Climate groups and COP26 attendees are expressing frustration that US climate action is limited at the summit, in part because the country’s action ultimately depends on Congress – and, more specifically, that it depends on Sen. Joe Manchin, who opposes climate legislation that would rapidly reduce the use of fossil fuel.
Thursday’s big COP26 news was that 23 new countries agreed to phase out their use of coal – a heavily polluting fossil fuel. But the US was conspicuously absent from the announcement.
“It’s great to have the US back in the climate talks, but clearly it’s a difficult time for them domestically, and the timing is really problematic for this particular COP,” Camilla Fenning, an international coal expert at independent European think tank E3G, told CNN. “Everybody recognizes that makes it more difficult for the US to sign up to something at the moment, which is a shame.”
As the US House is still hammering out last-minute negotiations on President Joe Biden’s major economic and climate bill and the accompanying bipartisan infrastructure package, other countries are paying close attention at the climate summit in Glasgow. And COP attendees are aware of the major role of Manchin, a Democrat who represents coal-rich West Virginia and is a key player in shaping Biden’s climate policy.
“In all my interactions with other countries, there’s a deep understanding of what’s going on,” said Jake Schmidt, Senior Strategic Director of International Climate for NRDC. “They know where Joe Manchin is. Frankly, they’re reading the news every day; they’re going along with the roller coaster ride as much as everybody in the US is.”
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that US commitments need to be backed up by action. The spokesperson also pointed to Biden’s promise to decarbonize the US power sector by 2035, saying, “No one should doubt how serious we are about that.”
“Statements are declarations and are very important, but they can’t be seen as an end in themselves,” the spokesperson said. “They have to be backed up by action and the US is already moving forward on a just energy transition. We will also soon have a set of bills that produce $800 billion in clean energy and climate programs – the biggest single outlay in the U.S. of resources for climate action ever.”
While the US did not join the international agreement from 23 countries to phase out coal – along with other major emitters including China and India – it did sign onto a separate agreement Thursday to end financing for all fossil fuel projects abroad.
On Friday, the House appeared poised to vote on Biden’s roughly $1.9 trillion economic and climate package, which contains $555 billion for climate and clean energy programs and tax credits. That package will then head to the US Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to pass it by Thanksgiving.
Manchin was responsible for opposing Democrats’ clean electricity program – which was cut from the final bill – and he has injected uncertainty throughout the process, signaling several times he wanted to extend negotiations further.
Manchin’s influence over Biden’s climate policy is being felt acutely at COP26.
“Several people have said to me, are we going to see the US ever get to some type of a national clean energy plan?” Jennifer Layke, global director for energy at the World Resources Institute and a COP attendee, told CNN. “And I think the reality is that is not the way that we manage our energy system in the United States. It does make these kinds of statements or commitments much more difficult.”
Layke said that state-level action on coal, combined with new federal investments in Biden’s bill, could make it possible for the US to phase out unabated coal.
“That question of timing was probably the most important question that was facing the administration,” she added. “Could they, without the clean energy power plan, move forward with the timelines that were required here as opposed to the timelines that they might be able to if they wait a year or two and put something in place.”