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With Biden's climate plan in jeopardy, can America lead on climate change?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden's ambitious climate agenda is in jeopardy. The Clean Electricity Performance Program would pay utilities to switch to clean electricity sources like wind and solar, and those that didn't transition fast enough would face government fines. But Democrats may not have enough votes to pass it. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has financial ties to the coal industry, and he reportedly opposes the idea. Leah Stokes is helping Senate Democrats write their climate provisions. She is an environmental policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and she's here now to talk about what eliminating this program from the legislation could mean.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LEAH STOKES: Oh, thanks for having me on.

SHAPIRO: So, on the one hand, scientists say that countries have to be way more ambitious cutting emissions if they want to avoid the worst climate-related disasters. On the other hand, the Biden administration has been saying, look, even if this clean electricity program dies, there are lots of other ways to cut carbon emissions from the energy sector. And so which do you think is true? Can the U.S. meet its promises without this plan?

STOKES: I think that we must have something for the power sector that cleans up carbon pollution from our electricity system. You can't just blow a hole a size of a third of the pollution cuts into the package and say, oh, it's still good enough. It's not good enough.

SHAPIRO: To be clear, it sounds like you're saying if there isn't something addressing the energy sector and electricity, then there's no way the Biden administration can meet its goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030, and more broadly, the world meet its goal of keeping global temperatures from rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius.

STOKES: That's right. You know, Congress and the White House have a big responsibility right now. They have to put forward an investment package that takes on the climate crisis at the scale that's necessary and meets those goals that the Biden administration has laid out, which is that they plan to cut pollution by half this decade. The Clean Electricity Performance Program was going to deliver one-third of those pollution cuts. So if we don't have that program, we need something else that cleans up our power sector.

SHAPIRO: So Senator Manchin is saying, look, utilities are already moving in this direction. There's no reason to spend money on pushing energy companies to do something they're already doing. Is he right? How fast are they moving?

STOKES: Unfortunately, utilities are not moving fast enough. If we just inch along at about 2.5 points a year, are we going to get to 100% by 2035? No, we are not. We need to be doing something like four to five percentage points of clean power every year. And that's actually what the program was designed to do. It put a requirement that utilities had to deploy 4% clean power every year and get on the trajectory we need.

SHAPIRO: It's like somebody's walking a marathon route and they're saying, like, I'm going to finish the race. And it's like, no, you have to finish before the sun goes down. And at this pace, you're not going to.

STOKES: Yeah, they would get there maybe three days later, after the marathon was over, right? And in the case of climate change, they'd get there so late that we would have cooked the entire planet. So we need investments from Congress right now that clean up the power sector at the pace that's necessary.

SHAPIRO: The timing is significant here because President Biden's about to travel to Scotland for this global climate summit where he wants to portray the U.S. as a leader on this issue. His climate envoy, John Kerry, has said that if Congress does not pass ambitious climate legislation before the summit, it's going to be like President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement again. Because avoiding climate catastrophe does have to be a global effort, what would it mean internationally if the U.S. drops the ball on this just before the summit in Glasgow?

STOKES: We have a responsibility. We are the largest historic emitter of carbon pollution and No. 2 right now in terms of current carbon pollution. So we're also the engine of innovation globally. And so if the United States can clean up its electricity system this decade, that will mean that there will be inexpensive technology to sell to other countries or share with them, and the whole planet can really get on that pathway of cleaning up our pollution. So it's really important that we make progress, and Glasgow is a super important meeting. But my view is that we cannot compromise on the package just because we have this external deadline. We have to get it done right, which means we need something else in the package to make up for the pollution cuts that the Clean Electricity Performance Program was going to deliver.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like a Catch-22 because if you try to swap this out with some other equally ambitious program, that other equally ambitious program, whether it's a carbon tax or something else, is likely to run into the same political problems that this is running into right now.

STOKES: That's possible, but I think we have to keep trying. You know, when that story came out on the New York Times that the Clean Electricity Performance Program was hitting rough waters, guess what? I woke up Saturday morning and I just kept working because we don't have the luxury of saying, oh, it's too hard and we have to give up.

SHAPIRO: So when you say you kept working Saturday morning, you mean, like, coming up with a Plan B.

STOKES: Exactly. And everybody who believes in ambitious climate policy did the same thing. They worked all weekend. So there's lots of ways that we can continue to make progress on the climate crisis. But the package, as it is right now, is not acceptable. We have to have pollution cuts in the power sector because we need every climate tool in the toolbox.

SHAPIRO: Leah Stokes is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at UC Santa Barbara.

Thanks for talking with us.

STOKES: Oh, thanks so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.