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Biden’s Ambitious Climate Agenda Is in Peril – Mother Jones

Biden’s Ambitious Climate Agenda Is in Peril – Mother Jones

Biden’s Ambitious Climate Agenda Is in Peril – Mother Jones

© Richard Ellis/ZUMA Wire

This story was originally published in HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Last AprilPresident Joe Biden Convened dozens of world leaders for a “virtual climate summit” that sought to generate more ambitious environmental policies ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference later in the year. The summit was held on a sometimes glitchy Zoom phone and sought to prove that Biden would regain the US’ climate credibility under President Donald Trump. It also sought to make it a leader for global combating catastrophic planetary warming.

Biden has taken a number of steps to support that goal. Biden returned the US to 2015 Paris climate agreements, pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, and to net zero by midcentury, and issued numerous executive directives to help achieve these goals.

But 14 months into his presidency and a year since the summit, Biden is facing Russia’s war in Ukraine, rising global oil and gasoline prices, and the intransigence of climate change skeptics both at home and abroad—and they are now threatening to derail his climate agenda altogether.

Biden has made climate change a central part of his foreign and domestic policy strategies since he launched his presidential campaign. Biden would push countries such as Brazil, where the right-wing President Jair Bosonaro has overseen record levels of deforestation within the Amazon rainforest, to change their course while simultaneously enacting America’s most ambitious domestic climate agenda.

His early moves, and promises of further legislative and executive action to come, did succeed in bolstering US climate credibility on the international stage, particularly among major European leaders who had been dismayed by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accords, his formation of a convenient anti-climate alliance with Bolsonaro, and the United States’ general turn against any form of aggressive climate action.

“There is a lot more credibility in the way that the US wants to adopt an environmentally friendly policy,” said one European official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the Biden administration’s climate approach. “But there are also some difficulties in the implementation.”

These difficulties were evident in the first three months of 2022.

Data released in January showed that US carbon dioxide emissions rose sharply last fiscal year, following a downturn caused by pandemics the year before. This highlights the challenges Biden may face. Emissions reduction overall as the US economy bounces back to life. In early February, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) announced his opposition to Biden’s Build Back Better plan, a sweeping legislative proposal that initially included $555 billion in climate-related spending, derailing what would have amounted to the largest package of climate-focused initiatives in US history.

The same month, a surge of deforestation destroyed an area of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest equivalent in size to Washington, DC—Record for February—all while Brazilian lawmakers launched a legislative push that could open even more of the forest to industrialization and destruction.

Invasion by Russia of Ukraine in the last week of February sparked a crisis which, beyond its humanitarian consequences, has also contributed to oil supply shortages. In response, Republicans have demanded the US “unleash” domestic fossil fuel production, while some Democrats have begged the Biden administration to Retire efforts to pass climate legislation, fearing it could crater the party’s hopes in looming midterm elections. Last week, Biden ordered the largest-ever release of oil from the nation’s strategic reserves — an average of 1 million barrels per day for six months — to combat high prices and act as a “wartime bridge” until domestic production can ramp up later this year.

The developments have put Biden’s planned international climate agenda in serious jeopardy. “It damages our credibility abroad when you have sweeping campaign promises being made … and then nothing happens,” said Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at Oil Change International, a climate advocacy group. “You can only be the boy who cried wolf so many times on the international stage.”

Brazil has been around for a while been at the center of Biden’s desire to make climate a foreign policy focus. During a presidential debate in 2020, he pledged to create a $20 billion international fund to help protect the Brazilian Amazon, and cited rampant destruction of the forest as a key failure of Trump’s foreign policy approach.

But shifting geopolitical circumstances and the right wing’s fervent allegiance to fossil fuels and environmental exploitation have inhibited those plans almost from the beginning.

Early in his presidency, Biden signed a climate-focused executive order that tasked his administration with developing a plan to “promote the protection of the Amazon rainforest and other critical ecosystems that serve as global carbon sinks.” And he sent former Secretary of State John Kerry, who now serves as Biden’s special climate envoy, and other key US officials to Brasília for diplomatic talks meant to persuade the Bolsonaro government to abandon its most destructive policies.

Bolsonaro is a climate denialist who has spent his presidency reducing regulations and incentivizing the deforestation. It was always going to be difficult to negotiate better forest protections. It also presented an opportunity. The US could also demonstrate its bona fides by bringing Brazil, which has significantly reduced emissions and improved rainforest protections, back to the table.

After a series of on-and-off negotiations in which Brazilian officials repeatedly demanded advance payments to protect the forest’s integrity, the Bolsonaro government finally made a brief promise to end illegal deforestation by 2028. This was two years earlier than Brazil had previously stated.

Brazilian environmental experts and Indigenous tribes were involved throughout the process. Warned the US not to trust Bolsonaro, who they feared would simply legalize deforestation now considered illegal and use any positive outcome—and financial benefit—to bolster his own political prospects.

“The problem in the country is not money, the problem is the government,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a São Paulo-based environmental organization. “We have the money. We don’t have a government willing to face deforestation.”

Still, the pledge came at a time when it may have seemed possible to “shift Bolsonaro’s focus,” said Mark Langevin, an expert on Brazilian energy and environmental policy at George Mason University in Virginia. Many observers had hoped that he would approach the job more pragmatically than the hard-line environmental minister he had replaced. The reputational damage caused by a record outbreak of fires in 2019, and Bolsonaro’s persistent denials that they were even occurring, had also driven some modern elements of Brazil’s influential agribusiness industry to begin pushing the government to change its approach.

Bolsonaro, however, has continued to act as most environmental experts predicted. Brazil’s Congress is already considering a package of legislative proposals favored by Bolsonaro that would allow more large mining projects on protected Indigenous territories in the Amazon and ease regulations over the use of harmful pesticides, The Guardian reported March 2004. The bills could also lead to another surge in illegal land grabbing, a practice that has helped drive deforestation and violent attacks on Indigenous communities under Bolsonaro, thanks to his government’s lax enforcement of the law and its close ties to garimpeirosAmazonian wildcat miners have explored the Amazon looking for its resources.

Even though the forest faces ever-graver threats, Russia’s war appears to have shifted US attention at least for the moment away from deforestation and toward another sensitive environmental topic.

After the invasion in Ukraine, the US imposed new economic sanctions against Russia. They also banned all Russian imports of fossil fuels. That has sent domestic gas prices—already on the rise thanks to increased demand at home—to record highs, which could have drastic political ramifications for Biden and the Democratic Party later this year.

To prevent these increases, the Biden administration tried to replace Russian fuel with other sources, including Brazil. In a phone call in March, Jennifer Granholm, US Energy Secretary, urged Bento Albuquerque (Brazilian counterpart) to increase oil production. Albuquerque quickly agreed to this request. He told Agence France Presse.

That’s a major priority for Bolsonaro, who has sought to paint the Russian war as “A great opportunity” to loosen environmental protections, boost oil production and ramp up mining on Indigenous territories within the Amazon that are rich in potassium, which could be used to produce fertilizer. Brazil imports the majority of its fertilizer from Russia.

Brazil has plenty of company when it comes trying to leverage the crisis for domestic industries. Australia and other coal-producing nations are welcoming a surge of coal demand as European countries look to replace Russia’s supplies. And Biden, who campaigned on a pledge to “take on the fossil fuel industry,” is facing a Campaign to reduce pressure from that sector and allied Republicans to boost domestic production of oil and gas in order to combat rising energy costs and assist European allies as they seek to reduce reliance on Russian oil.

But the posture toward Bolsonaro demonstrates the ways that Russia’s invasion complicated an already fragile global climate agenda.

“The politics of climate, domestically and internationally, are so challenging,” Langevin said. “And now, all eyes are on Ukraine, which just takes all the oxygen out of the room.”

It has also changed the US’s position elsewhere. Last month, Biden announced plans to boost exports of liquified natural gas to help Europe transition off of Russian gas, which accounts for 40 percent of Europe’s supply. The deal with Europe, the administration argued, would speed the continent’s transition away from dirty energy sources altogether.

“The president knows … that the true path to energy security runs through clean energy, so that’s the second part of this agreement,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters last month. “The first part is getting Europe off Russian gas. The second is to get Europe off of gas completely. And he’s committed to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and reaping the climate, environmental, economic and energy security benefits of moving decisively down that path.”

It also alarms climate groups in the US who fear that it will lead to a large scale build-out of natural gas infrastructure and lock in years, if not decades, of pollution from what is already one the key drivers of climate changes. Methane, the main ingredient of natural gas accounts for one third of all human-caused warming. The fossil fuel industry is, however, responsible for one-third of all human-caused planetary warming. Applauded the move.

This is the fine line the White House has walked both domestically and internationally: On the one hand, it has repeatedly stressed that Russia’s war is a reminder that the US must speed up its transition to renewable energies in order to break free of a global oil and gas market that empowers bad actors and determines prices at home and abroad.

On the other hand, it has responded positively to the Republican misinformation campaign about Biden being “at war with” fossil fuels by arguing that the administration has given the industry the tools it needs to increase domestic production. In a speech announcing a US ban on imports of Russian fossil fuels, Biden noted that US oil and gas companies pumped more during his first year than during Trump’s, that production is forecast to reach a record high in 2023, and that the industry has stockpiled more than 9,000 unused but approved permits to drill across millions of acres of federal lands.

“It’s simply not true that my administration or policies are holding back domestic energy production,” Biden said.

The US administration is accusing US drillers of high pump prices and profiteering. However, they are simultaneously trying to appease their industry. Granholm has called on producers to “rise to meet current demand” amid Russia’s invasion. And speaking to a room full of energy industry executives at the CERAWeek conference in Houston last month, Kerry said the Biden administration is committed to an “All of the above” future energy policy.

It’s a pro-everything strategy that both Democrats and Republicans have championed for more than two decadesHowever, this is becoming increasingly out of tune with climate science. A Report last month concluded that the US and other wealthy, heavy-polluting nations must phase out oil and gas production altogether by 2034 if the world is to have a 50 percent chance of limiting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the goal of the landmark Paris climate agreement.

António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, recently Warned that the war and ensuing pursuit of “all-of-the-above” energy could be the death knell for limiting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees.

“Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or kneecap policies to cut fossil fuel use,” he said. “Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

A spokesperson for the White House said that Biden has not backed down in his call for climate action, but that in the short-term energy supply must keep pace with demand.

“We believe we can walk and chew gum—address supply in the short term because families need to take their kids to school, and go to work, get groceries and go about their lives—and often that requires gas,” the spokesperson said. “But in the long term we must speed up—not slow down—our transition to a clean energy future.”

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The State Department did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Along with ordering a massive draw on the nation’s oil reserves last week, Biden called on Congress to require oil and gas companies to pay fees on idle wells and unused federal leases, as well as pass his stalled Build Back Better climate and social spending package.

He was young in hisBiden, the US president, stated that the US would be leading the world on climate action largely by setting an example. It couldn’t ask other countries to meet goals or take aggressive actions if it wasn’t willing to meet the moment itself. But the consensus among climate experts and advocates appears to be that while the Biden administration is talking the talk, it is not yet walking the walk — that the rhetoric has not translated into the aggressive policies that scientists say are required to, in the words of the United Nations’ most recent climate Report, “secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”

Even before Russia’s invasion, US climate groups were disappointed in Biden’s ability to deliver at home. Greenpeace USA, a major environmental organization, gave his first year in office a failing grade on its running scorecard of Biden’s climate actions. The Build Back Better plan and its ambitious climate spending were the administration’s chief legislative vehicle to achieve many of its goals. Its future as a climate or any other plan was in doubt long before the invasion. This was due to Democratic skittishness regarding the political consequences of rising gas prices, and GOP calls to increase domestic oil and natural gas production.

Forest experts have also criticised Biden. Along with Multiple planned logging projects are being advanced in mature, carbon-rich forests in the Pacific Northwest, the administration in November A long-term strategy was released for slashing emissions that appeared to float cutting down old-growth trees and replacing them with younger stands as a solution to climate change and climate-fueled wildfires. Since then, dozens of climate and public land advocacy groups have launched a National campaign to pressure Biden to enact rules to conserve remaining mature forests across the federal estate.

John Noël, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace USA, said it’s been “disorienting” to watch fossil fuel permitting and production Increasing under Biden’s watch after the president described climate change an “existential threat.”

“The overall mood is pissed, straight up,” Noël said. “It’s totally unacceptable.”

Greenpeace USA was among more than 200 climate, justice, and progressive groups that sent Biden an email Letter last month urging him to “resist short-sighted policies such as scaling up domestic fossil fuel production” and instead to use his executive power, specifically by invoking the Defense Production Act, to speed up America’s transition to clean energy technologies and flight fossil fuel-driven planetary warming. On Thursday, Biden did Invoke the Defense Production Act in an effort boost production of critical minerals used in batteries and clean energy technology.

Similar to the 98-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, Biden was asked by them to take responsibility. Several actions that they argue would allow him to deliver on his campaign promises, including declaring a national climate emergency, reinstating a ban on crude oil exports, prohibiting new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, and ending fossil fuel subsidies.

At some point, the Biden administration has to pick a side, said Oil Change International’s Rees.

“This desire to not make anybody mad is going to make everybody mad,” he said. “They need to decide if they are going to be with people or polluters.”

Biden and his team seem to have just as much work ahead of them to make their mark on the international stage.

Ahead of last year’s COP26 climate summit, Biden pledged to Double US climate aid for developing nations from $5.6 billion to $11.4 billion per year by 2024. It was expected to close the gap on the US and other rich nations’ decade-old broken promise of providing $100 billion in climate finance for low-income and vulnerable countries to develop clean energy and adapt to the mounting impacts of climate change.

But when Congress passed its $1.5 trillion spending bill on March 10, less than two weeks after the United Nations’ latest dire climate study, it included a A measly $1 Billion in international climate aid—less than half of what the White House had requested. (To put this in perspective, 20 separate weather and climate disasters worth billions of dollars were experienced by the US last year.

“This is devastating to the politics around climate action because there are so many kinds of initiatives and political developments that need those funds,” said Joseph Curtin, director of The Rockefeller Foundation’s power and climate initiative. “It’s a major impediment to progress.”

The White House released Monday its $5.8 trillion federal budget 2023. While Biden’s statement announcing the request did not mention climate, the proposal calls for $44.9 billion to tackle the crisis, including $11 billion in international climate aid. But the budget request is just that—a request—and the same congressional obstacles that have plagued Biden and his team from the beginning remain.

Curtin indicated that Biden still has plenty of time to address climate issues on the international level. But with so much attention and resources being directed at the crisis in Eastern Europe, it’s going to require some juggling. In the eight months between now and the COP27 climate summit in Egypt, Curtin said it is critical that Biden and his team shore up financial support for initiatives like Net Zero World, which is aimed at providing technical support for countries looking to accelerate a clean energy transition, and South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Partnership, which seeks to speed up South Africa’s shift away from coal. The United Kingdom, the European Union (France, Germany, and the European Union) committed to investing a combined total of $1 billion. $8.5 billion toward the South Africa initiative.

“I think [climate] is a high priority in the White House,” Curtin said. “But I think it’s taking a little bit of time to crank up the machinery, to deliver on these commitments. Rather than give a very negative grade, I’d prefer to wait and see and assume that the intention is there to deliver on some of these promises.”

“Quite honestly, I can’t see any other way of arriving at COP27.”

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