GLASGOW, Scotland — U.S. President Joe Biden will walk into a riverside event space Monday to try to convince a gathering of world leaders that the United States, which has pumped more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation, is finally serious about addressing climate change and that others should follow its lead.
But Biden is coming with a weaker hand than he had hoped.
He has been forced to abandon the most powerful mechanism in his climate agenda: a program that would have quickly cleaned up the electricity sector by rewarding power companies that migrated away from fossil fuels and penalizing those that did not. His fallback strategy is a bill that would provide $555 billion in clean energy tax credits and incentives. It would be the largest amount ever spent by the United States to tackle global warming but would cut only about half as much pollution.
And that proposal is still pending; Biden was unable to bridge divisions between progressives and moderates in his own party to cement a deal before leaving for Glasgow. If the legislation passes, he hopes to pair it with new environmental regulations, although they have yet to be completed and could be undone by a future president.
The president traveled to Glasgow from Rome, where the world’s 20 largest economies met and decided Sunday that they would no longer finance new coal operations overseas.
But they failed to agree to set a date for ending the use of the dirtiest fossil fuel at home, with China, India and Australia especially resistant. And that did not bode well for significant progress at the climate talks in Glasgow.
The leaders of the wealthy nations did say they were committed to the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the dangers of global warming grow immensely. But the world is on track to heat up 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, and the Group of 20 leaders were unable to agree on concrete steps to change that.
Biden has made climate action a central theme of his presidency, winning praise from diplomats and other leaders, who expressed relief after former President Donald Trump had scoffed at climate science and had withdrawn the United States from global efforts to address the crisis.
But they remain skeptical, having seen other American presidents promise ambitious action to confront climate change, only to fall short.
“Every country has its own challenging legislation process, but ultimately what matters is the outcome,” said Lia Nicholson, a senior adviser to the Alliance of Small Island States, a bloc of vulnerable island nations.
If Biden lacks a reliable plan for the United States to significantly cut its emissions this decade, it would “send a signal” to other major emitters that America is still not serious, she said. And it would be difficult for Biden to urge other countries to take more meaningful steps away from fossil fuels, others said.
“Some of these countries are saying, ‘Oh, yeah, but look at what you did guys, and now you’re coming back and demanding after you were away for the past four years?’” said Andrea Meza, environment and energy minister of Costa Rica.
Tensions were already running high before the summit. China, currently the world’s top emitter, announced a new target on Thursday that was supposed to be a more ambitious plan to curb its pollution but is virtually indistinguishable from what it promised six years ago. President Xi Jinping has indicated he will not attend the summit in person, as have presidents of two other top polluting nations, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
Democrats close to Biden said he is painfully aware that the credibility of the United States is on the line in Glasgow, particularly after a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer and a dust-up with France over a military submarine contract.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., recently met with Biden to discuss how to salvage Biden’s legislative climate agenda.
“He indicated that many world leaders like Putin and Xi are questioning the capability of American democracy to deliver, so we need to show them that we can govern,” Khanna said.
Biden, who is accompanied in Glasgow by 13 Cabinet members, insists they have a story of success to tell, starting with his decision on his first day on the job to rejoin the 2015 Paris Agreement, an accord of nearly 200 countries to fight climate change, from which Trump had withdrawn the United States.
Since then, Biden has taken several steps to cut emissions, including restoring and slightly strengthening auto pollution regulations to levels that existed under President Barack Obama but were weakened by Trump. He has taken initial steps to allow the development of large-scale wind farms along nearly the entire coastline of the United States, and last month finalized regulations to curb the production and use of potent planet-warming chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in air conditioners and refrigerators.)Biden is likely to emphasize the $555 billion that he wants Congress to approve as part of a huge spending bill. The climate provisions would promote wind and solar power, electric vehicles, climate-friendly agriculture and forestry programs, and a host of other clean energy programs. Together, those programs could cut the United States’ emissions up to a quarter from 2005 levels by 2030, analysts say.
That’s about halfway to Biden’s goal of cutting the country’s emissions 50% to 52% below 2005 levels. “We go in with a fact pattern that is pretty remarkable, as well as real momentum,” Ali Zaidi, deputy White House national climate adviser, told reporters.
Biden plans to release tough new auto pollution rules designed to compel American automakers to ramp up sales of electric vehicles so that half of all new cars sold in the United States are electric by 2030, up from just 2% this year. His top appointees have also promised new restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants. And earlier this year, Biden administration officials said they would roll out a draft rule by September to regulate emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming gas that leaks from existing oil and natural gas wells.
So far, the administration has not offered drafts of any of those rules. Several administration sources said that delay has been due in part to staff shortages, as well as an effort not to upset any lawmakers before they vote on Biden’s legislative agenda.
But time is running out. It can take years to complete work on such complex and controversial government policies, and several are likely to face legal challenges. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, said it would review the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, potentially complicating Biden’s plans.
The U.S. track record
For three decades, American politics have complicated global climate efforts.
Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, joined the first global effort to tackle climate change, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. His Republican successor, President George W. Bush, renounced the treaty. Obama, another Democrat, joined the 2015 Paris Agreement and rolled out dozens of executive orders to help meet his promises to cut emissions. His Republican successor, Trump, abandoned the accord, repealed more than 100 of Obama’s regulations and took steps to expand fossil fuel drilling and mining.
Biden is facing similar resistance. No Republicans in Congress back his current climate effort. Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the House science committee, said the international community should be skeptical of the Biden administration’s promises. “I think they’ll roll their eyes just as people will continue to do in the United States,” Lucas said.. Biden has also struggled to win over two pivotal players within his own party. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has been steadfastly opposed to a central feature of Biden’s climate plan: a program that would have rapidly compelled power plants to switch from burning coal, oil and gas to using wind, solar and other clean energy. Manchin’s state is a top coal and gas producer, and he has personal financial ties to the coal industry. He was able to kill the provision. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has also withheld her support, saying she wants a more modest spending bill.
Environmental leaders said America’s past inconsistency on climate action makes it more important for Biden to succeed now.
“The U.S. has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the climate table and has slowed down action that was needed to tackle the climate crisis,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi-based environmental think tank. “That is the legacy Biden has to deal with.”
What’s at stake
Average global temperatures have already risen about 1.1 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels, locking in an immediate future of rising seas, destructive storms and floods, ferocious fires and more severe drought and heat.
At least 85% of the planet’s population has already begun to experience the effects of climate change, according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change. This past summer alone, more than 150 people died in violent flooding in Germany and Belgium. In central China, the worst flooding on record displaced 250,000 people. In Siberia, summer temperatures reached as high as 100 degrees, feeding enormous blazes that thawed what was once permanently frozen ground.
“Clearly, we are in a climate emergency. Clearly, we need to address it,” Patricia Espinosa, head of the United Nations climate agency, said Sunday as she welcomed delegates to Glasgow. “Clearly, we need to support the most vulnerable to cope. To do so successfully, greater ambition is now critical.”
If the planet heats even a half-degree more, it could lead to water and food shortages, mass extinctions of plants and animals, and more deadly heat and storms, scientists say.
Sara Noordeen is the chief climate envoy for the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Most of the country comprises coral islands that sit only about 3 feet above sea level. Rising seas as a result of climate change mean the Maldives, which has been inhabited for thousands of years, could be submerged within a few generations.
Biden’s election has brought “a lot of hope” to countries such as hers, Noordeen said. But, she added, “he needs that legislation to go through as well.”