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US Climate Backsliding: Self-Sabotage For Its Role As Global Green Leader?

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

Joe Biden’s climate agenda will be put to the test as a critical UN climate change conference draws near. The US is lagging behind in its responsibility to show it is serious about enacting climate legislation and integrating clean energy investment into the financial system, finally beginning the green overhaul. Over four years of US absence from global climate negotiations regarding the reduction of emissions have left a large void in the international community's initiative and credibility. The eventual direction that Biden’s ambitious climate promises will take is tied in a large reform bill stalled in Congress; trapped as Democratic moderates and progressives brawl over the best course of action. These disagreements come at a pivotal time in the climate emergency.

This reform bill could be Biden’s last hope of achieving meaningful climate action as both the crisis and his position in congress worsen. The world is closely watching the United States on whether it will deliver on its promise of slashing emissions in half by 2030 as John Kerry prepares to meet global leaders at COP26 in November. If the US is to re-orientate their energy policy towards renewables and lead the world into the green era, they must be seen as actionable and worthy of regaining their credibility

Dubbed “The Build Back Better Bill '' as the main thrust of a major expansion to public spending, the section on climate reform seeks to energise the transition from fossil fuels and slowing rates of global warming. The bill includes measures to incentivise use of electric cars, financial penalties for companies for not increasing renewable energy supplies and funding for forest management and wildfire protection.

The political turmoil surrounding climate reform begs the question of where the US public stands. Even prior to recent destructive weather patterns, Americans have long insisted that the federal government hasn’t done enough, with polls implying public opinion has shifted in a progressive direction. On the whole, a majority of Americans are calling for green action. Monmouth University’s recent survey stated that 60 percent of adults saw climate change as a “very” or “extremely” important matter for the federal government to deal with. In addition, a study from the Pew Research Center concluded that 60 percent of American adults were concerned about the personal consequences of climate change.

Biden has boldly promised that the US would reduce its carbon emissions to half of their 2005 levels by the end of this decade. However, little action has been taken to delay the disaster from worsening. If the United States wants to actively provide global leadership, the time is now to set new economic and environmental precedents, using its soft power to lead the international community onwards . The United States is currently the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and has been the main actor at global climate discussions. Additionally, its relationship with China, the largest country by emissions, means the responsibility to play a decisive role in setting the international response falls squarely on the US’s shoulders.

As heated disagreements drag on in Congress, Gina McCarthy, a government climate adviser, is insistent that the Biden administration can meet decarbonisation targets even if Congress fails to legislate along their recommended lines. While Americans want the government to make a stand against climate change, a Congressional gridlock is, for now, stalling any progress.

President Biden’s Democrats, who continue to work on passing an omnibus budget in Congress, are crucially at odds with each other over spending limits. Estimates from politicians have put the final figure in the range of $1.5 trillion to $3.5 trillion. Biden, meanwhile, has stated the expenditure is likely to be at approximately $2 trillion. Such a claim is disappointing for progressives, as their proposals will inevitably be watered down in the process. Having to compromise threatens not only the USA's chances of halting climate change, but makes them look weak and faulting among their international peers, severely diminishing their credibility as climate leader.

Climate change has failed to garner a level of consensus that binds together progressives and centrists in the Democratic party. The progressives see the reconciliation bill to be the federal government’s only hope at confronting the swiftly deteriorating climate crisis. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez articulated that climate emergency provisions aren’t a thing that Congress can simply “kick down the line”. Alternatively, Joe Manchin, a centrist US Senator of West Virginia, has obstructed a part of the new bill and has expressed his opposition towards the switch to clean energy. Since the bill already faces staunch opposition from Republicans, Democrats are pushing to legislate through a budgetary procedure known as reconciliation, using exclusively Democratic support. However, this crucially means that support is necessary from every Democratic senator. As it stands, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have refused to back it without major reductions to the bill’s budget. The longer this bill is held back, the more likely it is to be stripped down, or worse, collapse.

As the world faces an increased irregularity in its weather patterns, the risk to economy, development and human life is growing sharply. The US has had its share of such extreme weather, and between wildfires, blizzards and heatwaves has begun to warm to the notion that climate change will have major impacts at home. The relevant question remains, however, will the US translate this new understanding into international action.

The implications of US absenteeism from an international climate response would be immense. The unique role that the US plays in the international system is one of implicit both de-facto leadership, its influence in international organisations and through its trade and economic policy give it opportunities to enforce climate reform internationally in a way no other actor could. Leadership in climate reform also requires the resources to work with the most and least developed nations, and expertise to address the challenges that both types of economies present. In order for America to display global leadership, however, they must finalise their green response. It also must pursue its green foreign policy through harnessing the power of the IMF, World Bank and other multilateral institutions through propelling green private investment and when offering structural adjustment packages.

The US can, and must, take on the responsibility to lead swift and radical changes that are not only reliable, but structured around long term reform. As it stands, US domestic politics is sabotaging reform policy at a national and international level. The US has contributed greatly to emissions and environmental degradation, and unless it acts responsible to slow these effects, it will discover the economic disaster climate change promises.

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