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Biden backtracks on climate plans and ‘walks tightrope’ to court both young voters and moderates

PoliticsBiden backtracks on climate plans and ‘walks tightrope’ to court both young voters and moderates

Joe Biden, touted as the US’s first climate president, is presiding over the quiet weakening of his two most significant plans to slash planet-heating emissions, suggesting that tackling the climate crisis will take a back seat in a febrile election year.

During his state of the union speech on Thursday, Biden insisted that his administration is “making history by confronting the climate crisis, not denying it,”, before reeling off a list of climate-friendly policies and accomplishments. “I’m taking the most significant action on climate ever in the history of the world,” the US president added.

However, last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it would delay a regulation that would reduce emissions from existing gas power plants, most likely until after November’s presidential election. The delay comes as the administration waters down requirements that limit pollution from cars, slowing the country’s adoption of electric vehicles.

Related: Joe Biden just did the rarest thing in US politics: he stood up to the oil industry | Bill McKibben

The backtracking could jeopardize Biden’s goal of cutting US emissions in half this decade, which scientists say is imperative to averting disastrous effects from global heating, and shows the competing pressures upon a president looking to hold together a wobbly coalition including climate activists, labor unions and centrist swing state voters before a likely showdown with Donald Trump later this year.

Biden is faced by a cohort of younger, progressive voters who have denounced him for the ongoing leasing of oil and gas drilling on public lands, as well as a large slice of the electorate who have barely heard of Biden’s landmark climate bill and are more worried about inflation and the costs of a green transition. The EPA still has to complete a slew of climate-related rules in time to avoid them being easily overturned by an unfriendly Congress or supreme court, adding to the pressure.

“They are really walking a tightrope,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser to Bill Clinton’s White House, now an environmental policy expert at American University. “Biden has to retain the full-throated support of younger voters but he also has to speak to moderates in swing states who are focused on consumer issues. It’s a real balance.”

The realpolitik of this calculus means that the US has decelerated on climate action, amid record-breaking global temperatures will soon breach internationally agreed-upon thresholds and a looming election with Trump, who has vowed to dismantle all of Biden’s climate policies.

A Trump victory could lead to an additional 4bn tonnes of US emissions by 2030 compared to those released during Biden’s term, the equivalent of the annual emissions of the EU and Japan, according to an analysis this week by Carbon Brief.

“There’s a lot at stake, and if Biden needs to modify vehicle emissions standards to help tip the balance in his favor, he will go for it,” Bledsoe said. “This is the starkest choice on climate change for any election in history.”

Biden’s climate policies are colliding with the election in four key areas:

Gas plant rules delay

The EPA has said it is on track to finalize rules that would curb greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal and new gas plants by April, but that doing the same for existing gas plants will take longer, likely until after the election.

This will offer a “stronger, more durable approach” to cutting emissions, Michael Regan, the EPA administrator has said, and the administration hopes the longer timeline will allow it to craft a set of regulations that will survive an inevitable onslaught of legal challenges from Republican-led states heavily wedded to fossil fuels.

Power plants are responsible for around a quarter of the US’s total carbon emissions, and a previous attempt by Barack Obama’s administration to curb their planet-heating pollution was effectively killed off by the supreme court.

The EPA now has to overcome this tortured history by making a new rule that will survive not only the courts but also reversal by Congress and a potential new Trump term. For some, the delay is unbearable given the gravity of the climate crisis and the election stakes.

“It is inexplicable that EPA, knowing of these emissions, did not focus this rule-making on existing gas-fired plants from its inception,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic US senator, who added that “time is not on our side, and the agency’s generally lethargic rule-making pace does not leave one optimistic”.

Tapping the brakes on electric vehicles

Nearly one in 10 cars sold in the US last year was electric, going some way to fulfilling a Biden administration goal to transform the types of vehicles Americans drive so emissions from transportation, the largest source of carbon pollution in the US, can come down quickly.

This transition is bumpy, however. EV prices remain higher than most gasoline- or diesel-powered cars, the recharging infrastructure remains patchy and some drivers have found it difficult to find available models that qualify for the generous EV tax rebates offered by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

On top of this, EVs have been dragged into the morass of a culture war, with Trump calling their adoption “lunacy” and wishing that EV proponents would “rot in hell”. The former president has claimed, falsely, that Biden is looking to ban conventional cars in favor of EVs that fail to work in cold weather.

In the midst of this, and following lobbying from large car companies and labor unions, the administration appears set to dilute stringent new pollution standards for cars, easing the pace of EV adoption.

While carmakers will still have to meet new fuel-efficiency rules that make EVs overwhelmingly more economical to produce, the timeframe for doing so will be pushed back. There will be an emissions cost to this, even as Biden hopes it will negate a political headache.

“EVs have been made into a huge culture war meme and they’ve become a key political issue,” Bledsoe said. “The president has now got to focus on consumers so they are not losing out in the EV transition. That is what the revision is about from a political perspective.”

An LNG export pause

Amid the dialing down of climate initiatives, there has been a shining victory for environmentalists in the form of a Biden administration pause on new liquified natural gas (or LNG) exports.

The temporary halt in January of new LNG export licenses is not expected to severely curtail the booming growth of gas infrastructure along the Gulf of Mexico coast, which will double gas exports from the US, already the world’s largest gas exporter, by 2027.

But it was a notable triumph for those pushing Biden to do more to temper the runaway oil and gas activity that threatens climate goals. The pause, to better consider the climate impacts of the exports, is “truly monumental for our communities”, according to Roishetta Ozane, an activist in Louisiana, where much of the LNG buildout is happening.

Politically, it provides Biden some needed credit with younger, climate-conscious voters who have been enraged by rampant, record oil and gas drilling during his presidency. The president will need these voters if he hopes to defeat Trump again in November.

“It was nakedly political to appeal to that cohort of voters,” Bledsoe said.

Environmental justice in the balance

Biden’s election victory came with a promise to center environmental justice in all federal climate policy and finance. But, despite notable accomplishments including unprecedented ring-fenced funding for historically underserved communities and investigations into historic harms, there’s growing frustration over the administration’s “broken promises” as the election nears.

In Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, the 85-mile heavily polluted stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, communities were “devastated” in January when the EPA dropped its civil rights probe into permitting practices, before backing down from environmental justice cases across the country.

The decision came just months after federal investigators dropped a case into whether racism played a role in the increased cancer risk for local residents, despite finding evidence of discrimination.

Biden recruited some of the country’s leading environmental justice figureheads to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), but their advice on key issues like carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been ignored.

The administration has overseen record fossil fuel production – and greenlighted drilling and pipeline projects in Alaska and Appalachia and on the Gulf coast – which will both exacerbate environmental and health harms on existing environmental justice communities while also creating new ones.

“Far more resources have opened up through the IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] but communities have to jump through so many hoops that it’s not making an impact,” said Eloise Reid, the manager of the Louisiana Against False Solutions Coalition. “Mike Regan came to Cancer Alley and looked people in the eye but then dropped the investigation and gave primacy to the state over CCS.

“This has left such a bad taste in people’s mouths. The administration has not listened to communities. There’s been a lot of broken promises.”

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