Kerry claims congressional inaction in the U.S. won't undermine Glasgow climate conference

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GLASGOW, Scotland — Special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry told reporters on Tuesday that the U.N. Climate Change Conference isn’t at all undermined by the fact that Congress still hasn’t passed President Biden’s major climate action plan.

“No, because we’re not dependent on the schedule of Congress,” Kerry said when asked by Yahoo News whether congressional inaction on climate change makes it harder for him to persuade other countries to do more themselves. The former secretary of state was speaking to a small group of reporters on the second day of the conference.

“Congress will, I’m confident, do what they’re planning to do,” he continued. “And that’s the president who’s negotiating that, not me, so I’m not going to get involved in that.”

What Democrats in Congress are planning to do, supposedly, is pass Build Back Better, Biden’s proposal to invest in a range of priorities, including health care, child care and combating climate change. But centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has forced Biden to strip out key climate provisions such as setting a benchmark for utilities to transition to clean sources of electricity, and a fee for methane pollution.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks with reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Monday.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., at a news conference on Monday on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Democrats had hoped to pass the package before the climate change conference, also known as COP26, began. Last week, Biden rolled out a pared-down “framework,” which still contained significant investment in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, that he claimed had the support needed in Congress. But it still hasn’t passed, and without the policies included in it, the U.S. isn’t on track to meet the administration’s pledge to halve emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.

In Glasgow, Kerry said that Build Back Better’s provisions and the climate change conference were never linked.

“I will tell you that we never sat around and said, ‘Oh, we have to have this done and that done,’” he said. “No, we had a set of priorities for here, and those priorities are priorities because they’re the nation’s priorities.”

Asked by Yahoo News whether the U.S. needs to actually have the policies in place to achieve its climate goals, Kerry insisted that the Biden administration, using its authority to enforce existing laws and spend already appropriated funds, is working toward accomplishing them.

“Well, they are,” he said. He pointed to the U.S.’s recent joint pledge with the European Union to cut emissions of methane, a powerful short-term greenhouse gas, by 30 percent by 2030, and the Biden administration’s plan to achieve that through issuing new regulations under the Clean Air Act.

John Kerry, United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, speaks at an event about the
John Kerry, President Biden's envoy for climate change, speaks about the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

“Did you hear Gina McCarthy at the methane event?” he asked, referring to the White House national climate adviser. “Gina laid out exactly what we’re already doing to fulfill the pledge.”

Kerry then argued that the private sector is also taking steps that will result in large emissions reductions.

“And we’re doing the same thing across our economy right now,” he said. “Ford Motor Company and General Motors have announced that by 2035, that there will be no internal-combustion-engine cars.”

Pivoting back to the Biden administration, he continued, “And we’ve announced that we’ll have a power sector that is carbon-free — not coal-free, carbon-free — by 2035.” The White House has indeed set that target, which experts say will be hard to reach, but it’s unclear how it would be achieved without the Clean Electricity Performance Program that Manchin forced Biden to cut from his agenda.

Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only major emitter of greenhouse gases. China, which now emits more carbon dioxide than the nations of the industrialized world combined, has disappointed global leaders by refusing to pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 rather than 2060, or move up its promise to peak its emissions from 2030.

Asked whether China will do either of those things during COP26, Kerry said, “I have no idea. We’re in touch with the Chinese. We’ve been talking to them. We’ve been doing that steadily.”

Kerry cannot be accused of failing to appreciate China’s significance. “We’ve had more than 25 negotiating sessions,” he noted. “I went to China twice. And we’ll see what happens.”


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