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Climate change: Biden's next big political gamble?

AFP
AFP
 2022-01-25
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Last week, US President Joe Biden announced efforts were underway to revive the environmental component of his $1.8 trillion social spending plan, after it was all but killed in the Senate /AFP/File

After a string of setbacks on getting his priorities through the deeply divided US Congress, President Joe Biden may set his sights on climate change in a bid to save the planet -- and his imperiled legacy.

Last week, the president announced that efforts were underway to revive the environmental component of his $1.8 trillion social spending plan, after it was all but killed in the Senate.

The Build Back Better package was to include $555 billion for renewable energy and clean transport incentives in the country's largest ever climate investment, to meet Biden's goal of cutting 2005 greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

"I've been talking to a number of my colleagues on the Hill. I think it's clear that we would be able to get support for the $500-plus billion for energy and the environmental issues," Biden told reporters last week.

Democratic lawmakers immediately busied themselves behind the scenes in seeing if they could make it happen.

- American wallet -

Prioritizing bold action on climate change might be seen in progressive quarters as a no-brainer -- but proponents of realpolitik see it as something of a gamble.

In a country hit yearly by deadly floods and raging wildfires, climate action is an incongruously low priority, with the public voicing far more concern in opinion polls over inflation and the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The US is regularly hit by devastating blazes like the Caldor Fire that raged in California in the summer of 2021 /AFP/File

The trick for White House aides putting Biden's vision into words has been to appeal to America's wallet rather than its existential dread.

Instead of imposing sanctions against polluters, the $555 billion package would offer substantial tax credits for producers and consumers of wind, solar and nuclear power.

Under this carrot-not-stick approach, motorists would get up to $12,500 in tax relief for buying electric cars made domestically, while householders could claim back around a third of the cost of installing solar panels.

Debbie Weyl, the deputy director of the World Resources Institute lobby group in the United States, argues there is "no question" that the country would struggle to achieve its environmental targets without the reforms.

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The federal government is proposing cash incentives to householders installing solar panels like these pictured in Huron, Californis, on July 23, 2021 /AFP/File

For the moment, Democrats can only count on votes from their own side, as the Republicans appear unified in their opposition to the proposals.

A spokeswoman for Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican who has a record of working across the aisle, told AFP the Alaska senator was unable to support the energy and climate provisions in the Build Back Better text.

The spokeswoman criticized the "highly partisan" process for writing the legislation and said the energy elements were designed to "deliberately harm Alaska."

- The Manchin equation -

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West Virginia's Senator Joe Manchin, pictured in January 2021, butted heads with the administration over the Build Back Better social spending package /AFP/File

Biden's majority is as slim as it could be in the evenly split Senate, where his vice president can cast tie-breaking ballots in favor of Democrats when votes are split 50-50.

As a result, any Democratic senator effectively has a veto on any White House initiative that comes before the chamber.

The most high profile hold-out on Build Back Better was Joe Manchin, a headline-grabbing centrist from the coal mining state of West Virginia.

Some local miners' groups came out in favor of the president's climate reforms, which include help for people suffering from "black lung disease," a serious condition caused by inhaling coal dust.

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Two wind turbines dominate the skyline behind the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, on May 10, 2018 /AFP/File

But Manchin effectively killed the package when he said he would be withholding his support because he feared that spiraling spending would exacerbate the already alarming US inflation rate.

Staffers and politicians across Washington are now hoping the party can coalesce around a narrower, less expensive bill with much of the climate-focused legislation remaining intact but the main items Manchin objects to expunged.

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US President Joe Biden, pictured giving a speech in Washington on January 21 2022, cannot afford to fail in his latest effort /AFP/File

"I'm convinced that Democrats will pass a (scaled) down but monumental climate bill this year," Paul Bledsoe, a climate advisor in Bill Clinton's administration, told AFP.

"If they don't, the voters will punish them."

Democrats have just a few months left to act before the midterm elections, in which they could lose their slim majorities in Congress, making any legislative progress even more problematic.

Biden, who is struggling with a plummeting approval rating, cannot afford to fail.

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