(CNN)In a summer of deadly and life-altering extreme weather, the Biden administration and Democrats are walking a tightrope, with a razor-thin majority in Congress, to enact policies that will reroute the US economy away from fossil fuels and show the world that the US will lead on climate change.
Many of President Joe Biden’s climate provisions were either whittled down or stripped out of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed on Tuesday, at the same time Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, is trying to secure climate commitments from other nations in preparation for a major UN conference in November.
Global leaders will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions — but officials say the success of the summit will hinge on what can be achieved in Washington. Democratic lawmakers note that most of the work has yet to be done, and much of it falls to Congress.
“I give [the administration] generally very good marks, but with the huge caveat that most of the heavy lifting is still ahead of us,” Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told CNN. “Glasgow is still ahead of us, reconciliation is still ahead of us, most of their regulatory work is still ahead of us.”
The timeline is consequential for Kerry’s work; four years of inaction from the Trump administration made other nations skeptical that the US can keep its word on climate. White House officials say the US must show major progress on Biden’s decarbonization goals at Glasgow to regain its international credibility.
The last, best hope for legislative action on climate now falls to a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, which Congress will start work on later this month.
“The bipartisan [infrastructure] bill, their actions on climate are — inadequate isn’t even the word,” Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told CNN. “They’re just kind of gestures, but they’re not real, substantive progress. What happens in this reconciliation bill on climate is going to make up an enormous portion of what is possible, definitely legislatively possible, in this first term of Biden’s presidency.”
In around seven months in office, Biden has appointed a domestic climate czar, Gina McCarthy, canceled the Keystone pipeline permit, greenlit several offshore wind projects that languished under the Trump administration and rolled out executive orders aimed at increasing US electric vehicle sales.
After reentering the US in the Paris climate accord in January, he laid out an aggressive target to attempt to stabilize a rapidly warming climate: cutting US greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52% relative to 2005 levels by 2030.
Democratic leaders in the Senate say they want the reconciliation bill to include measures that support Biden’s climate ambition, including robust tax credits for clean energy like wind and solar, fees for big polluters, a Clean Electricity Standard and a Civilian Climate Corps.
Climate advocates have cheered some of Biden’s decisions and criticized others, and they are waiting to see the follow-through.
“The way to talk about the Biden administration and climate is two very stark truths,” Evan Weber, the political director for youth climate group Sunrise Movement, told CNN. “He has done very little and hasn’t even [signed] any major legislation, yet he’s already done more than any president when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.”
A senior administration official said the President’s strategy has “been first and foremost about getting America back on track when it comes to climate” and demonstrating to the world “that we are serious about this in a bipartisan way.”
The need to act on climate was underscored Monday by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reported fossil fuel emissions are warming the planet much faster than expected, causing already irreversible impacts. The report lays out why fossil fuel emissions need to be cut quickly to keep global temperatures around 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
“It’s now crystal clear that the decisions we make this year are going to decide whether there’s a livable planet for my kids,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told CNN.
Meanwhile, the US is already learning what life at just 1.1 degrees is like. Unprecedented drought in the West has triggered a water crisis. A historic heat wave in the Northwest killed hundreds in late June and obliterated state records. Nearly 40,000 wildfires have scorched 3.5 million acres, including California’s Dixie Fire, which has grown to the second-largest in state history.
And in northern Minnesota, when Red Lake Nation tribal secretary Sam Strong looked out his window earlier this summer, smoke from fires in British Columbia blocked out the sun.
“It almost seems like an Armageddon type of situation,” Strong told CNN. “My kids can’t even go outside, there’s so much smoke. It’s crazy; we can’t live like this.”
As Americans endure the increasingly dire consequences of the climate crisis, the White House and Congress are staring down a list of monumental tasks.
With the Senate divided 50-50 and no room for error, congressional Democrats are starting to draft a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, which they hope will contain most of their climate provisions.
Work on budget reconciliation is likely to take up most of September and part of October, leading up to Glasgow, where Kerry must convince skeptical countries that the US will lead on climate after four years of inaction under the Trump administration.
The envoy’s work has largely been of quiet diplomacy with other countries, and much of his success is dependent on how far Congress will go on climate change.
“Does the future of the world ride on what happens in the next few months? Maybe,” Murphy said. “I don’t think you can overstate how important it is for us to right the ship on US climate policy, because the [countries] we need to listen to us are not going to unless we show we’re willing to change our own policy.”
Since taking office, Kerry has traveled to more than a dozen cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East to rally allies and partners ahead of Glasgow, otherwise known as COP26. In public remarks, Kerry has outlined his diplomatic efforts in broad strokes — urging countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
A State Department spokesperson said Kerry’s efforts have largely been focused on raising “global ambition” on climate “since no country can solve climate change alone.”
It is less clear what Kerry has proposed to individual foreign leaders in exchange for greater climate commitments. But it is a mixture of sticks and carrots, according to one of Kerry’s senior advisers, Jonathan Pershing.
“Part of what we have to do is we have to wield the stick, but we also have to have the carrot,” he told lawmakers last month. “The carrot might be in the way we can offer [countries] an alternative model of growth and development.”
Although Kerry’s climate-envoy portfolio is much smaller than as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, his relationships with foreign leaders run deep and he remains at the intersection of the administration’s key foreign-policy and national security priorities.
That can sometimes complicate his assignment: In Moscow last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked Kerry whether sanctions relief might be on the table for Russia, an issue outside of Kerry’s remit.
Kerry “suggested” to Lavrov “that he would ensure others in the US government were tracking concerns related to sanctions,” a State Department spokesperson said. The pair also discussed cybersecurity issues, Kerry told NPR later.
Lawmakers say Kerry has had to tread delicately. Getting buy-in from Russia and China, two of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, will be key to his success.
“From my perspective, the shift to clean energy and climate-resilient development must be a collaborative ongoing process that involves our allies, but also the government of China,” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Climate Change Task Force, told CNN. “That’s the message Secretary Kerry is sending. We can’t solve this problem if China is not partnering with us and the rest of the world.”
One of the sticks at Kerry’s disposal could be a warning to countries like China that if they do not move toward cleaner energy they might be subjected to a tax on carbon-intensive imports, known as a border carbon tax. The senior administration official acknowledged such a step was being studied and is a possible “tool in the toolbox,” but cautioned that it “has a long way to go” before it can or will be implemented.
US officials and climate experts alike say Kerry needs to demonstrate at COP26 that the US has renewed credibility, which will ultimately be determined by what comes out of Washington in the coming months.
“Asserting it is one thing, but having real accomplishments and having enacted policy is going to be what persuades the rest of the world that America is back,” said Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.