To say that President Biden has not approached the climate crisis during his time in the White House would be a misconception. In fact, he has almost certainly already left more of a footprint on it than any president before him — although this is perhaps not saying much.
Whilst Biden placed climate at the center of his agenda in his run for the presidency in 2020, it has taken somewhat of a backseat during an unsettled first year in office. Now, with less than a month until COP26, a lack of concrete progress in climate action policy from the world’s second largest emitter, and debatably its most influential diplomatic state, raises questions over whether other nations could use its shortcomings as a factor in negotiating against new, expensive commitments — and whether the US will have much leverage to push them.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric coming from the White House is certainly one of an administration with climate action ambitions, and it would be unfair to say Biden has not made any headway.
After sending a message of intent by rejoining the United States into the Paris Climate Agreement within hours of being sworn into office in January, the president has signed into law several climate action measures, including a plan to rapidly phase out destructive hydrofluorocarbons, one of the world’s most destructive greenhouse gases, whilst also reintroducing numerous environmental regulations rolled back under his predecessor Donald Trump.
The White House recently unveiled its “Roadmap to Build a Climate-Resilient Economy” program to protect the US financial system from climate-related risks, whilst plans to dramatically shift American industry away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy show a resolve to influence climate policy long after his tenure as president is over.
In fact, one can find ambitious targets for the future throughout the Biden administration’s climate platform. From 80% renewable energy in the US power sector by 2030 and a complete phase out of fossil fuels in electricity production by 2035, to raised emissions reduction targets to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030 that double those of the Obama administration, many of Biden’s future climate goals are policies that could be presented following the COP26 summit.
However, whilst certainly steps in the right direction, many of these actions taken by the White House could be seen to be more of a combination of ambitious rhetoric and potential progress than cemented action. As more indigent nations take a look at their own climate commitments at the Glasgow summit, an underwhelming platform from the United States could have a frustrating influence on the negotiations.
.@GretaThunberg says success at the upcoming #COP26 would be possible only if world leaders honestly admit that their action is not living up to their words https://t.co/lWKmS7pDkd pic.twitter.com/f2kRe6Y9Dh
— Reuters (@Reuters) October 12, 2021
There is still a chance that the US delegation could head into the conference with a climate win on its back — if the president’s currently stalled infrastructure agenda finds its way through Congress over the next month.
Climate was originally intended to be front-and-center of Biden’s domestic policy plans this year, a central pillar of a “human infrastructure” bill made up of a broad swath of policies impacting everything from healthcare to internet accessibility.
The legislation could have cost up to $3.5 trillion, but warring demands from progressive and moderate factions of the Democratic party are holding up its passage alongside progress on a smaller, $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to upgrade America’s outmoded roads, bridges and interstate railways.
Following a difficult summer that has taken its toll on Biden’s approval ratings as well as Democratic hopes of keeping control of Congress in next year’s midterms, there are ominous signs that climate policy may be left on the cutting room floor as the president looks to pass his domestic agenda by any means necessary.
Included in the original plans for the $3.5 trillion legislation is the procurement of billions to install 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, unprecedented investments into renewable energy sources including wind and solar power, and provisions to reduce methane gas production.
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However, as negotiations continue on both bills, a variety of factors could see the final package take several different forms before it has enough support to pass through the Democrat’s most fragile of majorities.
One of the primary threats to climate action’s position in the agenda is Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia moderate who has consistently stated that he has reservations over voting for the vast cost of the plans.
With not a single Republican expected to lend their support to the larger bill, gaining Manchin’s vote is a vital step for Democrats to pass the legislation. Chief among his concerns is the impact that climate policy could have upon fossil-fuel reliant states such as his own, an issue compounded by his chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a position that provides him with considerable influence over the Democratic Party’s energy policy platform.
According to a report by the New York Times, Manchin’s impact upon climate provisions in the agenda has also seen the implementation of a “clean energy standard” dropped from the president’s plans — a gut punch to environmental groups who see it as a vital measure in the fight against climate change.
A potentially potent tool in Biden’s fight to implement renewable energy in the nation, a report released earlier this year from researchers from Harvard University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Syracuse University, suggests that the clean energy standard, which promotes renewable energy application through a range of incentives and penalties, would have provided the most effective net benefit in terms of cost and lives saved for Biden’s ambitious renewable energy targets.
The White House had hoped to include it as a major aspect of its infrastructure agenda, but fervent opposition from Manchin has seen the White House reportedly rewrite its legislation without the provision to gain his support — despite the report claiming that reaching Biden’s target of 80% renewable energy by 2030 would save upwards of 300,000 lives over the next thirty years.
The clean energy standard that was supposed to form the main vehicle for cutting U.S. carbon emissions is reportedly getting axed from the big budget bill because Sen. Joe Manchin, whose family wealth comes from coal, opposes it. Dire ahead of COP26.https://t.co/JowgwuyFzZ
— Alexander Kaufman (@AlexCKaufman) October 16, 2021
There are a lot of moving parts to the status of Biden’s infrastructure agenda, but the significance of it to America’s climate credentials heading into the COP26 should not be overshadowed by its importance to the president’s legacy or the overt public brinkmanship currently underway in the cliquish Democratic party.
For what it’s worth, Biden has made his position on the importance of climate change clear, a message evident throughout the summer as he utilised tours of areas hit by extreme weather events to present his domestic agenda as a solution to underperforming US climate policy.
Whilst on the wildfire-hit west coast, Biden stated that “we’re gonna get this done, this nation’s gonna come together and we are going to beat this climate change,” adding that they “have to think big. Thinking small is a prescription for disaster”.
This was a message that he echoed in visits to areas hit by Hurricane Ida, where he told residents of New York that climate change was now “everybody’s crisis,” but “we can stop it from getting worse.”
Whilst the potential for a multi-trillion-dollar, landmark infrastructure package would certainly provide a boost to the United States heading into the COP26, it is not yet a reality.
Nevertheless, the White House laid the groundwork for increased global cooperation earlier this year by committing to double America’s financial climate aid assistance to developing nations, part of a wider pledge by the world’s richest nations to commit $100 billion a year to help cut emissions production and tackle the effects of extreme weather events.
A unifying narrative has also been consistently touted by one of the conference’s most vital diplomats, US Climate Envoy John Kerry, as his delegation gears up to take a leading role in the UN negotiations.
In an interview with the Guardian this week, Kerry attempted to signal that the Biden administration’s climate ambitions show an intent to the rest of the world that he hoped “can encourage other countries” ahead of the Glasgow summit.
The Secretary of State during the Paris Agreement negotiations in 2015, Kerry has also said that he anticipates “surprising announcements” to come out of the conference, adding that “the measure of success at Glasgow is we will have the largest, most significant increase in ambition [on cutting emissions] by more countries than everyone ever imagined possible. A much larger group of people are stepping up. I know certain countries are working hard right now on what they can achieve.”
With scientists frequently and desperately warning of the consequences of failing to meet the targets set at the Paris Climate Agreement, there is no shortage of pressure on the COP26 negotiations.
Keeping global temperature rises within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels is one of the primary challenges facing current climate talks, and studies have shown that the commitments made at the 2015 summit fall short of the necessary levels and that they could in fact lead to upwards of 3 degrees of global heating.
Furthermore, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) annual Emissions Gap Report in 2020, since the Paris Agreement was signed global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb by 1.3% per year on average.
At the time, nations agreed to revisit their climate commitments, known as nationally determined contributions (NDC’s), every five years, with this year’s conference intended to set the stage for these renewed global ambitions.
America, as well as several other major states including the EU and the UK, have already committed to new NDC’s since 2015, but Kerry has acknowledged that actions must be furthered still, maintaining that “Glasgow has to show strong commitment to keeping 1.5C in reach… if we have some more countries stepping up in the next weeks, we have something to build on.”
However, it is one thing to promote an optimistic tone ahead of key negotiations, and another for those negotiations to produce results when the time comes.
Whether the United States will be able to come into the summit as a nation with a credible stance to push other nations to increase their efforts largely remains to be seen as Biden’s final agenda takes shape, a factor that could be compounded by the fact that the only nation to produce more global emissions, China, has made no new NDC submissions — and may not even be represented by their leader at the negotiations.
President Xi, who has not travelled outside of China since the start of the pandemic, is yet to confirm whether he will join his fellow world leaders in Glasgow.
With the head of the world’s largest emissions producer potentially not present for the talks, and nations such as Brazil showing no signs of slowing down their deforestation campaign and the United Kingdom still opening new offshore oil fields against fervent public opposition, heading the conference may well fall on the United States. To lead the negotiations, however, America must cement its commitment to the cause in more than just rhetoric, following through on its promises with action, and lead the developed world into a new, fossil fuel-less era.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: The White House, Washington DC. Featured Photo Credit: Tom Lodhan, Flickr .