President Joe Biden’s ambitions to lead the world in slowing the planet’s warming will be tested on two continents this week as he travels to Scotland for the most important climate talks in years, while back home lawmakers come closer to making his visions a reality.
It is a pivotal moment, not only for the President but for a world with little time to spare in resolving a climate crisis that is right now wreaking havoc.
Already, Biden has been hampered somewhat by infighting among Democrats and entrenched fossil fuel interests, which have forced him to scale back some of the most audacious aspects of his climate agenda. Deep differences between world leaders also persist over money, national interests and responsibility.
Still, Biden is entering the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, with a message of urgency and what he hopes is a convincing-enough plan to make good on his promise to cut US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. He arrived Monday morning and the White House stated that he stands to make a “personal commitment” to fighting climate change when he speaks later in the day.
The proposals currently pending in Congress, which Biden said Sunday he believes could pass this week, reflect historic investments in cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. And on the day before the summit began, leaders at the Group of 20 in Rome endorsed a commitment to keep the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a symbolic gesture that nonetheless represents progress.
Biden’s challenge this week is convincing fellow leaders that the United States will remain committed to the cause, and to cajole them to do more themselves.
“We think this is the decisive decade, the decade of decision, the decade of action. And it is critical that countries lay out long term plans,” said John Kerry, the US envoy for climate change, on the eve of the summit.
Biden’s team has put together a Glasgow show-of-force that will include Cabinet members, four dozen members of Congress and even former President Barack Obama. While it’s important for appearances, officials say, it’s also explicitly designed to underscore that message — and the view within Biden’s team that it’s a moment when the US must not only demonstrate its own aggressive commitments and actions but leverage those to lead.
Goals for Glasgow
Kerry laid out four main goals for the United States at the Scotland talks: raising global ambition on containing a rise in temperatures; getting countries to commit to taking action this decade; driving ahead on finance and adaptation efforts to vulnerable communities; and completing negotiations on implementation guidelines for the Paris Climate accord.
Biden will be carrying with him significant private sector commitments designed to bolster his pitch, as well as the willingness to aid smaller countries with the financing and technical expertise they may lack.
Biden had once hoped to arrive in Glasgow having passed a signature spending package containing the biggest-ever US investment in combatting climate change, a signal to the world he was serious about reducing greenhouse gasses. He fell short of that, announcing only a framework plan in the hours before he departed for Europe last week. The bills have yet to be voted upon as Democrats continue haggling over the timing.
It’s just the latest example global players can point to as reason for skepticism after more than three decades of watching the US leadership pendulum swing back and forth on an increasingly urgent and dire issue.
Still, it appears likely the sweeping social legislation will pass eventually, perhaps as soon as this week. And even as the bill was stripped of major liberal priorities and shrank from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion, it retained the originally imagined $555 billion in climate and clean energy provisions, the largest single legislative investment on climate in American history.
“As the President said, it’s a darn big deal. I agree with him, only I would say it’s a damn big deal,” said Gina McCarthy, the President’s national climate adviser.
One eye on Washington
It doesn’t include a cornerstone clean electricity program, which was removed after Sen. Joe Manchin balked.
Manchin represents coal-rich West Virginia and has close ties to the industry. But it does contain $320 billion in clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits, a 300,000-person National Climate Corps and a “green bank” program meant to provide lending for clean energy projects.
Biden’s failure to arrive in Glasgow with a legislative deal in hand has been downplayed by officials as having little effect on the views of the leaders at the summit itself, seemingly ignoring Biden’s own private message to lawmakers in the Oval Office that “the prestige” of the country was on the line.
Former US Climate Envoy Todd Stern, who served in the Obama administration, told CNN the US is going “into Glasgow in pretty strong position with a very good goal” and the package is “legitimately, by far, the biggest climate change bill ever.”
“I think you can look at this package and say, ‘this puts us well on the path; it might not quite guarantee it,'” Stern said.
But some key senators have not explicitly backed the bill — meaning there still could be some last-minute tweaks. Democratic climate hawks are prioritizing keeping all $555 billion in climate provisions from being whittled down, rather than pushing for new provisions to be added.
Still, for all the domestic political discussion about what the framework Biden laid out means or doesn’t mean, officials still see it as concrete evidence of the US climate commitment. Gone is an amorphous, if ambitious, proposal still being reshaped and chipped away by lawmakers. In its place are clear, black-and-white details of the most significant climate action in American history.
The $555 billion makes it the largest element of Biden’s entire proposal, something the President cited multiple times behind closed doors in Rome as a clear, tangible example of both US leadership and resolve in the lead up to Glasgow, two officials said.
Still, world leaders may be forgiven for appearing skeptical. After Barack Obama made combatting change a priority during his administration, Donald Trump reversed course, withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and rolling back regulations on tailpipe emissions, power plants and more. And world leaders still remember the Kyoto Protocol, which the US refused to ratify.
Biden hopes for more durable climate commitments as part of the new spending plan but is still relying on the rule-making process for other items like cutting methane emissions.
In addition to Biden’s legislative climate agenda, his administration is also expected to soon roll out a number of executive actions and federal regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas producers and power plants.
The administration is putting a significant emphasis on slashing methane emissions both at home and abroad, in hopes it will help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists say the world should stay below to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
In addition to forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency rules on methane, the Biden administration, in partnership with the European Union, is also asking countries to sign on to a Global Methane Pledge to slash methane emissions by 30% by the end of the decade.
While Biden will only attend the first two days of COP26 in Glasgow, his top climate officials will be there for longer. Kerry, the lead US climate negotiator in international talks, will attend the entire two-week summit. And McCarthy will attend for six days. McCarthy could deliver remarks during Glasgow on the White House’s broader climate strategy, which was released Monday, to get the US to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Energy crisis causes messaging complications
The challenges in shifting to renewable energy have been on display this week at the G20 where Biden has been encouraging energy-producing nations to increase supply as gas prices rise in the United States.
Officials said the request was a short-term one, and that Biden was not shrinking from his commitment to transition the country toward green energy.
“It you were asking them to boost their production over five years, I’d quit,” said Kerry. “But he’s not.”
The G20 this week provided another display of incremental ambitions. While the leaders collectively endorsed for the first time the need to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, they did not specify how they would achieve it.
And while they committed to ending international financing for coal projects, they made no mention of ending domestic coal usage.
“If the G20 was a dress rehearsal for COP26, then world leaders fluffed their lines,” Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, said in a statement. “Their communique was weak, lacking both ambition and vision, and simply failed to meet the moment.”
Key G20 participants also gave an unflinching warning about failure to secure more in the days ahead.
“If we don’t act now, the Paris Agreement will be looked at in the future, not as the moment that humanity opened its eyes to the problem but the moment we flinched and turned away,” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters before he departed Rome.
For his part, Biden voiced enthusiasm at the G20 outcomes but said it would be up to nations to deliver on their promises.
“The proof of the pudding will be eating,” he said. “I think you’re gonna see we’ve made significant progress and more has to be done, but it’s gonna require us to continue to focus on what China’s not doing, what Russia is not doing, what Saudi Arabia is not doing.”
In Glasgow, like in Rome, key players like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be absent. Kerry in particular has pushed to engage those countries, despite their deteriorating relations with Washington, believing climate is an area where even adversaries must cooperate.
Biden said Sunday he was disappointed that major polluters like China and Russia aren’t showing up at this week’s international summits.
“The disappointment relates to the fact that Russia — not only Russia but China — basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change. And there’s a reason why people should be disappointed in that,” Biden said at a press conference as the G20 summit concluded in Rome.
While there isn’t a uniform view inside the administration about China’s intentions, there generally remains tangible skepticism about Beijing’s willingness — or ability — to produce the action necessary to meet the commitments viewed at this point as a necessity. The pledges China submitted ahead of the summit, which match but don’t advance its 2020 targets, only served to underscore that reality, one US official said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence from both the G20 and the Glasgow summits has been framed by some officials as a clear opportunity for the US.
Administration officials have been planning to utilize the absence of the Chinese to push a nascent financing program Biden and his team view as critical to challenging China’s rising influence. The Build Back Better World initiative pales in comparison to the size and scale of the China’s Belt and Road.
But when announced at June’s G7, it was presented as a clear alternative option for less developed countries — one that would be driven by higher standards on both the labor and climate.
“Is it ideal? No.” the US official said of effect Xi’s absence would have on the outcome of the summit. “But is it an opportunity? Absolutely.”
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