GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — Several members of Congress arrived at the United Nations climate meeting in Glasgow Saturday, the night after Congress moved a little closer to the finish line of passing some kind of climate action in the form of the Build Back Better Act.
Congress passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which provides money for adaptation but not much in the way of clean energy. The House has agreed to a vote that could happen shortly after the UN talks end on the Build Back Better Act, which contains historic climate provisions to the tune of $555 billion. The Democratic Senate delegation was out in full force at the U.S. pavilion in Glasgow to announce to the world that Congress would pass the bill, and the country would officially cement its place as a climate leader. But the historic nature of the bill doesn’t detract from the tension with activists who are arguing the science demands even more.
At a public event on Saturday afternoon in Glasgow, Sen. Ed Markey heartily praised what he called “President Biden’s transformational agenda.” His message: The act is close to getting passed and the U.S. is doing great.
“We will get this job done, and it’s going to unleash a revolution of clean energy,” he said.
Markey is a veteran of UN climate meetings, attending them as far back as the maligned 2009 iteration in Copenhagen when he was in the House. He’s has also long been a steadfast climate advocate on the Hill, including championing the Green New Deal in the Senate. Prior to that, he co-authored the last big climate bill in Washington, DC, the 2009 Waxman-Markey Act. That bill would have, among other things, establish carbon pricing across the U.S. before going down in flames in the Senate. That means he’s no stranger to climate defeat; him being bullish on the Build Back Better Act means something.
There’s good stuff in the act as it stands. Clean energy tax credits, creating a Civilian Climate Corps, and money for extreme weather and resilience work are currently included in the bill, all of which will be essential to addressing the climate crisis. But coal-and-dirty-utilities lovin’ Sen. Joe Manchin (and the 50 Republican senators who are opposed to the act) killed the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), a provision that was the original act’s single biggest climate pollution reducer by rewarding utilities that used more clean energy and penalizing those that didn’t.
Democrats have found new ways to redistribute the funds in the CEPP to other initiatives, and President Joe Biden promised that the Environmental Protection Agency would figure out a way to make power plants clean up their act. But climate victory is still tenuous. The Supreme Court is poised to possibly limit the EPA’s ability to regulate power plants, which could render that promise moot. And throws into doubt whether the U.S. can reduce emissions at levels that no amount of tax credits for solar can clear. The Build Back Better Act would be the biggest climate investment in U.S. history, but that history of feet-dragging means the claim isn’t as impressive as it sounds.
Native American activist Jacob Johns, who was on the panel with Markey, pushed back on the cheery attitude. “It is our responsibility to hold our government accountable,” Johns said, after pointing out that the Biden administration was letting oil run through the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines. “When we talk about action, what are we really talking about? Are we going to talk about how the U.S. is somehow a progressive beacon of light? Or are we actually going to build back better?”
Earther spoke with Markey after the event where the senator said the bill was “very close” to being passed, and that the outstanding differences were no longer on climate.
“We have to assure the world that we have closed the book on the Trump era, that we’re back in business and that we support President Biden’s program and we will find the votes in order to pass it,” he said.
Markey is in a tight spot. In an op-ed in local outlet WBUR right before the climate talks, he said “Congress must keep working over the next few days to come to a deal on a bold, climate-focused reconciliation package” to show the world the U.S. is serious. That hasn’t happened, though. Instead, the world has seen a coal-sympathizing senator and feckless Republicans remove the strongest provisions to reduce carbon pollution. In an interview Yahoo News at the conference, Markey said whether Manchin will vote on the bill is the “most important question on all of our minds,” and other Democratic senators in Glasgow echoed that sentiment, indicating the process is still fluid.
Negotiations don’t necessarily hang on the act passing or not, but the U.S. carries a lot of weight. The next week will show if Markey and other senators’ assurances are enough for the world. But what is clear is they’re not enough for activists.
“It seems like another greenwashing tour, and it’s all bullshit, and we’re doing the dance, and it’s really disappointing,” Johns said of Markey’s comments after the event. “They’re just trying to get anything to stick right now so they can say they have accomplished something. I don’t want to hear words anymore.”
Brian Kahn contributed reporting to this story.