‘The greatest challenge’: As Biden talks climate on the world stage, his own green plans are in danger

·6-min read
 Joe Biden addresses US Air Force personnel and their families stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, Suffolk (AFP via Getty Images)
Joe Biden addresses US Air Force personnel and their families stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, Suffolk (AFP via Getty Images)

As Joe Biden makes his presidential debut on the international stage – albeit after years of global experience as a senator and second-in-command – he seems genuinely motivated to bring other countries along in a multilateral effort to battle the climate emergency. And he’s making the argument that not doing so would be dangerous to his own country.

He explained the urgency of the issue to an audience of US Air Force servicemembers at a base in the UK when he arrived for the G7 summit.

“When I first was elected vice president, with President Obama, the military sat us down to let us know what the greatest threats facing America were — the greatest physical threats.

“And this is not a joke,” he continued. “You know what the joint chiefs told us the greatest threat facing America was? Global warming. Because there’ll be significant population movements, fights over land, millions of people leaving places because they’re literally sinking below the sea in Indonesia; because of the fights over what is arable land anymore.”

The message is unambiguous, and it tracks with Mr Biden’s early moves to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and revoke permissions granted to the now-cancelled Keystone XL pipeline. But some in Mr Biden’s party are worried about the direction of the administration’s domestic climate policy agenda – or as they see it, the lack of any direction.

One of the most concerned allies is Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who for nearly nine years gave weekly climate change speeches on the Senate floor under the title “time to wake up”. In a Twitter thread just before Mr Biden departed for the G7, he shared just how worried he’s become.

“OK, I’m now officially very anxious about climate legislation,” he wrote. “I’ll admit I’m sensitive from the Obama climate abandonment, but I sense trouble.

Climate has fallen out of the infrastructure discussion, as it took its bipartisanship detour. It may not return. So then what? I don’t see the preparatory work for a close Senate climate vote taking place in the administration...

“We need planning, organising and momentum. It’s not going to be easy. And it has to work. We are running out of time.”

As Mr White House mentioned, the alarm bell is ringing for climate campaigners and legislators in large part because of the wrangling over the administration’s proposed infrastructure package – a trillion-dollar-plus behemoth that includes funding and tax incentives meant to steer the country away from polluting energy sources as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

There is no chance of it passing the Senate without a bipartisan compromise, and the president has walked away from the first effort to strike one with the lead Republican negotiator, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, whose counter-offer came in billions of dollars below Mr Biden’s planned investment.

Mr Biden is now negotiating with a bipartisan group of centrist senators, among them Ms Capito’s Democratic West Virginia colleague, Joe Manchin. So far, he has been the most difficult Senate Democrat for Mr Biden and the Democratic leadership to get in line – and when it comes to building climate change action into the infrastructure package, Mr Manchin’s solid support for the coal industry in his state does not augur well.

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On the other side of the coin are progressive Democrats in both chambers of Congress who are growing increasingly worried that the administration may be prepared to water down environmental action in order to get legislation through – this after the Green New Deal featured heavily in the 2020 campaign up and down the ballot (including in Mr Biden’s own campaign platform).

As Green New Deal co-sponsor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, the effort to find compromises on climate and other measures could be the undoing of the progressive agenda during what could turn out to be an extremely narrow window of opportunity.

“Pres. Biden & Senate Dems,” she tweeted, “should take a step back and ask themselves if playing patty-cake w GOP Senators is really worth the dismantling of people’s voting rights, setting the planet on fire, allowing massive corporations and the wealthy to not pay their fair share of taxes, etc.”

Her Senate counterpart Ed Markey, who introduced the legislative package in the upper chamber, was even more blunt. “I won’t just vote against an infrastructure package without climate action,” he declared, “I’ll fight against it.”

But the politics of the Green New Deal are not up to Mr Biden to dictate. In part because the Democrats have made it a core part of their platform, the Republican Party has seized on the Green New Deal as an example of left-wing government overreach that will gravely damage America’s fossil fuels industries and therefore crush the job market in areas that happen to be home to swing voters.

The GOP’s effort is meant to put intense pressure on centrist Democrats representing rural and post-industrial areas to disavow the deal and promise that on their watch, fracking will not be immediately banned and coal will not be entirely eliminated. As Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb told the New York Times after the November election, voters in his swing district “are extremely frustrated by the message of defunding the police and banning fracking. And I, as a Democrat, am just as frustrated. Because those things aren’t just unpopular, they’re completely unrealistic, and they aren’t going to happen. And they amount to false promises by the people that call for them.

“If someone in your family makes their living in some way connected to natural gas, whether on the pipeline itself, or you know, even in a restaurant that serves natural gas workers, this isn’t something to joke around about or be casual about in your language.”

Where does all this leave Mr Biden? He is simultaneously being forced to triangulate within his own party, to strike a compromise cobbling together factions of the two parties in the Senate, and to balance his grand international climate goal against geopolitical realities.

On that last front, the most alarming gesture for those focused on the climate emergency is the administration’s decision to lift sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that has been under construction for years. Already nearly complete, the pipeline will provide Germany with a much-needed energy as it phases out its nuclear power grid.

The Biden administration says it wants “positive, stable” relations with Russia, but its move has been criticised for waving through a project that will not only give Moscow much-desired leverage in Western and Central Europe but will keep a major US ally hooked up to cheap natural gas. It’s hard to see how a policy like that is meant to encourage faith in the kind of climate multilateralism Mr Biden is promoting at the G7.

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