U.S. President Joe Biden is coming to international climate talks in Egypt this week with a message that historic American action to fight climate change won’t shift into reverse, as happened twice before when Democrats lost power.
Current and former Biden top climate officials said the vast majority of the summer’s incentive-laden $375 billion climate-and-health spending package — by far the biggest law passed by Congress to fight global warming — was crafted in a way that will make it hard and unpalatable for future Republican Congresses or presidents to reverse it.
Outside experts agree, but say other parts of the Biden climate agenda can be stalled by a Republican Congress and courts.
Twice in the 30-year history of climate negotiations, Democratic administrations helped forged an international agreement, but when they lost the White House, their Republican successors pulled out of those pacts.
And after decades of American promises at past climate summits but little congressional action, the United States for the first time has actual legislation to point to. The climate and health law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, was approved without a single Republican vote, prompting some advocates to worry it may not withstand GOP attacks if Republicans gain control of the House or Senate.
Then Tuesday’s election happened, with a razor-thin contest for control of Congress.
Results are still not quite known, but Democrats showed surprising strength. Sierra Club President Ramon Cruz at the climate summit Wednesday claimed a victory of sorts, saying, “We see in a way that people in the U.S. actually do understand and do support climate action.”
If Republicans grab control of Congress, they won’t have a veto-proof majority, and even if a Republican takes over the White House in the next few years the tax credits will be in place and spur industry, said Samantha Gross, head of climate and energy studies at the centrist Brookings Institution.
“It’s a lot of tax credits and goodies that make it hard to repeal,” Gross said.
At the climate negotiations in Egypt, where Biden arrives Friday, his special climate envoy John Kerry said, “Most of what we’re doing cannot be changed by anyone else who comes to Washington because most of what we do is in the private sector. The marketplace has made its decision to do what we need to do.”
It’s all by design, said Gina McCarthy, who until recently was Biden’s domestic climate czar.
“About 70% of the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act are about [tax] credits that directly benefit” industries, McCarthy said in an interview with The Associated Press at the climate negotiations.
She said it will be difficult for Republicans to “change the dynamic” to significantly undermine the act. “It is passed, is beneficial. We have Republicans all throughout the country actually doing ribbon cuttings.”
Studies show most of the money, new jobs, are going into Republican states, said climate policy analyst Alden Meyer of the E3G think-tank. McCarthy and Kerry are “largely correct” in claiming the law can’t be rolled back, he said, and Gross agreed.
Several analyses, inside and outside the government, said the law would cut U.S. emissions by 40% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, which is not quite the official U.S. goal of 50% to 52% cuts by that time.
But McCarthy is saying, wait, there’s more. She said that upcoming but not yet announced carbon pollution regulations and advances by private industries, states and cities will allow the United States to achieve and even exceed that goal, something outside experts are far more skeptical about.
Republicans are likely to push for a sharp increase in oversight of Biden administration policies, including incentives for electric vehicles and loans for clean energy projects such as battery manufacturers, wind and solar farms and production of “clean” hydrogen.
“Republicans are looking for the next Solyndra,” said Joseph Brazauskas, a former Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency official, referring to a California solar company that failed soon after receiving more than $500 million in federal aid under the Obama administration.
“Certainly, congressional oversight is likely to ramp up considerably” under a GOP-led House or Senate, said Brazauskas, who led the Trump EPA’s congressional relations office and now is a principal with the Bracewell LLP law firm.
Republicans support many of the tax credits approved under the climate law. But they complain Biden is moving too fast to replace gas-engine cars with electric vehicles and say he hasn’t done enough to counter China’s influence in the renewable energy supply chain.
Republicans also are likely to probe EPA actions on climate change, air quality and wetlands, citing a Supreme Court ruling last summer that curbed the EPA’s authority to address climate change, Brazauskas said. The decision, known as West Virginia v. EPA, “has really opened a window for regulatory scrutiny at the agency,” he said.
Democrats say they learned important lessons from the Solyndra episode and don’t intend to repeat past mistakes. The loan program that helped Solyndra turned a profit and generates an estimated $500 million in interest income for the federal government every year.
Even with a Democratic Congress, the Biden Administration couldn’t dramatically increase climate aid to poor nations. The rich countries of the world in 2009 promised $100 billion a year to help poorer nations switch to green energy sources and adapt to a warmer world. They haven’t fulfilled that promise, with the United States donating far less than Europe.
That money doesn’t include the hottest topic at the Egyptian climate talks: Loss and damage, meaning reparations for climate-related disasters. The United States is historically the No. 1 carbon polluter, while poorer nations with small carbon emissions bear the brunt of climate disasters, like Pakistan, where devastating flooding submerged a third of the nation and displaced millions of people.
Dozens of protesters called for reparations at a demonstration on Wednesday.
“I think the regulatory agenda is tougher and the international climate finance landscape will be very, very bleak,” Meyer said.
The U.S. government also released a new draft report about what climate change is doing to America, determining that over the past 50 years, the United States has warmed 68% faster than the planet as a whole. Since 1970, the continental U.S. has experienced 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming, well above the average for the planet, according to a draft of the National Climate Assessment, which is the U.S. government’s definitive report on the effects of climate change and represents a range of federal agencies.
The changes in the U.S. reflect a broader global pattern in which land areas and higher latitudes warm faster than the ocean and lower latitudes, the report says.
The effects of human-caused climate change on the United States “are already far-reaching and worsening,” the draft report says, but every added amount of warming that can be avoided or delayed will reduce harmful impacts.
The congressionally mandated assessment was last issued under the Trump administration in 2018 and the Biden administration put out a draft of the newer version this week, seeking public comment and peer review. The final report is expected next year.
Risks from accelerating temperatures and precipitation, sea-level rise, climate-fueled extreme weather and other impacts increase as the planet warms, the report says.
“The things Americans value most are at risk,” the report says.