How one US senator could sink Biden’s climate agenda and COP26

Washington: When Joe Biden arrives at the Glasgow climate conference in a fortnight, the US President will be accompanied by a high-powered delegation.

Biden’s entourage will feature 13 cabinet members and other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The show of force is intended to send a message to the world that his administration regards tackling climate change as a top priority.

Adding to the star power, former President Barack Obama is travelling to COP26 as well.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin will determine whether US President Joe Biden goes to the Glasgow climate summit with a realistic plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Credit:Bloomberg

What is far less assured is whether Biden will be bringing a realistic plan to turn his bold climate promises into reality.

Biden has vowed to slash US greenhouse gas emissions in half, based on 2005 levels, by 2030. But with his climate agenda at risk of collapse in the US Congress, his ability to deliver on the pledge is in serious doubt.

If the US President shows up to Glasgow empty-handed, as climate activists increasingly fear he will, it will dramatically weaken his credibility and undermine his efforts to convince other world leaders to raise their climate ambitions.

Just as Scott Morrison has to placate Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce to adopt a 2050 net zero target before Glasgow, Biden has his own complex party conflicts to reconcile before landing in Scotland.

Biden’s hopes of signing significant climate legislation into law rest on a single member of the US Senate: Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia. Manchin represents one of the country’s top coal-producing regions and his state overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump at the last election.

Like in north Queensland or the Hunter Valley, the prospect of a rapid shift towards renewable energy is a frightening one for many West Virginians. Manchin, who positions himself as a champion of the coal industry, is also a significant investor in fossil fuel companies.

That’s a massive problem for Biden given he needs the support of all 50 Democratic senators – including Manchin – to pass any legislation through Congress.

A sweeping US$3.5 trillion bill currently before Congress contains an array of climate measures that would go a long way towards meeting Biden’s 2030 emissions reduction target.

But Manchin has reportedly said he will block the climate centrepiece of the bill: the US$150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program, a mechanism that would reward electricity generators that transition to renewable energy and penalise those which don’t.

Manchin’s stance, first reported in The New York Times, has infuriated environmentalists, who regard the clean electricity program as a highly effective way to drive down greenhouse gas pollution.

Michael Mann, one of America’s most prominent climatologists, said on Twitter that Manchin had “just launched a hand grenade at Glasgow”.

Mann said that without the clean electricity program, the Biden administration cannot meet its 2030 carbon reduction target. “And international climate negotiations begin to collapse,” he wrote.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben was equally alarmed by Manchin’s threat to “gut” Biden’s climate agenda.

“This is high on the list of most consequential actions ever taken by an individual Senator; you’ll be able to see the impact of this vain man in the geologic record,” McKibben said on Twitter.

Manchin’s opposition to the clean energy program has set Democrats scrambling to find a way to rewrite the bill in a way that could pass the Senate without squibbing on climate change. There is talk of inserting a form of a carbon tax into the bill, but it’s far from clear this would win Manchin’s support.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she wants a bill to pass Congress by October 31 so the US can serve as a “a model for the world” to follow at Glasgow.

The fate of Biden’s climate agenda – and quite possibly the Glasgow summit itself – are at stake. But time is rapidly running out and there’s no sign the Democrats have found a way through the impasse.

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