Going around the room and staring them each in the eye, the President warned of dire consequences if he arrives in Scotland next week for a United Nations climate summit without a deal that meets his pledge to dramatically reduce American greenhouse gas emissions.
“The prestige of the United States is on the line,” Biden told the group, according to one participant – Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat. “I need this to go represent the United States overseas. I need people to see that the Democratic Party is working, that the country is working, that we can govern.”
A week before he is set to depart for Europe and the COP26 summit, Biden and White House officials are scrambling to wrap up the slogging negotiations over his sweeping domestic agenda, which would include the largest-ever US investment to combat climate change. They are increasingly using the looming summit as another tool to try and force a deal between the Democratic Party’s warring factions.
While Biden plans to trumpet his pledge to halve US emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels during the climate summit, a legislative agreement would make a strong case to other countries that they must ramp up their own contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by demonstrating the US can live up to Biden’s ambitious climate goals.
Despite progress in recent days toward reaching an agreement, White House officials have prepared for the possibility that Biden could arrive in Glasgow without legislation demonstrating the US’ commitment to action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
But with or without a deal on the budget package, senior officials insist Biden won’t be showing up to the global climate summit empty-handed.
Two senior administration officials pointed not only to executive actions and environmental regulations enacted by the administration since Biden took office, but also to steps taken by the private sector, state and local officials that demonstrate the American commitment to tackling climate change.
“That’s steel in the ground, it’s spires in the air, it’s cars on the road. It’s a transformation that is literally durable because it doesn’t have to do with politics. It’s changing the way the economy works to make it more sustainable and more resilient, and that’s the progress that the President’s already been able to drive,” one official said.
Still, Biden is applying increasing pressure on lawmakers to provide him something to point to in his talks with fellow world leaders.
The US’ credibility on climate change and his own standing as an American leader is increasingly at stake. Long focused on showing to the world that democracies can deliver for their people, Biden is testing that proposition at home as he pushes a major overhaul of American social spending through Congress.
Glasgow hangs over Washington
Nowhere is that more evident than in the contentious debate over which climate change measures can be salvaged and which are deal-breakers for moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who represents coal-rich West Virginia. Biden and his team are scrambling to finalize what is included in the bill that can still fulfill the commitment to halve US emissions in a decade after Manchin voiced opposition to a critical program meant to incentivize electric utilities to switch to renewable energy.
Biden delivered “the most forceful case I’ve heard him make on the need for an agreement on a specific timeline” in his meeting with lawmakers on Tuesday, one source familiar with the discussion said.
“In every meeting, it’s about this issue, all leading up to Glasgow,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday at a climate rally outside the US Capitol.
For Biden, the Glasgow talks have always been about more than simply agreeing on carbon reduction targets. The gathering has assumed greater significance for its ability to show to the world the United States was recommitting to global efforts to combat climate change, a commitment that had languished under former President Donald Trump.
Biden declared earlier this year he would attend “with bells on,” and even held his own virtual summit in April meant as a precursor to the Scotland conference, where nations came forward with carbon reduction commitments.
A follow-on to the Paris Climate Agreement, from which Trump withdrew early in his term and Biden reentered his first day in office, the Glasgow talks were seen as a moment to welcome the US back into the fold and for the new President to again proclaim “America is back.” As a candidate, Biden vowed both to reenter the Paris deal and to aggressively tackle climate change.
In recent days, the American footprint at the summit has come into sharper focus, including Biden’s plans to dispatch more than a dozen Cabinet members and senior administration officials to attend. Biden himself is expected to participate in group meetings of leaders along with one-on-one talks on the margins, and potentially hold a press conference at some point along the way.
Former President Barack Obama, who attended the Paris climate talks in 2015, also plans to travel to Scotland to meet with young climate activists and deliver a speech “putting the threat of climate change in broader context,” according to his office. He is not expected to overlap with Biden when in Scotland.
The combined effort is meant to demonstrate the American commitment to combat climate change, officials said, and Obama’s presence is intended to signal the continued progress in the United States in reducing emissions – despite the rollbacks overseen by Trump.
Skepticism over US commitment
Yet skepticism has abounded – on climate and other issues – that Biden’s pledges will be durable enough to withstand future Republican administrations. The in-and-out nature of the US commitment to the Paris agreement only underscored for many nations the potential that whatever Biden announced could be short-lived.
On climate, that phenomenon has been particularly acute. The regulations on power plants, smokestacks and auto emissions that Obama relied upon to meet his own carbon reduction pledges were reversed by Trump during his tenure.
A second senior official said even without passing new laws, some of Biden’s climate actions will be able to withstand political changes.
Biden's White House
“There are several things that we’re already doing at home that the world perceives and recognizes cannot be turned back or turned off with a change in administration,” a second senior official said. “We don’t see those things being turned off or rolled back with any political change in cycle.”
To make that point, the President and his bevy of Cabinet officials will be joined at the summit by US governors, mayors and businesses, all demonstrating US efforts to tackle climate change.
“Our success doesn’t rise or fall on the congressional agenda because there are all these other components to what US leadership looks like on climate,” the second official said.
Still, one of the appeals of using the spending packages to tackle climate change is the difficulty in overturning laws, unlike executive actions or agency rules. People familiar with Biden administration thinking said the durability of new laws, opposed to rules, had been a priority as the President looks to restore American credibility on the issue.
Yet getting those laws passed has proven difficult, even with Democrats in control of the White House, Senate and House – an alignment Biden, Democrats and climate activists all know could end after next year’s midterm elections.
Administration officials are increasingly optimistic about the prospects of reaching an agreement on the reconciliation package before Biden leaves for the G20 and Glasgow summits next week, but it’s clear officials are prepared to ramp up executive actions to fill the gap if necessary.
“We take executive action on a very regular basis,” a senior official said when asked if more executive and regulatory action is on the table should legislation not come together ahead of the President’s trip. “From day one, the way we’ve articulated our climate strategy is to leave no emissions reductions on the table. When we see opportunity, we chase after it.”
Worries about a Scottish disappointment
Biden administration officials have been looking ahead toward the Glasgow climate talks for months, framing the summit as a critical moment to galvanize the world’s attention toward the crisis. Biden has discussed plans for the gathering with its host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and held his own virtual climate summit early in his presidency meant to propel other nations toward new carbon reduction goals.
Yet in recent weeks, concerns the summit could fall short of expectations have seeped into public view. Johnson himself said in an interview with Bloomberg the talks would be “extremely tough.” Even Queen Elizabeth II, who is expected to attend part of the summit alongside other senior members of the royal family, was overheard voicing irritation at leaders who “talk” but “don’t do” anything to combat climate change – remarks interpreted as frustration at the potential for the Scotland summit falling short of expectations.
John Kerry, who – as Biden’s global climate envoy – spent the past months traveling the planet in search of climate commitments, acknowledged last week the Glasgow conference could end without meeting its target levels for emissions cuts.
“By the time Glasgow’s over, we’re going to know who is doing their fair share and who isn’t,” he told the Associated Press in an interview. He was similarly bearish on the prospect of Biden arriving to the talks having not secured agreement on his climate proposals, comparing a failure to secure legislation to “President Trump pulling out of the Paris agreement, again.”
“I’m not going to pretend it’s the best way to send the best message,” Kerry said.
Kerry’s efforts run up against a mixed US record on climate change, one that fluctuates based on the which party is in power – as it did when Trump took office and rolled back a slew of environmental regulations enacted by his predecessor.
A senior official said the countries that the US is urging to ramp up their climate ambitions have not said they need to see the US put into law to its commitments before they can ramp up their own ambitions.
“What we’ve assured them is the President has made these commitments, he’s made these pledges around working with Congress … but we’ve also taken executive action to move on implementing our goals and commitments,” the official said.
Biden himself downplayed Kerry’s remarks, telling reporters he believed Kerry “had a little hyperbole there.”
“I think it would be good to have an agreement on the climate, but we’re going to get the climate done,” he said.
What that looks like remains an open question.
White House officials have been scrambling behind the scenes in recent days to devise an alternative to the Clean Energy Performance Program, which Manchin opposes and had comprised a central component of Biden’s plan to cut emissions. The rush to arrive at new ideas has been driven in large part by the Scotland summit, officials said, as Biden and other members of his team seek to avoid arriving empty handed.
Progressive lawmakers pursuing several alternatives to fill the gap, looking for new ways to spend the $150 billion intended for the CEPP and ensuring that new climate-fighting tools in the bill still meet Biden’s target of slashing emissions to 50-52% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
“The key is we need to hit the same number with different tools, and that’s what’s guiding the negotiations from my point of view right now,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who sits on the Manchin-chaired Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told CNN.
Among the options being discussed are carbon trading programs and a carbon tax, which Biden himself did not propose but is now under consideration among senators.
An independent analysis from the Rhodium group released Tuesday found that even if the clean electricity program is stripped out of the final budget bill Biden could still meet his climate goals. Rhodium analyzed emissions reductions from several measures in the bills, including clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits, energy efficiency grant programs and funding for agricultural programs that sequester carbon, but left out the clean electricity program and a carbon or methane fee, given its uncertain legislative survival.
Still, the group’s director said congressional action would have to be combined with stringent environmental regulatory action from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, to achieve Biden’s emissions target.