Is Joe Biden about to show up to Cop26 empty-handed?

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<span>Photograph: Alexander Drago/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Alexander Drago/Reuters

After months of bullish rhetoric about the United States’ climate leadership, the US could still show up to COP 26 empty handed. That doesn’t have to be the case – whatever charismatic obstructionists like Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema have to say about it. The climate certainly isn’t waiting on them to change: the UN Emissions Gap Report released this week finds that the world is on track to warm by a catastrophic 2.7C degrees.

The White House has pegged its Paris Agreement success on being able to pass an ambitious spending package, with plenty of money built in for key climate priorities. In recent weeks the administration pegged its audacious goal, of slashing emission by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, to something called a Clean Electricity Payments Program (CEPP). That’s out. And even if the compromise $55bn a year of climate spending the White House promised on Thursday makes it through to legislation, carrots for green spending can only go so far. The US will still not have picked up critical sticks needed to go after the polluting industries driving up temperatures.

Related: The dirty dozen: meet America’s top climate villains

They’re desperately needed. According to the UN-backed 2021 Production Gap Report, the world’s governments are on track to produce double the amount of fossil fuels than is consistent with capping warming at 1.5C degrees. In the US, oil and gas production are now on track to expand by 17 and 12%, respectively, by 2030.

The United States showing up in good faith to Glasgow will require it to step on the third rail of both US and global climate politics: going after fossil fuels. Those words don’t appear in the Paris Agreement itself. But rapidly winding them down is essential to achieving its goals of limiting warming by “well below” 2C degrees, with an aspiration (repeated frequently by the Biden administration) to limit temperature rise to just 1.5C degrees.

The Biden administration is also on track to approve more oil and gas drilling on federal lands than any president since George W Bush. Sadly, this is not the first time Democrats have let us down on climate action. It was just days after the Paris Agreement that the Obama administration quietly repealed the 40 year-old crude oil export ban as part of an omnibus, must-pass spending measure in 2015. In the four years after its passage crude oil exports expanded by 750%, allowing the US to eventually cross the threshold to becoming a net oil exporter in the winter of 2020. The same year the United States was the world’s third largest gas exporter.

This trajectory is plainly out of step with a liveable planet. Indigenous leaders who converged in Washington under the banner of People v Fossil Fuels earlier this month were joined by 13 members of Congress recently in calling on the administration to use the full extent of its powers to start treating the climate crisis like the emergency it is, putting a stop to fossil fuel expansion. The tools at Biden’s disposal, as they note, are enormous.

The EPA has the power to stringently regulate carbon dioxide and methane, which it’s expected to make steps toward soon. By declaring a national emergency, Biden could reinstate the crude oil export ban virtually overnight, stemming the flow of US fossil fuels being burned abroad to make a handful of executives here rich.

Such a declaration would unlock the power to finally put the US on a wartime footing to rapidly deploy renewable energy and create millions of union jobs in the process, rather than relying only on piecemeal measures like tax credits. The Department of Energy could reject export permits under the Natural Gas Act. The Department of Interior could stop selling below-market rate leases to drill on public lands, activity that accounts for roughly a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

There’s plenty of other low-hanging fruit, too: Biden could move to cancel the Line 3 pipeline, along with the Dakota Access Pipeline, Line 5 and the Mountain Valley Pass Pipeline. A recent analysis by Oil Change International, in fact, found that the White House has to prevent 1.6bn metric tonnes of emissions per year by rejecting those and another 20 fossil fuel projects. Existing laws like the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act grant the executive branch broad authority to do so.

Internationally, the administration could join the UK and Italy at the G20 this week in pushing to phase-out coal and formally end overseas financing for all oil and gas projects through the US Export-Import Bank, as well. The State Department could drop its longstanding objections to concrete discussions of loss and damage financing and historical responsibility for rising temperatures at the UN climate talks in Glasgow.

Joe Biden and members of his administration have frequently called climate change an “existential threat.” If the White House wanted to act like that’s true – and assert real US leadership at COP 26 – it could.

  • Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic. She is the co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need A Green New Deal (Verso) and the co-editor of We Own The Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style (The New Press)

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