WASHINGTON (AP) — A year ago, Joe Biden marked his first Earth Day as president by convening world leaders for a virtual global warming summit 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 and bring the country to the front lines in the fight against climate change.
But the months that followed were marred by setbacks. Biden’s most sweeping proposals continue to stall on Capitol Hill despite renewed warnings from scientists that the world is headed for a dangerous future marked by extreme heat, drought and weather.
In addition, Russia’s war in Ukraine has recast the politics of climate change, causing Biden to release oil from the country’s strategic reserve and encourage more drilling in hopes of cutting skyrocketing gas prices that are draining America’s wallet.
It’s a long way from the clean-energy sprint that Biden — and his supporters — envisioned when he took office. Although Biden is raising fuel economy standards for vehicles and including green policies in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation, the lack of greater progress is casting a shadow over his second Earth Day as president.
Biden will mark the moment Friday in Seattle, where he will be joined by Governor Jay Inslee, a fellow Democrat with a national reputation for climate action. Biden is also scheduled to visit Portland, Oregon on Thursday as part of a swing through the Pacific Northwest, a region that has often been at the forefront of environmental efforts.
Government officials defend Biden’s record on global warming, saying more work is needed.
“Two things can be true at the same time,” said Ali Zaidi, the president’s deputy national climate adviser. “We have achieved a lot and still have a long way to go.”
Zaidi acknowledged that “we have headwinds, we have challenges”, but also said the president has “a mandate to take action on this”.
Kyle Tisdel, climate and energy program director at the Western Environmental Law Center, said Biden failed to deliver on the promise made at 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 chose him,” Tisdel said. “Getting results on climate is not a matter of domestic politics, it is life and death.”
Biden had hoped to approve a $1.75 trillion plan to expand education programs, social services and environmental policies. But Republicans opposed the legislation, known as Build Back Better, and it failed to gain the unanimous support it needed from narrow-majority Democrats in the Senate.
The final blow came from Senator Joe Manchin, DW.Va., who owes his personal fortune to coal and represents a state that largely defines itself through the extraction of that fossil fuel. Democrats hope to revive the bill in one form or another, but it’s unclear exactly what Manchin would support, putting a potential deal at risk.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that negotiations were underway, even though Biden did not publicize them. “Just because he doesn’t talk about it doesn’t mean those conversations aren’t happening behind the scenes,” she said.
Government officials are expected to speak at a rally outside the White House on Saturday as climate, labor and social justice groups urge Congress to pass climate legislation before Memorial Day. Similar events are planned in dozens of cities as activists emphasize the need for major investments to boost clean energy and create jobs.
The White House is seeking approval for more than $300 billion in clean energy tax credits, which proponents describe as critical to meeting Biden’s goal of cutting emissions by up to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030.
Without the tax cuts, “I don’t see a way,” said Nat Keohane, a former Obama energy adviser who now chairs the independent Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Reaching the midterm elections in November without them “would amount to a failure of the first year promise,” he said.
Asked if Biden’s goal to reduce emissions is still achievable, Psaki said: “We will continue to pursue it and we will continue to do everything we can to achieve it.”
Psaki noted that the $1 trillion infrastructure bill encompasses a range of climate policies, including funding to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations. However, an analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey estimates that nearly 30 million chargers will be needed by 2030.
The war in Ukraine has exacerbated political challenges at home by sending shockwaves through global energy markets and raising gas prices.
It has also caused Biden to change his tune about oil drilling. Last week, Biden went ahead with the first onshore sale of leases for oil and gas drilling on public land, a move that environmental groups rejected even though the government said it was doing so only on a court order.
While the legal battle is ongoing, Biden, meanwhile, is encouraging new domestic production.
“The bottom line is that if we want lower gas prices, we need to have more oil now,” Biden said in March.
The lease plan “is an ugly betrayal of Joe Biden’s campaign promises and his administration’s rhetoric about environmental justice and climate action,” said Collin Rees, US political director at Oil Change International.
“Biden is choosing to be with polluters over people at the expense of frontline communities and the future of the planet,” he added.
The war in Ukraine has also frustrated diplomatic efforts to tackle climate change.
John Kerry, Biden’s international climate envoy, has focused much of his efforts on urging China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, to move faster to clean energy. But that work “is more difficult now” amid China’s defense of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kerry said Wednesday.
“Some disagreements between our countries have become more acute and hardened, making diplomacy more difficult,” he said during an online discussion on climate finance with the Center for Global Development.
Kerry’s aides have downplayed rumors he could leave the government after serving for more than a year, and he remains a staunch defender of Biden’s climate efforts. But his tone has become more pessimistic of late, especially as Biden’s climate proposals continue to stall in Congress.
The government was also shocked by recent reports that Biden’s domestic climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, plans to resign. McCarthy called the reports “simply inaccurate” and said she is “excited about the opportunities ahead”.
Another of Biden’s climate-related efforts could divide the environmental community. His government plans to provide $6 billion in funding to prevent financially ailing nuclear plants from closing. Although the facilities produce carbon-free electricity, they are viewed with suspicion by some activists over concerns about how nuclear waste should be disposed of and the potential for devastating accidents.
“We are using all available resources to provide this country with clean energy by 2035,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.
Abigail Dillen, president of the environmental group Earthjustice, said “ghosts have dimmed” after the failures of the past year. While praising some of the policies Biden has achieved so far, she said “it’s not on the scale of climate action we need — full-stop.”
Now Republicans are poised to regain control of at least one chamber in Congress during the November midterm elections, meaning there is limited time to make progress. Dillen and some other activists have suggested Biden declare a climate emergency and use the Defense Production Act to boost renewable energy.
“It’s time to pull out all the stops,” she said.
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