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Biden's stalled climate policies back home may undercut U.S. influence at COP26


The U.S. is back. That was President Biden's message at the international climate summit known as COP26 today. There in Glasgow, Scotland, negotiations to cut heat-trapping emissions are underway. Now, the U.S. is trying to convince other countries to move faster, but Biden's still struggling to pass his climate policies back in the U.S. Joining me to talk about what's at stake, NPR's Frank Langfitt in Glasgow and science correspondent Lauren Sommer.

And, Lauren, I'm going to start with you because these are the first climate talks since the U.S. pulled out under former President Trump. What has Biden's message been?

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Yeah, Biden has had the same message for these countries as he's had at home, which is climate change is a crisis, but it's also an opportunity for a new clean energy economy, and that it's urgent that everyone get on board. Here's what he said.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're standing at an inflection point in world history. We have the ability to invest in ourselves and build an equitable, clean energy future and, in the process, create millions of good-paying jobs and opportunities around the world.

SOMMER: Because here's the context behind these talks. Right now the world is on track for extreme warming. That would mean severe heat waves, floods and storms would become much more common. To avoid that, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut nearly in half by 2030, compared to 2010 levels. Instead, they're expected to rise by 16%.

CORNISH: Frank, you've been inside the venue today. What was actually the reaction to the president's speech?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, you know, Audie, I talked to a number of younger climate activists here. They've come here as observers. And climate change fills them with dread, just the same things that Lauren was talking about. And they were kind of underwhelmed by the president. Some people I talked to felt that these sounded like kind of uninspired talking points. I talked to Jes Vescontes, an artist and Fulbright scholar who is based in Germany working on climate impact research. Let's give a listen.

JES VESCONTES: There was a lot of rambling. There was a lot of political this, political that. I don't think it's acceptable. I mean, if you look at the way the prime minister of Barbados handled this, there was urgency.

LANGFITT: Yeah, and Jes makes a good point. The prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, she was very direct about the need for leaders here to take measures to limit the rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius and the consequences for the world if they don't.


PRIME MINISTER MIA MOTTLEY: If our existence is to mean anything, then we must act in the interest of all of our people who are dependent on us. 1.5 is what we need to survive. Two degrees is a death sentence for the people of Antigua and Barbuda, for the people of the Maldives.

CORNISH: And when you look at G-20 countries - right? - they met and also focused on climate change before the summit. Lauren, did they make any progress towards this goal?

SOMMER: Yeah, what they agreed was to reduce their heat-trapping emissions to net-zero by around mid-century. Now, the around part is important. The U.N. has been pushing for a commitment of 2050. But countries like China and Russia, they're saying 2060. The G-20 did agree to stop financing new coal power plants in other countries, which was largely done by China, Japan and South Korea. But there was no agreement to phase out coal within their borders because countries like China and India are still dependent on it.

CORNISH: For the U.S. to come through on its climate commitment, Biden's policies still need to make it through Congress. There's only a slim Democratic margin in the Senate right now. And, of course, some of his proposals have changed quite a bit in negotiations. So does it look like it'll be enough?

SOMMER: Yeah, what they're considering would still be the biggest climate investment in the country's history - $500 billion. But it's definitely not a done deal. The biggest piece are these tax credits for things like buying electric cars, installing solar panels, making buildings more efficient. What's not in there are incentives and penalties to push electric utilities to use more clean energy. That was opposed by Senator Joe Manchin from the coal state of West Virginia. There's still a chance the U.S. will get close to its goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030. But based on comments Manchin made today, it's still not clear if he's on board.

CORNISH: Frank, I don't want to assume that internationally people are paying attention to what's happening - right? - to the domestic politics of the U.S. But is any of this affecting the president's credibility at the international summit?

LANGFITT: Well, your assumption actually would be right, Audie. I think people here do feel that it undermines some of his credibility, the fact that the president can't get this through the Senate. People did, I will say, appreciate what Biden said about the role that countries like the U.S. have had in causing climate change and the role that they've also played in, you know, the suffering of poor countries. Here's a climate activist named Divya Nawale.

DIVYA NAWALE: It's about time that it is acknowledged that the developed economies have created a problem. And the developed economies need to stand up and take those actions. And the whole world is looking to the U.S.

LANGFITT: And finally, Audie, I just say the mood here is generally kind of downbeat. Amid all the pledges, there are concerns that the major emitting countries won't do enough to prevent some big climate-related damage in the decades coming.

CORNISH: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Glasgow and Lauren Sommer, thank you both.

SOMMER: Thanks.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.