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COP26: American climate credibility in question at UN summit with Biden's agenda in flux

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden tried to convince world leaders the U.S. is taking bold action on global warming – without any major climate legislation firmly in hand to match his promise – at a pivotal climate summit Monday in Scotland.

Biden, who has repeatedly called for a "code red" on climate change, used a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to pressure other countries to make new commitments to tackle the global crisis. Yet Congress hasn't passed key portions of his domestic climate agenda, renewing questions about U.S. reliability on the world stage amid dire warnings from scientists about the pace of global warming.  

During an 11-minute speech, the president warned the world only had a brief window to "raise our ambitions and to raise to meet the task" of confront climate changing, vowing the U.S. was "back at the table" to lead by power of example. But he acknowledged doubts about U.S. commitment to the issue. 

"I know it hasn't been the case," he said. "And that's why my administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words."

Ahead of Biden's European trip, Democratic divisions in Congress scuttled plans to pass the White House's $1.75 trillion spending package that featured $555 billion in climate provisions. That would have enabled Biden to show some progress on his pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, at the global summit, known as COP26.

Though Biden has made climate change a focus of his administration – a marked departure from the Trump-era rollbacks on climate regulations – experts say the president is expected to face questions about his ability to deliver meaningful climate policy in one of the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

"A lot of credibility discussions were seen during (the U.S. withdrawal from) Afghanistan, but I would point to to climate as actually the more important credibility question," said Sarang Shidore, director of studies at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. "The normative aspect of global action still originates more in the U.S. than anywhere else, and that's the reality of the world we are in." 

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Is a budget framework enough? 

Hours before leaving for his five-day diplomatic jaunt, Biden urged Democrats on Capitol Hill to pass a pared-down version of his social spending package, nearly a third of which is dedicated to climate programs. 

The proposed framework includes $320 billion to expand tax credits over the next decade for utility and residential clean energy, clean passenger and commercial vehicles, and clean energy manufacturing. It also includes incentives for buyers of electric vehicles that would help de-carbonize the single largest sector of the economy contributing to global warming. Other funding would go to "resilience" programs to mitigate extreme weather events and a Civilian Climate Corps designed to deploy a force of young workers to help communities address the threat of climate change.

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The plan left out an aggressive proposal – known as the clean electricity performance program – that would require electricity suppliers that do not transition fast enough to clean energy to pay penalties, a key provision that was killed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who hails from coal country. 

But it includes proposed fees on American oil and gas companies to pay for excess methane as part of a $775 million Environmental Protection Agency incentives program, a move that bolsters a U.S.-led global pledge to cut the heat-trapping gas by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. The U.S. is one of the biggest emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that scientists say contributes to climate change. 

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, dismissed the idea that Biden's credibility would be damaged if he showed up in Glasgow without a climate deal in Congress and said the president "intends to make good" on his commitments. 

“I think you’ve got a sophisticated set of world leaders who understand politics in their own country, and understand American democracy, and recognize that working through a complex, far-reaching negotiation on some of the largest investments in modern memory in the United States – that that takes time," he told reporters last week. 

Some experts and lawmakers note the a big portion of Biden's framework is dedicated to climate programs, making it the largest climate investment in U.S. history. 

"There are some really impactful and transformative things in there," said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., a progressive climate advocate. "Once we get this bill a little better understood, the climate benefits are going to be more appreciated." 

But Shidore pointed out the half-billion in climate spending is across 10 years, which is not enough to address transformational shift needed to limit global warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, compared to pre-industrial levels – a global goal that was established in the landmark Paris climate accord in 2015. 

"It's not enough, not by a long mile," he said. 

Without some of the ambitious provisions like Biden's clean energy program enshrined into law, the administration will have to rely on more executive action and regulations that could be reversed by a future administration.

Biden to attend COP26 without own climate deal
Pressure is on President Joe Biden to deliver his climate change programs, as he and Democrats race to wrap up negotiations ahead of two global summits. Arriving empty handed in Glasgow could hinder Biden's ability to strike deals. (Oct. 28)

And while Biden wants to pressure other big greenhouse gas emitters like China and India to step up, his message rings hollow without any definitive measures taken by the U.S., according to Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute.

"That not only helps to give an excuse to other leaders to not to turn up to Glasgow but allows countries like China and India to refuse to come up with new, concrete plans," said Lieven, author of "Climate Change and the Nation State."

"The failure on the part of the United States also strengthens still further the emotional resistance not just on the part of leaders and governments but also of elites and, indeed, populations to respond to climate change." 

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser now with the Progressive Policy Institute, conceded the framework is not as ambitious as Biden's initial plan but said it's enough for Biden proclaim U.S. leadership at the summit. 

"While it doesn't have all provisions climate advocates had hoped, the domestic clean energy and infrastructure measures in the deal announced by the president will be by far the most important actions the United States has ever taken to combat the climate crisis," Bledsoe said.

"If he is able to gain congressional approval, this will put Biden in a much stronger position to compel additional action from other major nations in Glasgow, and beyond." 

Climate politics shift

Biden is hardly the only Democratic president to try to enact climate legislation. Former President Bill Clinton floated the idea of an energy tax that faced stiff opposition in Congress, while the Obama administration attempted to push through a bill to cut carbon pollution that languished in the Senate. Instead, Obama pursued regulations that were largely unwound by former President Donald Trump or snarled by legal challenges. 

Joseph Aldy, a former climate adviser to Obama who served as a negotiator at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, said he sees some similarities between the Obama and Biden administrations. 

Both Democrats came to office eager to enact climate policy after GOP administrations that largely sidelined leadership on the issue and both presidents attended a major climate summit while their key climate bills remained "in a bit limbo" on Capitol Hill. 

But Biden's "whole of government approach" on climate is a lot more ambitious than Obama's and doesn't entirely rely on congressional action, Aldy said. Biden can use the EPA's regulatory authority to complement the incentives established in his climate and social spending plan.

"Part of it is knowing you have a number of tools at your disposal. There are tools you can use with Congress – if you can get Congress to come along – but you stand prepared to move quickly on all of your options," Aldy said. "I think that's part of what the whole of government approach that the White House is pushing." 

EPA administrator Michael Regan told CNN Friday the agency would release a new "aggressive" regulation looking at both new and existing methane sources from the oil and gas sector "in the coming days, if not weeks."

Regulations, however, come with legal risks. The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear a challenge to the EPA's power to limit carbon emissions, which stem from Obama's 2015 effort to significantly reduce power sector emissions to address climate change. 

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Climate change concerns majority in US: AP-NORC/EPIC poll:
As President Joe Biden heads to a vital United Nations climate change summit, an increasing number of Americans, 59 percent, view the climate crisis as a "very important" issue, according to a new AP-NORC/EPIC survey. (October 26)

Public attitudes have also shifted as climate disasters have devastated several regions of the country. The U.S. has dealt with record flooding, droughts, intensified wildfires and heat waves, which scientists say have been exacerbated by climate change. Last year saw 22 separate weather and climate disasters across the country that cost at least $1 billion each, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

A recent survey found about 6 in 10 Americans believe the pace of global warming is speeding, according to a new survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. The same survey found 55% of Americans 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. 

And the Treasury Department's Financial Stability Oversight Council recent report assessing the risks that climate change poses to the U.S. financial system underscores that even the business sector is getting more serious about climate policy, according to Aldy.

"It signals how climate is going to be an enduring part of how businesses operate and how investors operate," he said. "Which allows Biden to address not just what are you doing to make progress on your ambitious 2030 goal but how you can assure it's going to survive the end of this administration." 

Still, the U.S. domestic dynamic is critical to spur international action, Lieven said. And the world is watching to see what meaningful action the U.S. is taking to address Biden's day one promise to combat climate change. 

"They are watching this very closely and I have to say, among American allies, with a considerable amount of dismay," Lieven said. "This is not just a test of the Biden administration's climate change policy, it is also a test of the competence and the efficiency of the American state and its ability to get things done."