Global Affairs

Biden pitched a bold climate vision. He may be watching it die in Congress.

Globally the Covid pandemic is on track to be worse this year than in 2020 — and world health leaders are calling on wealthy nations to step up their game. Plus, more on tax hikes and sanctions on Belarus.

Nobody doubts that Biden ideally wants an infrastructure bill with full funding for his climate priorities. What climate advocates fear is that he’ll settle for an infrastructure bill without it, or perhaps end up with no bill after wasting months in the futile pursuit of bipartisanship. The White House is in a tricky position because Manchin has demanded a genuine effort to attract Republican support, and Democrats can’t pass anything without Manchin on board.

But Democrats could lose control of the Senate if a single senator gets sick or dies, so environmentalists who have watched Congress spend $6 trillion on Covid relief bills without addressing climate would like to see a bit more urgency to address it now. They weren’t happy when Biden stripped out the American Jobs Plan’s investments in clean energy research in a counteroffer to Capito, and they’re anxious about what could be stripped out next.

The more confrontational elements of the climate left are in public freakout mode. The youth-oriented Sunrise Movement, which gave Biden’s initial climate plan an F-minus grade during the Democratic primary but praised his initial infrastructure plan for its climate ambition, protested his negotiations with Capito and other Republicans outside the White House last week. Sunrise executive director Varshini Prakash warned on Tuesday that “anything less than a robust jobs and climate package is a death sentence for our generation.”

Mainstream environmentalists have tried to be more sensitive to the tightrope Biden is walking, but they’re nervous, too. As much as they’re enjoying Biden’s efforts to reverse Trump’s environmental rollbacks and advance clean energy through executive action, their top priority is a far-reaching climate bill. They’re glad Biden took a spin in the new electric Ford F-150 Lightning, and they appreciate his executive order promoting wind farms off the California coast, but they really want him to sign a law putting big money into electric vehicles to transform transportation and creating a clean electricity standard to transform the grid.

“Look, no one ever thought this would be easy,” said Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, an influential group formed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s former climate aides. “But we’ve got to get this done if we’re serious about meeting the commitments we just made to the international community, and right now is make-or-break time.”

Global carbon emissions dropped about 6 percent last year because Covid shut down so much economic activity, but that just means the rate at which the earth is warming temporarily slowed a bit. The International Energy Agency just warned that creating a net-zero energy sector by 2050, a key goal of the Paris climate accord, will require radical changes: no new oil and gas exploration, no new coal plants that can’t capture their carbon, no more sales of fossil-fueled boilers after 2025 and no more sales of internal combustion engines after 2035.

Biden’s infrastructure plan embraced some of that radicalism; its clean electricity standard would require 80 percent reductions in electricity emissions by 2030, which would essentially shut down the U.S. coal industry and shut off growth in the natural gas industry. But it was largely compatible with Biden’s eagerness for bipartisanship, since many Republican lawmakers reject the scientific consensus that human activities are broiling the planet, while others reject the need for an expensive and heavy-handed government response.

Rich Powell, director of ClearPath Action, a group of conservatives who support climate action, said issues like carbon capture, battery storage and transmission all had bipartisan support, but not a trillion-dollar effort to decarbonize the U.S. economy in one fell swoop. He pointed to last week’s announcement of a new zero-emissions advanced nuclear project, featuring Secretary Granholm along with leading Wyoming Republicans, as the kind of bipartisan work that Republicans might agree to accelerate. He criticized Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas drilling on public lands, his rejection of the Keystone pipeline and a recent White House report on the environmental justice impacts of power plants, as the kind of ideological climate advocacy that could alienate Republicans and doom the American Jobs Plan.

“There’s risk in a go-it-alone partisan approach,” Powell said. “We’d strongly encourage folks to look at climate policy not as something that needs to be done all at once in this Congress, but something that should be done in every Congress so that we don’t have these wild swings in momentum. Unfortunately, climate change is a chronic condition for the planet.”

Zaidi, the deputy White House climate adviser, also mentioned several examples of Republican support for Biden’s climate priorities, including a government-backed “green bank” that would invest in clean energy, incentives that would reward farmers for cutting emissions and efforts to retool disaster aid programs to emphasize climate resilience. But that kind of talk makes many climate activists feel nauseous since it suggests that Biden isn’t just negotiating with Republicans because he wants to look magnanimous or humor Manchin, but because he genuinely believes Republicans might be willing to support a climate-friendly infrastructure bill.

Behind the scenes, White House officials have urged environmentalists to trust Biden and his long history of Washington sausage-making. They say he isn’t naive about the GOP under Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said that “100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.” And most environmentalists want to give him the benefit of the doubt after hearing him spout climate rhetoric they’ve waited for their entire careers.

But all the cheery deal talk is bringing back bad Democratic memories of 2009, when bipartisan support for President Barack Obama’s market-friendly climate bill never materialized, and the bill crashed and burned on the Hill.

“I’m an eternal optimist, and you have to be to work on these issues, but I’m haunted by 2009,” said Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters. “We can’t sit around waiting for Republicans. We have to go big, we have to go fast and we have to get this done.”

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