The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. climate promises hang in the balance as Manchin upends talks

President Biden departs after delivering remarks regarding gas prices in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on June 22. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

As President Biden’s climate ambitions appeared to collapse in Congress on Friday, advocates around the world expressed alarm about how an absence of U.S. leadership could undermine the push to avoid catastrophic warming of Earth’s atmosphere.

Mohamed Adow woke up in Nairobi to the news that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) remains unwilling to support new climate spending, a stance that would all but torpedo Biden’s push to rapidly cut the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution.

The frustration and disappointment Adow felt at the congressional gridlock had little to do with the president, and everything to do with the implications for the planet if the world’s second-largest emitter does not change course.

“People say this is a blow for Biden’s climate plan,” Adow, head of Power Shift Africa, a think tank that lobbies for clean energy, said in a text message. “But it’s actually a blow for the whole world, for people on the front line of the climate crisis, and it’s a blow for the American people who will not escape the impacts of extreme heat, floods, sea level rise and storms.”

Several experts warn that without new legislation, Biden will be unable to achieve one of the core promises of his presidency: cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by the end of the decade, compared with 2005 levels.

A report released Thursday by the independent research firm Rhodium Group found that the United States is on track to reduce emissions 24 percent to 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — significantly short of Biden’s goal of 50 to 52 percent.

“Those reductions are not sufficient under current policy to meet the U.S. stated climate target,” Ben King, an associate director at Rhodium and co-author of the analysis, said in an interview. “So there’s still a big gap to make up.”

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said in an interview that the administration must now take “executive actions that it has been holding pending” the end of the legislative process. “That’s ended,” Markey said, adding that Biden officials can adopt policies ranging from limiting federal oil and gas leasing to imposing stricter tailpipe emissions on cars and trucks.

On Friday afternoon, Biden promised to exercise whatever authority he has to forge ahead.

“Let me be clear: if the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment,” he said in a statement. "I will not back down: the opportunity to create jobs and build a clean energy future is too important to relent."

Even so, the president’s failure so far to secure more concrete action and funding from Capitol Hill has wounded U.S. credibility abroad.

“U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks well about what needs to be done by all countries, but loses credibility whenever the U.S. is unable to deliver even the most modest actions that the U.S. government has promised,” Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, said in a text message.

Huq said the nation’s inability to take action will “definitely hamper” any trust other countries might have in U.S. promises when the world gathers for another climate summit this fall in Egypt.

“The United States of America is the single country that is most responsible for accumulated global emissions that are now causing loss and damage around the world,” he added. “The fact that Sen. Manchin can block the U.S. from even taking the bare minimum of actions speaks very poorly for America.”

As leaders gather for crucial climate summit, high expectations collide with uncertain reality

Biden, who rejoined the Paris climate accord after President Donald Trump became the only leader to withdraw from the global pact, took office touting the historic investments he would seek in clean energy, and the jobs to be gained from shifting away from fossil fuels. The 2015 agreement aims to limit Earth’s warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels.

Already, the planet has warmed roughly 1.1 Celsius, and scientists say each additional fraction of warming will bring only more climate-fueled catastrophes in the years to come. The world currently is on a trajectory to blow past its climate targets without rapid and far-reaching changes.

At a key U.N. summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last fall, Biden stood before other world leaders and vowed that the United States — still the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China — would lead “by the power of our example.”

In the months since, Biden has seen blow after blow to that vision.

The war in Ukraine has helped to fuel a global spike in oil and gas prices. The U.S. Supreme Court last month curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to limit carbon emissions of existing power plants.

Unless Manchin ultimately embraces a budget-reconciliation package that includes new spending on climate initiatives, his opposition would almost certainly put Biden’s commitments only further out of reach. No Republican is willing to vote for a major climate package, which has left Democrats reliant on the West Virginian’s vote.

National climate pledges are too weak to avoid catastrophic warming. Most countries are on track to miss them anyway.

Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) bemoaned her party’s predicament in an interview Friday.

“We are at a moment when we need strong action to cut emissions, and one senator should not have the power to stop us from doing that,” Smith said. “We had the opportunity in this moment to meet the challenge of the climate crisis, to reduce carbon emissions, and to do so in a way that lowers energy prices, contributes to energy independence, cleans up our air and allows us to save the planet.”

On Friday, Manchin claimed that his comments to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had been misinterpreted. The centrist senator told a West Virginia radio show that he hadn’t ruled out new climate spending — he just wanted to wait to see whether the proposals would add to inflationary pressures.

“I said, 'Chuck, until we see the July inflation figures … then let’s wait until that comes out, so we know that we’re going down a path that won’t be inflammatory and add more to inflation,” Manchin said, adding, “I want climate; I want energy policy.”

Inflation soared in June, continuing to climb at the fastest pace in 40 years across many sectors of the economy. But supporters of the climate package argue it would actually lower costs for American consumers, such as by making it cheaper to purchase an electric vehicle or make energy-efficient home improvements.

From Africa to Europe to Asia, the latest indication that the United States could fail to live up to its climate promises spurred reactions ranging from sadness to outright disdain. Several analysts pointed out that if the United States fails to make the substantial investments in clean energy Biden supports, it risks losing the economic benefits that will come as other nations shift away from fossil fuels.

“This will dismay American allies and diminish further U.S. influence over what happens in the energy economy across the rest of the world,” Joss Garman, a director of the European Climate Foundation, said in an email, adding that with oil and gas prices rising compared with clean energy, “the transition is sure to continue apace, albeit now with China and Europe more likely to seize the jobs and industrial benefits of this across key markets.”

Luca Bergamaschi, executive director of the Italian climate think tank ECCO, said European nations are facing many of the same short-term economic challenges as the United States, but have continued to pursue long-term climate policies that will pay off over time.

“Countries like Italy and Germany face similar inflation rates and high costs of living but are increasing their climate spending to lower the dependency on fossil fuels, which is a root cause of all these crises,” he said in an email.

For all the attention on Manchin and what he ultimately will or won’t support, Adow said the Biden administration should also be doing more to pull every lever it can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid locking in new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Biden’s administration opened the door Friday to more offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters

“The truth is Biden can, and should, be doing a lot more. He’s been handing out drilling rights for fossil fuels in New Mexico and has laid the groundwork for drilling in Alaska,” he said. “The world needs the U.S. to show leadership on this issue. … We have other countries around the world working to reduce their emissions, and we need America to join the fight, not work against us.”

This week’s apparent setback, which comes despite seemingly promising negotiations recently between Schumer and Manchin over a broad economic package that would incentivize renewable energy and put more electric vehicles on the road, underscores the crossroads that the nation faces on climate policy.

That still unresolved choice could have huge implications, both for the nation’s financial future and for the world’s ability to slow the warming that fuels climate disasters.

“While Europe and China vie to lead the global clean-energy economy, the U.S. Congress is threatening to abandon the race,” said Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

“These climate and clean-energy investments are not just crucial to meeting our nation’s climate goals. They are vital to America’s economic future,” he said. “Voters understand that, and express overwhelming support for clean energy. Businesses understand that as well, and are calling on Congress to invest. The Senate should heed those calls. Our nation’s future prosperity is in the balance.”

Biden also seemed to recognize what lay in the balance last fall, when he spoke of the “profound questions” that face every world leader when it comes to climate change.

“It’s simple: Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us? Or will we condemn future generations to suffer?” he said then. “This is the decade that will determine the answer.”

Tony Romm contributed to this report.

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