immediately upon taking office, the president rejoined the Paris Agreement, a critical international accord to get serious on climate, signed in 2015, on which, during the Trump administration, the US became the only country in the world to renege. Biden announced plans for the US to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050—consistent with international goals of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In November, Biden signed into law a $1.2 trillion infrastructure and jobs bill, which includes substantial provisions for clean energy and climate resilience. And via executive authority the president has moved, among other things, to decarbonize the federal government, protect and restore natural lands and waters, and improve US vehicle and building efficiency standards—all while also taking steps to address America’s legacy of environmental racism, which grows only more apparent as climate impacts begin to take their toll.

Those achievements of Biden’s, of course, are only half the story. On nearly every count, climate advocates say—and science agrees—the US should be doing more, faster. In some cases, changes implemented under Biden have only reversed slash-and-burn environmental cuts made by Donald Trump; others of the former president’s rollbacks remain in place. After scuttling the high-profile Keystone XL gas pipeline, Biden perhaps confusingly has allowed similar projects, including the controversial Line 3 pipeline, to go ahead. Similarly, though Biden issued a moratorium on federal oil and gas leases, in the past year he granted new oil and gas drilling permits at a faster rate than Trump ever did. Most publicly, Biden’s bid to pass his much-touted Build Back Better bill, which encompassed the majority of his administration’s climate agenda, failed; the bill’s collapse leaves America with decidedly meager tools to tackle what the president himself called “the number-one issue facing humanity.”

In his State of the Union, Biden will likely want to shine light on the more flattering aspects of his climate program. The grim reality, though, is that, in the face of climate emergency, America is a powerful country either unable or unwilling to act at scale. Indeed, one reason for the unusual March date of this speech—in recent history, State of the Union addresses have been delivered in January or February—is that Democrats reportedly wanted to give Biden time to get his legislative agenda back on course. Alas, the speech is here, and Biden’s agenda, including its climate components, remains stuck on the rocks.

Coverage of State of the Union addresses is typically hit-or-miss. There’s a lot of style over substance, with much focus on how the president appeared, versus what he said, and who among the audience cheered, jeered, or slept. Humdrum “winners and losers” framing comes in abundance. And what coverage does parse the particulars of the speech often resorts to summary, rather than placing the president’s remarks in the context of the big issues of the day. If climate change doesn’t come up or comes up only briefly in the speech, it’s likely to also be missing in the coverage.

At a time of monster wildfires, crippling drought in the West, and ever-stronger hurricanes that batter the Gulf Coast and the East—and with time short to implement rapid, far-reaching change, if humanity hopes to avoid worse—climate is context we can’t afford to ignore. As UN Secretary General António Guterres said Monday, on the release of a major new climate report, “Delay is death.”

Should Biden’s speech paint an overly rosy view of America’s climate future, journalists should challenge that. Should the president say little about climate change, journalists should call that out. Journalists might also observe the clear connections between climate and the Ukraine crisis: For example, the West’s stubborn reliance on fossil fuels, which are Russia’s top export, has greatly limited retaliatory options that might be taken against the Kremlin. To be sure, for journalists to explain all of this isn’t tantamount to climate advocacy. Science is unequivocal that humanity is on the brink of climate breakdown, and the press should expect leaders to articulate both the threat and its solutions. What’s more, Biden campaigned as a climate champion—so his effectiveness on climate is an obvious standard by which his administration should be judged.

Not all responsibility for America’s weakness on climate belongs at Biden’s feet, of course. The failure of Build Back Better is in large part attributable to the whims of Democratic senator Joe Manchin, a former fossil-fuel executive from West Virginia who has raked in enormous sums of money from fossil-fuel companies; through months of negotiations, Manchin slowly whittled away Build Back Better’s climate provisions before declaring, in December, that he would not support the bill. Then there’s the Republican Party, filled with reliable and often gleeful obstructionists; Manchin’s opposition to climate action would matter less if only one Republican senator could muster the courage to break from ranks. Republicans’ position on climate is indefensible, yet in the press they are seldom held to account; their anti-scientific obstruction is simply taken as a given or, worse, treated as a neutral stance. Biden’s power alone is not enough to solve the climate crisis; to the extent that America remains behind the curve on climate, journalists must be clear with audiences that we’re losing at a team sport.

But this crisis is winnable. In fact, the latest science says if humanity enacts ambitious policies now to zero out greenhouse gas emissions, global temperature rise will halt in as little as three to five years—down from the decades that scientists previously thought. Amid all else that weighs on the world—not least Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—as journalists, we must preserve space for the biggest story of all. Just as climate is a standard by which we should judge the president, it’s a good standard by which we journalists should judge ourselves.