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Commentary & Opinion

Biden goes to Glasgow with promises but nothing tangible

The world’s leaders are meeting at a U.N. conference in Glasgow, Scotland to decide how to respond to the worsening environmental emergency caused by global warming. The burning of fossil fuels has created an existential threat to all living things.

There is no longer a credible debate about whether human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels to create energy, is dangerously heating the planet. Even in the pandemic downturn economy, 2020 was the hottest year on record.

This year’s U.N. climate summit renews an urgent question to the international community: Can the world come together to confront the common enemy of global warming before it’s too late?

To limit the growing menace from global warming, the Glasgow conference must, at a minimum, achieve five goals:

  1. Rich nations need to meet the 2015 Paris Accord goal of transferring $100 billion each year for poor nations to cope with climate change. 
  2. Rules for international carbon trading, which is seen as a key instrument to harness market forces in the fight against global warming, need to be implemented.  So far, those rules have not been realized. 
  3. Transparency measures need to be put in place to prove that the world is making progress toward meeting emission reduction targets. 
  4. Reductions are needed in methane emissions. 
  5. Greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels.  Yet so far emissions are going up, not down.  Cutting emissions in half over the next decade is essential to averting global catastrophe.

For the first time in years, the United States is sending a President with promises to help in the fight, a President who follows the science. But the U.S. is sending a President who carries promises, but not real programs.
As part of last week’s Build Back Better “framework,” the President and the leaders of the Congress agreed to advance legislation that will meet certain goals. The “framework” promises to spend $1.75 trillion over the next decade on a wide range of domestic programs.

In the area of climate change, the “framework” pledges $555 billion for clean energy and climate investments. Most of the funding, $320 billion, would go toward 10-year expanded tax credits for clean energy, transmission and storage, clean passenger and commercial vehicles and clean energy manufacturing.

Given the magnitude of the existential threat posed by climate change, $555 billion over a decade is simply not enough. Nevertheless, it would greatly increase America’s odds of keeping its climate pledges.

President Biden’s initial plan was far more ambitious, with $3.5 trillion in spending and a much more robust climate package. For example, the President had proposed the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would have required all electric utilities to draw 80 percent of their power from non-carbon sources by 2030, or else face steep fines. That plan dropped out of the “framework” due to opposition from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

The “framework” reflects the tiny margin that the Democrats have in each house of the Congress. In the House, Democrats hold 220 of 435 seats, meaning they can’t afford to lose more than three votes on any given issue. To take on the oil industry the House essentially needs a consensus, which is extremely difficult. Just to illustrate the difficulty, of the 38 house members from oil-industry dominant Texas, 13 of them are Democrats.

In the Senate, the Democrats only have an advantage in a 50-50 Senate thanks to the tie-breaking vote of the Vice President. Thus, the final “framework” reflects Senator Manchin’s philosophy: “You can’t use things as a hammer. You’ve got to give an incentive to do the right thing….” “Incentivize or penalize. Penalize doesn’t work, incentivize does work,” Manchin said. We all know that penalties do work.

Nevertheless, because of Manchin’s demands the “framework” reflects his view with the bulk of climate spending focused on incentives and does essentially nothing to penalize bad behavior.

And when it comes to bad behavior, the oil industry takes the cake.

The public record makes clear that – based on their own research -- for the better half of the late 20th Century oil companies knew that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet. Yet, starting in the 1980s the industry championed climate change denial and opposed regulations to curtail global warming. To this day, they are still fighting science-based climate legislation in the Congress.

That’s why there is a “framework” but no final legislation. The hordes of oil and gas lobbyists fighting for a deal that protects the profits of the fossil fuel industry could further weaken an already limited “framework.” Hopefully, the pressure from the Glasgow conference will stiffen the spines of those who seek to curtail environmental catastrophe, and the nation ends up with a better Build Back Better plan and more than empty promises from Glasgow.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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