Just a half-year into his presidency, Joe Biden’s ability to be the climate leader that the world desperately needs is hanging in the balance.
There was so much cause for optimism, when Mr. Biden defeated Donald Trump last year. Never had there been anyone in the White House with an environmental agenda nearly as ambitious as his, and as clear an intent to put climate change at the heart of his foreign policy.
His enthusiasm for that international role does not seem to have waned much. In the spring, he played host to a summit aimed at nudging allies and adversaries alike to raise their emissions-reduction commitments; his climate envoy, John Kerry, continues to globetrot with the same aim.
But heading into a landmark United Nations conference in Glasgow this November – perhaps the last best chance to collectively confront looming catastrophe, by keeping global warming to 1.5 to 2 C above preindustrial levels – Mr. Biden needs domestic progress to command enough respect to help bring other countries together in common purpose.
That means all eyes should be on Washington this summer, as the fate of two big legislative packages could determine Mr. Biden’s ability to apply peer pressure.
To date, his accomplishments on climate have mostly involved starting the process of restoring and strengthening environmental regulations – including for vehicle tailpipe emissions and industrial methane leaks – gutted by Mr. Trump. That’s valuable work (especially from a Canadian perspective, since this country synchronizes with its neighbour on some of those rules). But it’s not enough to really put the United States at the forefront globally, especially when other countries know the next Republican president could undo it again.
At the same time, Mr. Biden has no intention of implementing carbon pricing. That’s understandable, given the unlikelihood of getting it through the U.S. Congress. But it places Washington outside the growing international movement in that direction, including even in China. Not to mention it has put Mr. Biden’s administration in the awkward position of trying to avoid Europe slapping U.S. exports with tariffs called carbon border adjustments, which are a key component of that continent’s sweeping new climate plan.
Where Mr. Biden still has great opportunity to demonstrate leadership is by using Washington’s financial clout to aggressively subsidize the U.S. transition to clean energy. And that’s where the pair of Senate bills currently in the works has become so crucial.
The first is the bipartisan US$1.2-trillion infrastructure plan (about half of it new spending) announced in June. It’s not primarily a green package, with the bulk of its proposed measures unrelated to emissions reduction, and some of them (such as new money for roads) arguably at odds with that aim. But it does include US$73-billion for energy infrastructure that should help with building a cleaner and more resilient electricity grid, along with money for climate-friendly investments such as electric-vehicle charging stations, electric bus purchases and cleanup of abandoned oil and gas wells.
As the product of a framework agreement between a group of Democratic and Republican senators, that bill could demonstrate some mild ability to reach consensus on climate-related policy. But it’s still far from a sure thing that it will get enough Republican support for the 60 votes needed for it to actually make it through the Senate, where the Democrats effectively account for 51 votes. If it dies or is heavily watered down, it could reinforce to the rest of the world that Washington is too polarized for any reliable progress on sustainability.
The real meat of Mr. Biden’s climate agenda, though, is in the other legislation that’s in the works: a US$3.5-trillion package that the Democrats hope to pass through Congress’s budget reconciliation progress, which (because it needs only a bare majority) might not require any Republican support at all.
That won’t be purely a green bill either, with lots of other big-ticket items the President campaigned on last year, such as child care and Medicare expansion. But it will include unprecedented sums toward emissions-reductions goals – especially Mr. Biden’s ambitious pledge to decarbonize the U.S. electricity grid, which still relies heavily on coal and other fossil fuels, by 2035.
It’s also expected to include climate policy levers ranging from clean-technology tax credits and procurement strategies to the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps. The bill may also include a U.S. version of the climate tariffs that Europe is moving toward, although it’s unclear how exactly that would work absent domestic carbon pricing.
But none of this will likely come to pass unless every single Democratic senator supports it, and that seems no more certain than enough Republicans backing the other bill. Already, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – who has become something of a household name as an intraparty obstacle to Mr. Biden’s agenda – has expressed concern about the impact on the fossil-fuel industry.
So Mr. Biden’s deal-making skills, part of his billing as he sought the presidency, are about to be put to a huge test.
The stakes are not just cutting his own country’s pollution – although that’s not to be underplayed, given the U.S. accounts for about 14 per cent of annual global emissions, second only to (and much higher per capita than) China.
There is also potential for big U.S. governmental spending on emissions reduction to drive advances in clean technologies, and lower the costs of existing ones, in ways that could spur uptake elsewhere. And the political and moral weight of the White House could encourage other countries to raise their game, rather than allowing less powerful countries to point to the Americans’ failure to get off fossil fuels as justification for their own.
Mr. Biden has already returned the U.S. to a constructive role in global climate negotiations, instead of the destructive one it played under Mr. Trump. And if current legislative plans fall short, his administration will likely find some other ways to advance its green priorities.
But small, gradual steps in the right direction aren’t enough; not any more. It’s little more than four months until the world’s leaders will come together to chart a course away from catastrophe. It would sure help to have a U.S. president able to credibly point the way.