Joe Biden Is Already Failing on Climate Policy

US President Joe Biden speaks about the May jobs report on June 4, 2021, at the Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Convention Center.

Hey, I know this song.
Photo: Jim Watson (Getty Images)

The $2.25 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden proposed in March didn’t go big enough to meet the scale of the climate crisis. Now, it’s looking like we may not even see those too-small propositions come to light.

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This is awful news because, with a slim Senate majority, Democrats may have a tight window of time to pass meaningful climate legislation. The disastrous process calls to mind the missteps of the Obama administration.

The White House seems more interested in chasing bipartisan support for the bill than averting climate breakdown. Last month, Biden offered to shave more than half a trillion dollars off his original proposal in an effort to get Republicans on board. Then last week, he proposed an even larger cut that would bring the total price tag down to a far-more-modest $1 trillion.

“Democrats, for some reason, start with extremely modest proposals, and then try to whittle them down into almost meaningful meaningless proposals by the time they try to negotiate,” said Mark Paul, an economist at the New College of Florida who focuses on climate.

Despite these cuts, Republicans still didn’t bite: On Tuesday, the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations collapsed due to irreconcilable differences.

Yet Biden is still courting bad faith actors’ support for the infrastructure bill. Case in point: His National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy pitched the plan to the American Petroleum Institute, the fossil fuel industry’s top lobbying group, at the White House on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the administration is priming climate advocates for some major losses in the bill, including losing the clean electricity standard, which was a hallmark climate proposal. But it wants us not to worry. “I just don’t want people to think that a loss of any one thing, or a reduction in the cost, is going to be the end of the discussion,” McCarthy told Politico. (She added that Biden “is not looking to negotiate a weak amount of investment that won’t be consistent with his vision for what we need to do now, that’s going to keep our country strong.” Strong language!)

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The mealy-mouthed messaging isn’t exactly inspiring confidence. Green New Deal champions like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, and Sen. Ed Markey have indicated that they won’t vote for the watered-down proposal, meaning the administration isn’t just failing to solicit Republican votes but also losing support within its own party. These climate advocates are right to draw this line, and recent history shows us why.

“We have a Republican party that has no interest in serving the country but just wants to be obstructive at every corner, not to negotiate. I’m not sure why Biden didn’t learn from the Obama years,” Paul said. “He seems hell-bent on repeating Obama’s mistakes.”

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On the campaign trail, President Barack Obama promised to take the climate crisis—or global warming, as it was more often called at the time—seriously by reducing pollution and building out clean energy to replace oil. But when he took office in 2009, his administration continually sidelined the issue, instead focusing on issues like health care and financial reform. (It’s not as though Obama won perfect policy on the issues he focused on, either—he made massive compromises on both issues, getting rid of the public option for health care and bailing out the banks that caused the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis).

In doing so, Obama put a key piece of climate legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (also known as Waxman-Markey for the two representatives who sponsored it), on the back burner. The bill, which focused on a cap-and-trade plan for greenhouse gas emissions, was Democrats’ big climate proposal of the time. It wasn’t exactly a radical bill, and it was designed with bipartisanship in mind, boasting support of oil companies such as Shell and BP.

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Still, without Obama’s energy, backers of the bill couldn’t drum up enough support to pass it. The legislation made it through the House in June 2009, but without presidential support, excitement about the bill died down. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid never even brought it to the Senate floor for a vote.

“It was precisely because Obama never put his political capital behind climate change that we saw the legislation never get off the ground, ” said Paul.

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Obama didn’t get another chance to back a big climate bill, either. The following midterm election, Republicans gained control of the House. Democrats wouldn’t regain control of both houses of Congress until more than a decade later.

Now, with Democrats holding both chambers of Congress and the White House once again, Biden could face the same fate. If just one Democratic dies, flips parties, or becomes too sick to work, the party will lose its Senate majority. Even if that doesn’t happen, the next midterm election could spell trouble.

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“The chance of Democrats, making up any seats in the Senate in the next election cycle is extraordinarily slim, so I think that the Biden administration has an obligation to work with Congress to push green infrastructure spending through the reconciliation process right now,” Paul said, referring to an arcane legislative process that allows a simple majority of the Senate to pass spending bills.

Passing a bill by reconciliation would still require getting conservative Democrats on board, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who’s sent mixed signals about his willingness to back big climate spending initiatives. But Paul said it could be possible to win Manchin’s support, for instance by creating climate policies that would benefit Manchin’s constituents.

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“We need to … focus on generating green jobs and particular generating those jobs in swing districts, generating jobs and districts that are still in economic crisis and have been in economic decline,” he said. “The moment’s now.”

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