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Elections

What this moment before midterms means for the Biden administration's climate goals

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Democrats control the House, Senate and White House. Still, efforts to pass legislation fulfilling President Biden's climate change goals have stalled. That leaves a big gap between those goals and the amount of climate-warming greenhouse gases the U.S. is on track to emit. NPR's Laura Benshoff reports.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: When legislation dubbed the "Build Back Better" act died in Congress last year, the Biden administration's climate agenda suffered a big setback. But at a rally outside the Capitol building recently, Minnesota Senator Tina Smith spoke for many Democrats.

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TINA SMITH: We must act now. We need to address the root cause, and we must demonstrate our capacity to do real climate action.

BENSHOFF: The Biden administration's goal to reduce U.S. emissions by 50% this decade is in line with what scientists say is necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change. Reached by phone later, Smith said many Democrats are hoping a party-line bill could deliver on that promise before they potentially lose their House majority in the midterms.

SMITH: I have not seen any serious Republican interest in that, which leads me to think that it's going to be quite difficult to get 10 Republicans, which is what it would take to be able to do something in a bipartisan way.

BENSHOFF: Meanwhile, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has been talking to Republicans. And so far, no climate deal has been announced. That's a problem because researchers predict that the U.S. needs to do more quickly if it's going to slash emissions sufficiently in the next eight years. A big infrastructure bill passed last year included some climate change elements, but John Larsen with the Rhodium Group says it's not enough.

JOHN LARSEN: It kind of makes other things possible, but it doesn't necessarily drive a lot of emission reductions on its own.

BENSHOFF: That's because it funds things like power lines and developing new technologies, not implementing ones that already exist. A Rhodium Group study last year found that without a massive investment in renewable energy, like the more than half-trillion-dollar climate portion of the "Build Back Better" act, 2030 climate goals are in jeopardy. Larsen says the main investment tool is tax credits.

LARSEN: Wind and solar tax credits. It's the carbon capture tax credits. It's clean fuels tax credits. All that stuff really adds up by 2030 to a meaningfully different and cleaner energy system.

BENSHOFF: Such credits are where Democrats hope they can find consensus now - in particular, ones that last for 10 years and can be used for any kind of zero-emissions energy source. That last part is important because it's attractive to a lot of different kinds of energy providers and their allies in Congress. Lisa Jacobson, president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, says renewable power needs them to keep up momentum.

LISA JACOBSON: You know, the market's stalling. And we need to provide some clarity and predictability, and this would be very helpful.

BENSHOFF: At the same time, fossil fuel companies could use that same money for carbon capture, technology which reduces emissions from fuel-burning power plants. Without legislation, the Biden administration will be left to try to remake U.S. climate policy through regulations, but those rules are more vulnerable to legal challenges and political shifts. Here's John Larsen again.

LARSEN: And if there is a new president that doesn't care about climate change in office in 2024, a lot of the things we just talked about might not be relevant anymore.

BENSHOFF: Faced with that uncertainty, he says the coming months could be the last, best opportunity to make federal climate change policy that fits the scale of the crisis itself. Laura Benshoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.