In the Netflix film Don’t Look Up, the fictional president played by Meryl Streep is at turns willfully ignorant, cynically opportunistic, and brazenly defiant when informed that a comet is on a collision course with Earth. 

Eventually, her inability to take meaningful action catches up to her and everyone else.

The movie is a satire of the political response to climate change in the US and abroad, and Streep’s character can stand in for any number of leaders who have dropped the ball on climate action. 

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden seemingly refused to "look up." In a nearly hour-long speech, the president dedicated only a handful of words to climate action, framing it not as a way to save humanity, but to instead create jobs and save money. The climate policies he mentioned — encouraging tax credits for energy efficiency, expanding electric car charging stations, and investing in renewable energy — are necessary, but they're only a small fraction of what's needed to avert environmental catastrophe. 

More worrisome, the president failed to convey a sense of urgency. Earlier in the week, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its starkest warning yet about the climate crisis, arguing that unless immediate action is taken, the planet will become increasingly uninhabitable for billions of people.

“Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone — now," UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared in response to the report. "Many ecosystems are at the point of no return — now. Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction — now."

Join the 'Just Look Up' Challenge: Listen to Scientists and Take Action

Listening to Biden's address, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the IPCC report was referring to some other planet in some distant galaxy.

Since the State of the Union is meant to frame legislative prioties for the year ahead, Biden missed a key opportunity to mobilize support for the kinds of climate action that rise to the scale of challenge: halting new fossil fuel development, protecting half of the planet's ecosystems, investing in global climate adaptation

To its credit, the Biden administration has enacted policies over the past year that put the US in a better position to confront the climate crisis. Biden signed executive orders to end US support for fossil fuel subsidies abroad, use the federal budget to buy energy-efficient supplies, make the federal government carbon-neutral, and empower the department of transportation to use its increased budget to overhaul the country’s transportation system.  

The administration also rejoined the Paris climate agreement and resumed international collaboration on climate action, and appointed a task force to lead on matters of environmental justice at home

But Biden’s record on the environment has been far from perfect — for instance, his administration has approved a record number of permits for new fossil fuel development, even though doing so directly undermines chances at achieving the Paris climate agreement. Some of these permits have been suspended by federal judges who have argued that the administration failed to consider the climate impact.

The president has at least three more years in office. With the growing pains of the first year behind it, the administration has an opportunity to focus on climate action and escalate its ambitions in ways that would benefit billions of people around the world.

From a climate perspective, there are common-sense areas of action, according to environmental advocates, and all the Biden administration has to do is “Just Look Up” and listen to their advice. 

“In collaboration with the community action platform Count Us In and the creators of Don’t Look Up, Global Citizen has launched the Just Look Up Challenge to help concerned citizens take steps to collectively tackle the climate crisis. But since change starts from the top, Global Citizen is calling on President Biden to "Just Look Up" himself by funding and legislation that will maximize climate action.  

Here are five ways Biden can transform US climate action in the weeks and months ahead. 

1. Commit to Fair Share Climate Finance 

In 2009, wealthy countries agreed to address some of the injustices of the climate crisis by providing poor countries with $100 billion in annual climate financing by 2020. 

But the participating countries — including the US — have yet to fulfill this promise, largely because many have yet to supply their fair share, an amount based on the size of their economies and the historic role they played in the climate crisis. An analysis by the Overseas Development Institute found that the US should be providing $43 billion annually in climate financing to low-income countries, but currently offers only an average of $1.85 billion a year. 

Biden has an opportunity to close the gap between expectations and reality by committing to providing the fair share amount. Doing so would set an example for other wealthy countries around the world that are failing to live up to their pledges, while setting the foundation for much more robust climate financing that can scale with the escalating effects of rising global temperatures. 

2. Renegotiate Build Back Better

Build Back Better was supposed to be Biden’s chief legislative victory last year, signaling a turning point in both the country’s approach to the pandemic, poverty, and the climate crisis. But the bill was stymied by opponents and it never secured enough support to make it to the president’s desk. 

In its latest iteration, the Build Back Better bill contained $555 billion for climate action, which would be the largest such investment in US history. Among other things, the bill prioritized the development and deployment of clean energy technologies and infrastructure and climate adaptation measures. 

Leading up to the midterm elections, Biden has an opportunity to kickstart renegotiations on the bill, putting the full force of his team behind its passage. 

3. Get the Budget Passed

The federal government is still using a budget that was passed under former President Donald Trump. That’s because Congress has yet to approve Biden’s budget and is locked in a pattern of temporarily extending the previous budget — a process known as “continuing resolutions.” 

This unusual process won’t go on forever and the sooner Biden's budget for this year can be approved, the sooner financing for climate priorities can be released. 

In fact, the proposed budget for this year includes $36 billion in funding for climate programs, including the first-ever direct funding for the Green Climate Fund. The budget also features funding for renewable energy, energy efficiency measures, environmental justice within communities, and pollution clean-up efforts.   

4. Prepare the New Budget 

The Biden administration needs to get a headstart on the federal budget for 2023 to ensure that it can muster enough congressional support to pass in the months ahead. In particular, the administration needs to focus on climate action. 

The US is currently far behind where it needs to be in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation, and future budget proposals can help to fill existing financing gaps both domestically and internationally. More money needs to go toward helping communities adapt to climate change, transitioning infrastructure beyond fossil fuels, and restoring and conserving ecosystems that act as carbon sinks. 

5. Champion Climate Action During a Dedicated Address

On the one hand, the State of the Union is just a speech, a collection of words that don’t always translate into action. On the other hand, it’s an occasion to frame the national discourse around important issues, inform the public, and rally support for legislative priorities.

Since Biden missed an opportunity to adequately discuss the climate crisis during his annual address, he should plan an alternate address or town hall dedicated to the climate crisis, drawing on the latest science from the IPCC report

Biden can use this national address to showcase the frontline communities facing the brunt of environmental impacts, draw attention to the scientists, advocates, and community organizers who are leading the way to protect the planet, and make a persuasive case for why investing in climate action is in the best interest of all.

After all, a truly just transition means an end to poverty and hunger, clean water and air for all, and a stable climate that can host future generations for centuries to come. 


Defend the Planet

5 Ways President Biden Needs to 'Look Up' to Confront the Climate Crisis

By Joe McCarthy