Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, huddled with a group of top climate activists in Washington on Monday to reassure them of the Biden administration’s mettle in the fight against a warming planet.
With a week to go before the COP26 summit in Glasgow, and in the middle of tense negotiations with lawmakers to pass emissions-cutting legislation through Congress, Harris suggested America would no longer bring half-measures to the global stage.
“We cannot afford . . . to be incremental. We cannot afford to be patient,” she told the group, which included Tom Steyer, the billionaire financier and former Democratic presidential contender.
The battle against the climate crisis was a leitmotif of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign and a constant focus of his administration since taking office in January. This marked a sharp U-turn from Donald Trump’s time in the White House, but also an uptick in attention on the problem compared to Democratic predecessors including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, as it emerged as an increasingly salient issue for many voters.
Yet even so, Biden will be heading to Scotland — and before then, this weekend’s G20 in Rome — facing questions about his ability to enact meaningful change in climate policy in the world’s largest economy.
If it is approved, the White House’s flagship spending package — worth up to $2tn — is expected to include more than $500bn in climate measures, including an array of clean-energy tax credits.
But some of the most aggressive steps, such as a scheme called the Clean Electricity Performance Program that would force power companies away from fossil fuels, are likely to be stripped out after opposition from lawmakers including Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator of West Virginia.
A carbon tax has been periodically floated in the negotiations but was also ruled out. Some analysts say this would make it much harder for the US to meet its own goal of halving its 2005 greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2030.
Sanjay Patnaik, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a fellow for the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy at Johns Hopkins University, said it was very unlikely that “only carrots, without a stick” would succeed in cutting US emissions sufficiently.
“International partners are going to look and say: ‘Okay, it’s great that Americans are back at least at the negotiating table, they are trying diplomatically to take a leading role. But . . . why should I reduce emissions if the US is not willing to seriously reduce emissions?’” he added.
Some climate experts say the transformation in Washington’s approach under Biden should not be underestimated. Aside from re-entering the Paris climate accord, his administration has signed on to a global deal to reduce methane emissions, designated climate change a “systemic risk” to the US financial system, and labelled it a threat to national security and global stability.
“With every IPCC [Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change] report that comes out, we are hearing that we have almost no time left to really address the climate crisis. And the Biden administration is taking that to heart,” said Anne Christianson, director of international climate policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank.
Still, in recent days Democrats have been scrambling to bolster the bill’s climate provisions before the president arrives in Glasgow. “Especially in light of not having something like the CEPP, it’s essential that we really lock in and solidify the tax credit portion of this, because that is going to be one of the most important pieces of this entire puzzle,” said Lindsey Walter, deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at think-tank Third Way.
Environmentalists are also pushing policymakers to find an alternative to the CEPP that would be acceptable to moderates. After proposals to put a price on carbon were shot down, the focus has shifted to a system of grants for states to support efforts to go green.
Democratic lawmakers are turning up the pressure as well, amid fears of a repeat of the experience of the first two years of Obama’s administration, when climate legislation was blocked by the Senate after passing the House. No Republicans are expected to back Biden’s bill.
“If the US doesn’t have a strong commitment to carbon reduction in this legislation, we’re not only weakening our position in these climate negotiations, we’re weakening the entire opportunity to reduce carbon for the entire planet,” Melanie Stansbury, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from New Mexico, told the Financial Times.
She added: “I don’t think that the problem is a lack of grassroots political action by Americans, I think the problem is a lack of willingness by politicians to be brave in policymaking and do what they know is right.”
Sean Casten, a House Democrat from Illinois, said he would like to see the US in a “position of leadership” in Glasgow.
“If we pass [strong climate legislation] we are in a position to set the tone for COP26,” he told the FT. “If not, we are basically ceding that leadership role to the Chinese, and I don’t want to do that.”
Without any action by Congress, the US is on track to achieve a reduction of 17 to 25 per cent in emissions by the end of the decade. But a report released last week by the Rhodium Group suggested that the 2030 target could still be within reach without the CEPP, provided the tax credits were pushed through and accompanied by new measures taken by federal agencies, states and companies.
Even so, in Glasgow Biden will be unable to pledge what the world may be wanting to hear most: that climate legislation is gaining bipartisan support in the US and won’t be undone.
“I think one problem with US policy has been its unpredictability,” said Patnaik at the Brookings Institution. “We have these big pendulum swings between Republican and Democratic administrations.”
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