GLASGOW — Barack Obama returned to the world stage on Monday to implore the delegates at the United Nations climate conference here to act boldly to curb emissions and stave off catastrophic global warming.
“There is one thing that should transcend our normal day-to-day politics and normal geopolitics, and that is climate change,” he declared. “The world has to step up.”
Even as he urged leaders of other nations to transcend tribalism and hostility to give the planet a fighting chance, the former president acknowledged the political reality in his own, where most Republicans oppose policies that would make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions while his Democratic Party has struggled to get the infrastructure bills that contain much of President Biden’s climate agenda over the finish line.
“Joe Biden wanted to do even more,” Obama said, “he’s constrained by the absence of a robust majority needed to make that happen.”
It was the latest example of how large American politics loom in the plenaries and pavilions where delegates from nearly 200 countries are trying to hammer out agreements to curb global warming. Cabinet officials, members of Congress, and Biden himself came to Glasgow insisting their country has turned the page on four years of Donald Trump. But their message of a return to US leadership on the issue has been indelibly shaped by two realities: a narrow Democratic majority and the possibility that Republicans could reclaim power in Congress as soon as next year and undo the progress they want to tout here.
“I am concerned about durable climate legislation,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who joined 17 of her Democratic colleagues at the conference, during a panel discussion over the weekend. “We can kind of go ‘ping-pong, back and forth’ if it’s a wholly partisan initiative.”
US officials have barnstormed Glasgow, showcasing pledges to cut methane emissions and quadruple climate aid to poor and vulnerable countries while touting promises from America’s corporate sector to invest in clean energy and shrink its carbon footprint. Their goal, in part, is to show that the days of climate denialism — embodied by Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement — are over for good, which they hope will encourage other countries to step up.
“We came here, you know, delivering significant resources. We didn’t come here empty-handed,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House National Climate Advisor, a new position created by Biden. Her role at COP, she said, has been to speak privately and publicly about how the United States is going to meet its own climate commitments. “I’ve felt a lot of relief from other countries that we are back here.”
The 18 senators plus a delegation from the House — including Republicans like Dan Crenshaw of Texas and John Curtis of Utah — were omnipresent at the conference over the weekend. Many of them were quick to tick off the climate benefits of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the House on Friday, including the investment of almost $50 billion to help the country guard against flooding, wildfires and other worsening climate disasters.
But one senator who isn’t here casts a big shadow over additional US climate actions.
“We are 49 out of 50 votes in the Senate to pass a price on carbon,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island during a talk at the US pavilion on Saturday. He was referring to the possibility of including a fee on carbon in Biden’s $1.75 social spending and climate legislation, a step that economists say is likely the most efficient way to cut emissions.
The missing Democratic senator Whitehouse alluded to was Joe Manchin of coal-rich West Virginia, whose reticence to embrace various climate provisions supported by much of the rest of his party has an outsize influence on the pitch his colleagues can make here about the US commitment to addressing the crisis.
“We wouldn’t be negotiating if there weren’t a real opportunity there,” Whitehouse told The Boston Globe of ongoing talks over the legislation. If he can get Manchin on board with carbon pricing, “the emissions response to the bill goes through the roof, it really becomes a pathway to safety,” Whitehouse said. (A spokeswoman for Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana said Tuesday that he does not support any carbon tax proposal he has been presented with; aides to Whitehouse did not immediately respond.)
Manchin has already shaped the bill, like when he signaled his opposition to including a clean electricity plan, which would have punished utilities that don’t switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. His reticence forced White House officials to find other ways to offer incentives in the legislation to cut US emissions — something they insist they have done and then some.
And after the conference here started, the United States declined to join more than 40 other nations in formally pledging to phase out coal. American officials blamed it on a technicality, but [that] the New York Times reported the decision was connected to a belief within the administration that Manchin would be angry if the United States signed on.
Manchin’s colleagues insisted this weekend they will pass the $1.75 trillion dollar bill with his support, which they need given universal Republican opposition. Obama touted the bill during his speech on Monday.
“It will set the United States on course to meet its new climate targets, achieving a 50 percent to 52 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030,” Obama said.
Some advocates here, however, are frustrated that intra-party domestic politics have left Americans talking about the bill in the future tense — not the present.
“There’s no reason to be so close to the end of the tunnel and not to go there, and to be holding [the bill] for reasons that are beyond comprehension,” Ramón Cruz, the president of the Sierra Club, said in an interview. “We’re disappointed.”
During his speech, Obama slammed Republicans for their orthodoxy on climate change. Trump, the party’s de facto leader, has long described it as a hoax, and most Republican lawmakers are unwilling to support policies that try to stop it at its roots, even though some are increasingly willing to acknowledge its effects.
“One of our two major parties has decided not only to sit on the sidelines, but express active hostility toward climate science, and make climate change a partisan issue,” Obama said, before urging young people to get involved in politics and change people’s minds.
“We’ve got to persuade the guy who has to drive to his factory job every single day, can’t afford a Tesla and might not be able to pay the rent or feed his family if gas prices go up,” he said.
Matthew Paterson, a professor of international politics at the University of Manchester in England who has observed negotiations at COP, said other countries are well aware of American climate politics — a reality that contributes to America’s “credibility problem” in a setting like this.
“There is a lot of skepticism that what any US president promises can actually be delivered, especially over the course of an election cycle,” Paterson said in an email. But, he added, since the US’s emissions have gone down relative to countries like China, “the fact that the US is unreliable as a partner on climate is less crucial since it is less important to the climate solution than it used to be.”
Ziaul Haque, a delegate from Bangladesh, a developing country that is deeply vulnerable to flooding and other effects of climate change, said the U.S. can restore trust by delivering on its promises — and a failure could have ripple effects around the world.
“On the part of the global community and the developing nations who are considered major emitters, they are looking for those initiatives to be taken by the USA,” he said. “If the USA fails, then they may retreat.”
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.