Biden’s Climate Message Blunted by Elusive Win on Spending Plans
By Elliott Davis
President Joe Biden addressed a momentous United Nations summit on Monday in stark terms about the need to urgently combat climate change.
“Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us, or will we condemn future generations to suffer?” Biden said during his national statement at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, officially called COP26.
The answers to his questions – at least from the U.S. perspective – will depend in part on the politics back home, where negotiations over his administration’s spending priorities continue to be fragile and to hold up what could be the biggest climate commitment in U.S. history. The $1.75 trillion framework, still being haggled over by both moderate and progressive Democrats, includes $555 billion budgeted for tackling climate change. More than half of that amount would cover clean energy tax credits, a proposal that Biden called out during his speech while emphasizing the need for “action, not words.”
The president had hoped for a clear-cut legislative victory that would have demonstrated American commitment and underscored his message that the United States is “back at the table.” But lingering disputes over policy and procedure still threaten to upend the plan and created an impression that Biden’s remarks, in some areas, could have been aimed at Washington as easily as the assembled world leaders.
“There’s no more time to hang back or sit on the fence or argue amongst ourselves,” he said. “This is a challenge of our collective lifetimes – the existential threat, threat to human existence as we know it. And every day we delay, the cost of inaction increases.”
Administration officials are maintaining optimism even as Biden has not been able to show the world a full agreement on his spending plan – or the passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that includes funding for climate-friendly programs – just yet.
Some of the biggest cuts so far from what was originally a $3.5 trillion budget proposal have not been on climate change-related policies. But some hopes have been scaled back. Biden’s proposal to both reward utilities that use clean energy sources and penalize those without them was met with opposition by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a major player in the negotiations as a moderate Democrat, according to The Associated Press. The program is not currently included in the Build Back Better framework.
“What we have found over the course of this weekend is that world leaders are a sophisticated bunch,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday. “They well understand that the legislative process takes time, legislative text needs finalizing, votes need to be cast. But there is a significant expectation that this can and will happen – and it can and will happen in the near term.”
Biden himself was also positive during a Sunday news conference in Rome.
“I believe we will pass my Build Back Better plan, and I believe we will pass the infrastructure bill,” he said. “It’s going to pass, in my view. But we’ll see. We’ll see.”
To some degree, the world seems to get it.
Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, says global leaders would prefer clarity on the United States’ climate plans and “that clarity comes in part from clean, ambitious sets of instruments from the infrastructure bill, Build Back Better.”
But, she says, people also understand the “intricacies” of the political process.
“There is an understanding that Biden went to Congress with the most ambitious package that we’ve seen in modern history and that that was appropriate to the size of the crisis,” she adds. “I think there is deep concern that climate is still such a polarized issue in the United States.”
Action on climate change does seem to have the backing – although not overwhelming support – of the American people. An AP-NORC/EPIC poll released last week showed that 55% of those surveyed “want Congress to pass a bill to ensure that more of the nation’s electricity comes from clean energy and less from climate-damaging coal and natural gas.” Only 16% oppose such a measure, with the overarching goal being a key component in the as-constructed framework.
“The U.S. is viewed as a leader because we’re a beacon of hope worldwide still,” says Paula DiPerna, a special adviser to CDP North America, a nonprofit that runs a global disclosure system on environmental impacts. “And yes, anything we do is important because we are a premier power, if you want to call it that.”
DiPerna adds that, while of course it would be “very difficult for anybody to claim victory on climate change” with such a long road ahead, she does think Biden can claim a “triumph of integration of thinking and operations” with his plan.
The president certainly stopped well short of claiming victory with his proposed actions during his speech at the U.N. summit Monday. But he did remind the world of America’s role in the fight, saying his framework carries “the most significant investments to deal with the climate crisis than any advanced nation has made, ever.”
“The United States is not only back at the table,” he said, “but hopefully leading by the power of our example.”
While the world is “obviously delighted” that the U.S. is back in the Paris Agreement, leaders are also “way past words” when it comes to climate change, Kyte adds.
“It isn’t that the world is waiting for the U.S. to lead,” she says. “The world is moving, and would prefer the U.S. to be at the front end of leadership with other major powers, but the world has gotten used to the U.S. not always being there.”