One year ago, Joe Biden marked his first Earth Day as president by convening world leaders for a virtual summit on global warming that even Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping attended. Biden used the moment to nearly double the United States’ goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, vaulting the country to the front lines in the fight against climate change.
The months that followed have not been without setbacks. Biden’s most sweeping proposals remain stalled on Capitol Hill despite renewed warnings from scientists that the world is hurtling toward a dangerous future marked by extreme heat, drought and weather.
In addition, Russia’s war in Ukraine has reshuffled the politics of climate change, leading Biden to release oil from the nation’s strategic reserve and encourage more drilling in hopes of lowering sky-high gas prices that are emptying American wallets.
It’s a far cry from the sprint toward clean energy that Biden — and his supporters — envisioned when he took office. Although Biden is raising fuel economy standards for vehicles and included green policies in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation, the lack of greater progress casts a shadow over his second Earth Day as president.
Biden will mark the moment on Friday in Seattle, where he’ll be joined by Gov. Jay Inslee (a fellow Democrat, with a national reputation in climate action), will also be there. Biden will also be visiting Portland, Oregon on Thursday, as part of his swing through the Pacific Northwest region, which has been at the forefront of environmental initiatives.
Administration officials defend Biden’s record on global warming while saying that more work is needed.
“Two things can be true at the same time,” said Ali Zaidi, the president’s deputy national climate adviser. “We can have accomplished a lot, and have a long way to go.”
Zaidi acknowledged that “we have headwinds, we have challenges,” but also said the president has “a mandate to drive action forward on this.”
Kyle Tisdel, climate and energy program director with the Western Environmental Law Center, said Biden has not lived up to the promise of last year’s Earth Day summit.
“Climate action was a pillar of President Biden’s campaign, and his promises on this existential issue were a major reason the public elected him,″ Tisdel said. ”Achieving results on climate is not a matter of domestic politics, it’s life and death.”
Biden had planned to get a plan worth $1.75 trillion for education and social service expansions. The legislation was known as Build back Better and the Republicans opposed it. It also failed to receive the support of the Senate Democrats, who hold a narrow majority.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has a personal connection to coal and is a representative of a state that is defined largely by its ability to mine that fossil fuel, delivered the final blow. Democrats hope to revive the bill in some form, but it’s unclear exactly what Manchin would support, putting any possible deal in jeopardy.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that negotiations were ongoing even though Biden wasn’t publicizing them. “Just because he’s not talking about it doesn’t mean those conversations are not happening behind the scenes,” she said.
As climate, labor, and social justice organizations urge Congress to adopt climate legislation by Memorial Day weekend (Saturday), administration officials will speak at the rally. As activists emphasize the importance of major investment to increase clean energy and create new jobs, similar events have been planned for dozens more cities.
The White House wants to win approval for more than $300 billion in tax credits for clean energy that advocates describe as crucial for meeting Biden’s goal of reducing emissions by up to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030.
Without the tax credits, “I don’t see a pathway,” said Nat Keohane, a former Obama energy adviser who is now president of the independent Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Reaching the midterm elections in November without them “would amount to a failure on the promise of the first year,” he said.
Asked if Biden’s goal of reducing emissions is still achievable, Psaki said, “We are continuing to pursue it, and we are going to continue to do everything we can to reach it.”
Psaki stated that $1 trillion in infrastructure legislation includes numerous climate policies. This funding will be used to construct 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations. McKinsey’s analysis suggests that almost 30 million charging stations will be needed before 2030.
By sending shockwaves through the global energy markets, and increasing gas prices, the Ukraine conflict has exacerbated domestic political problems.
It’s also caused Biden to change his tune on oil drilling. Biden made the move to sell the first oil and gas leases for onshore drilling on public land last week. This was a controversial decision that has been criticized by environmental groups, even though it was done under court orders.
Despite the ongoing legal battle, Biden encourages domestic production.
“The bottom line is if we want lower gas prices we need to have more oil supply right now,” Biden said in March.
The leasing plan “is an ugly betrayal of Joe Biden’s campaign promises and his administration’s rhetoric on environmental justice and climate action,″ said Collin Rees, U.S. political director at Oil Change International.
“Biden is choosing to stand with polluters over people at the expense of frontline communities and the future of the planet,” he added.
Diplomatic efforts to combat climate change have also been thwarted by the war in Ukraine.
John Kerry, Biden’s international climate envoy, has focused much of his efforts on prodding China, the world’s top consumer of coal, to transition to clean energy more quickly. But that work “is harder now” amid China’s defense of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kerry said Wednesday.
“Some of the differences in opinion between our countries have sharpened and hardened, and that makes diplomacy more difficult,” he said during an online discussion on climate finance with the Center for Global Development.
Kerry’s aides have downplayed talk he might leave the administration now that he’s served more than a year, and he remains a loyal defender of Biden’s climate efforts. But his tone has become more pessimistic recently, especially as Biden’s climate proposals remain stalled in Congress.
The administration was also rattled by recent reports that Biden’s domestic climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, plans to step down. McCarthy called the reports “simply inaccurate” and said she is “excited about the opportunities ahead.”
Another one of Biden’s climate-related efforts could divide the environmental community. To prevent financial distress from nuclear power plants closing, Biden’s administration is offering $6 billion of funding. Although the facilities produce carbon-free electricity, they’re viewed warily by some activists because of concerns about how to dispose of nuclear waste and the potential for devastating accidents.
“We’re using every tool available to get this country powered by clean energy by 2035,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.
Abigail Dillen, president of the environmental group Earthjustice, said that “spirits have dimmed” after the failures of the past year. Although she praised some of the policies that Biden has achieved so far, she said that “it’s not at the scale of climate action we need — full-stop.”
Now Republicans are poised to retake control of at least one chamber in Congress in November’s midterm elections, meaning there’s a limited window for making progress. Dillen, along with other activists, suggested Biden declare an emergency in climate change and utilize the Defense Production Act for renewable energy.
“It’s time to pull out all the stops,″ she said.
Report by Ellen Knickmeyer, Josh Boak, and Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press
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