Opinion | Energy & Environment

Bad policy for the sake of US climate leadership is still bad policy

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

With the UN's climate conference COP26 rapidly approaching, President Biden is pushing Congress to act on his Build Back Better agenda. He is hoping to convince lawmakers to pass both the bipartisan infrastructure bill as well as an iteration of the once-$3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, seeking to unite progressives and moderates in the process. 

On the surface, it makes political sense that Biden wants to tout a domestic climate accomplishment on the world stage when he flies to the UN summit Glasgow for COP26. After all, more than half the battle at these international events is rhetorical. That's why China, which emits more than the rest of the developed world combined, publicly committed to ending its international coal-financing at the U.N. General Assembly last month. These kinds of pledges sound terrific but are ultimately worthless until they're backed up by action and substantive emissions reductions.

While more substantive than a simple pledge, Biden's Build Back Better agenda performs a similar rhetorical role. He knows that it's a tough sell to ask the world to act on climate change, if the U.S. itself appears inactive. But he risks forcing through bad policy for the mere sake of having policy. To be sure, the bipartisan bill does include several good climate provisions, from natural resilience measures to research and development dollars for nuclear energy and carbon capture technology, as well as genuine infrastructural improvements.

The budget reconciliation proposal, however, is another story. Deemed a "social spending" measure, the bill essentially throws trillions of dollars at a wide variety of pet projects, many of which have nothing to do with climate change. Even if both bills pass before COP26, which is by no means certain, it seems like Biden is more intent on showing up in Glasgow with the backing of trillions of taxpayer dollars, than in pursuing economically realistic and internationally replicable policy. If Biden and Congress were serious about having a real deliverable, they would not have tied the reckless reconciliation bill to the bipartisan bill that won the support of 19 Republican senators.

Indeed, the rhetoric that this reconciliation bill is our "last chance" for meaningful action on climate change is both misleading and absurd. One single piece of legislation will not solve climate change, and the implicit assumption that other countries can match trillions of "social spending" is profoundly out of tune with reality. Measuring climate bills by their price tag, or forcing hyper-partisan votes to get them passed, is neither good nor attractive climate policy for the rest of the world.

Instead of touting the promise of deficit-fueled climate action, Biden should start by remembering that the U.S. already leads the world on emissions reductions. Since 2005, the U.S. has reduced its emissions more than the next eight countries combined, not thanks to "social spending," but thanks to the power of American innovation and the shale boom.

To be clear, this was achieved without any major climate legislation from Congress, though measures in the bipartisan bill have the potential to continue this trend. This is one lesson Biden could take to COP26. As the United States has pursued an all-of-the-above energy approach, major European countries have picked energy winners and losers, now facing the energy crisis consequence of that, forcing increased dependence on Russian natural gas and even coal. Both regular consumers and the planet are the victims of this approach - not the political elites that write the law.

It goes without saying that the developing world is desperate for climate policies that don't cost trillions of dollars or cause energy poverty. Policies that incentivize innovation, increase access to capital markets, remove uncompetitive barriers to trade, and empower the private sector are policies that can attract the developing world to combine economic growth with environmental sustainability. Anything short of this approach is a lack of U.S. leadership on the international stage. 

Put simply, Biden would do well to remember that bigger government and higher price tags are not synonymous with significant climate action. The reconciliation bill may be a climate deliverable in the eyes of the administration, but bad, reckless policy for the sake of having policy remains bad, reckless policy. What country would feel compelled to follow our example?

At COP26, we must demonstrate that the United States truly is a leader on the issue of climate change, from technology innovation to a practical energy strategy. The planet deserves more than what sounds good in front of a U.N. assembly. It deserves good policy.

Christopher Barnard is the national policy director at the American Conservation Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisBarnardDL

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