It’s Time for Climate Pragmatism

How the Biden team can get its groove back this month by returning to a sharply focused message putting American jobs front and center in its climate policy agenda

The Biden administration faces a perfect storm on climate and energy policy as the world heads to the latest global climate summit in Glasgow at the end of the month. Energy prices are on the rise at home and abroad while the administration struggles to move its main policy agenda through Congress – one that includes substantial investments in clean energy and electric vehicles. Indeed, the two pieces of legislation in question remain central to the Biden administration’s domestic and foreign policy plans.

There’s good reason for the Biden team to put climate policy high on both its domestic and international agendas. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put it in its most recent report, “Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850.” Other researchers conclude that at least 85 percent of the world’s population and 80 percent of its land mass has felt the effects of climate change on local weather.

Still, there are strong reasons to put the central focus on pragmatic steps rather than alarmism – especially steps that focus like a laser beam on America’s economy and jobs.  The International Energy Agency, for instance, recently projected that both existing policies and pledged reductions will lead to surface temperature increases below three degrees Celsius. Moreover, the growth of carbon emissions slowed substantially over the past decade – even as China and India continued their own economic expansions. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind power have decreased in cost at the same time the use of coal has declined, often replaced by comparatively cleaner natural gas. 

A transition is already underway in global energy markets, and there will be some bumps in the road of this shift, but it is manageable – and can also pay important dividends in the efforts to rewire America’s economy and reconnect with the world. 

That’s what makes the coming weeks so important for the Biden administration: the two main pieces of domestic legislation he’s proposed contain significant measures to combat climate change. For starters, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill would invest tens of billions of dollars in electric vehicles, electric vehicle infrastructure, and upgrades to the nation’s electric grid. Likewise, the multi-trillion-dollar reconciliation package still being negotiated in Congress will likely include large investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and other climate provisions.

If this legislation fails to pass before the Glasgow summit, however, the United States will show up empty-handed – undermining our own diplomatic hand as the world seeks to make progress on climate issues. It won’t necessarily prove fatal to the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts on climate change, which include a virtual leaders’ summit held last April, another virtual summit of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in September, and Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s travels around the world. But it will hurt America’s diplomatic credibility in ways that will make it hard for the United States to convince other countries to make or live up to ambitious climate commitments. As Kerry himself put it, “By the time Glasgow’s over, we’re going to know who is doing their fair share, and who isn’t.”

Heading to Glasgow without legislation in hand could put the Biden team in a precarious position reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson’s failure to convince Congress to join the League of Nations after World War I. A president making ambitious promises on a vital international issue that Congress can’t or won’t back up isn’t a recipe for success. But it also goes to show the intimate connection between domestic and foreign policy issues – and how important it is for political leaders on Capitol Hill and at the White House to understand this reality.

It’s still more likely than not that Congress will pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and some slimmed-down version of the reconciliation package currently on the table. That’ll certainly help American diplomats at Glasgow. But these policy moves need to be presented in a way that convinces the American public as well as attendees at international climate conferences.

So far, Americans have not heard a compelling or coherent message from the Biden team that allows them to easily understand what they’re up to or where they aim to take the country. After a strong start with vaccine deployment and a popular COVID relief bill, the administration seemed to lose the plot over the summer. Partly that’s due to factors outside its control like the Delta variant of COVID-19 and the refusal of too many Americans to get vaccinated, and partly that’s due to unforced errors like an overly defensive reaction to the shortcomings of its Afghanistan policy and a failure to better shepherd the administration’s two main legislative priorities through Congress.

The failure to communicate a clear message that tells the American people what’s in it for them and how they will directly benefit from the proposed policy shifts is likely a key factor in the recent declines of Biden’s approval rating. Nearly all of the debate has mentioned the price tag of the bills with hardly any focus on what they will do to transform America’s economy and create jobs.  As a result, by the middle of August the president’s polling average slid from net approval to net disapproval.

But Biden can rebound from his summer doldrums if he manages to connect his likely legislative successes to a wider vision of where he hopes to take the country. That requires him to return to his original argument: work with people across the political spectrum to rebuild the national economy and put it on a firmer foundation moving forward. As our colleague John Halpin put it,

Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ plan was designed and pitched as a series of nationalist steps to invest in American businesses, infrastructure, and clean energy production; increase economic security for all families; and put the U.S. in a stronger position in the economic fight against China.

That message has been lost in fights between moderates and so-called progressives in Congress over the size and scope of the proposed reconciliation package – and Biden’s own failure to effectively manage this dispute.

Here, however, Biden has a chance to regain some of the political ground lost over the summer. Rather than emphasizing tax cuts for working families, Biden and his administration can consistently make the argument that his two signature bills will invest billions of dollars to lay a stronger foundation for America’s workers, economy, and place in the world. The upcoming Glasgow summit provides a perfect opportunity to connect all three themes together in a coherent whole: by investing in clean energy, an updated grid, and electric vehicles at home, we’re not just building our own economy and creating jobs at home but doing our part in the global fight against climate change.

Over the next month, then, President Biden can use a pragmatic approach to climate change that emphasizes how Americans will benefit to reset his presidency after a disappointing and often dispiriting summer. Other political and economic threats loom, not least rising energy prices and supply chain bottlenecks. But a return to political basics along with policy successes at home and abroad can help Biden weather the storm.