19.10.21 A tug-of-war on climate action Author: Jost Burger • Credits: Getty Images / CalypsoArt • Reading time: 3 min.

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Joe Biden has put the fight against climate change back on the agenda in the USA. However, the president faces tight majorities and resistance from his own party ranks.

“A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.” These are two sentences from Joe Biden’s inaugural address as the 46th President of the United States on January 20 this year. They illustrate how serious Biden is about combating climate change. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris Agreement. In the spring, he then announced his plan to decarbonize the electricity sector by 2035 and to make the entire economy climate-neutral by 2050. But how all of this will happen is still unclear. For example, critics point to the fact that US energy supply companies plan to invest 70 billion dollars in new gas-fired power stations by 2025. That doesn’t sound like decarbonization.

Surveys carried out among the American people also fail to give a clear picture. For years, Anthony Leiserowitz, a professor at Yale University, has been researching into the public perception of climate change in the USA. He says that the answer to the question of whether climate change actually exists reveals six different Americas. There are the dismissive, who make up eight percent, the doubtful with twelve percent, and another six percent who simply know too little about it or are disengaged. A further 19 percent, described by Leiserowitz as the “cautious,” have not yet decided whether they believe climate change is true. On the other hand, 29 percent of the population are “concerned” and accept that climate change is a fact, but for them the problem is still a long way off in both time and space. Another 26 percent are “alarmed” and believe in immediate action. The size of this group has grown by 50 percent over the last five years. Overall, according to Leiserowitz, Americans are becoming more worried about global warming, more engaged with the issue, and more supportive of climate solutions.

US President

The Biden administration has already begun to implement its climate action plans. In early August, the senate gave bipartisan approval with the necessary two-thirds majority to the infrastructure bill. This will see more than one trillion dollars being spent on developing American infrastructure, including new bridges and new roads, but also the expansion of the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. In addition, the Democrats are planning a second infrastructure measure known as the human infrastructure bill. Alongside social spending in areas such as free preschool and sick pay, this includes further climate measures. The majority of these have not yet been defined, but could include tax incentives for the use of more environmentally friendly energy sources, for example. A further 3.5 trillion dollars will be made available for this second infrastructure package.

The Democrats are attempting to steer these massive spending measures through the Senate in the form of a budget bill. In this case, only a simple majority is needed, but it will be very tight. Half of the senators are Democrats and half Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, holds the deciding vote, but if only one Democratic senator steps out of line, the plans will fail.

That is entirely possible, because there is resistance to the second infrastructure bill across party lines. On the side of the “moderate” (or “conservative”) Democrats are Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona. Sinema says that the planned spending of 3.5 trillion dollars is simply too much. Manchin is of the same opinion and his state is also the second largest producer of coal in the USA. West Virginia would be particularly hard hit by the climate-friendly restructuring of American industry.

Biden’s plans also face threats from the House of Representatives. Influential progressive Democrats, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are calling for a vote on the first infrastructure bill to be held in the House of Representatives after the human infrastructure bill has passed the Senate. Only then will the House vote on both infrastructure measures. The fear is that if the House approves only the first package, the second package could simply be forgotten.

Nancy Pelosi, Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, has already postponed a vote on the first infrastructure bill several times. Her job now is to moderate a process which will result in all the Democrats in the House and the Senate passing a budget for the human infrastructure bill. Joe Manchin, for example, would be satisfied with a reduction to 1.5 trillion dollars. Intense negotiations are currently underway in both houses and across party lines. President Biden remains optimistic. At the start of October, he said of his infrastructure plans: “It doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days, or in six weeks. We’re going to get it done.”


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