Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado shakes hands with former President Barack Obama during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. (Courtesy of Rep. Joe Neguse)
Returning this week from the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse said his second trip to a U.N. Climate Change Conference went a lot better than his first, to COP25 in Madrid, Spain, two years ago.
“Boy, what a change two years can make,” Neguse told reporters in a virtual press conference on Friday.
In contrast to 2019, when senior members of former President Donald Trump’s administration snubbed the conference altogether, Neguse said the reception for the U.S. delegation at COP26 was “nothing short of tremendous, in large part because of the leadership that has been shown by the United States in the last year.”
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President Joe Biden, who reversed Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office, spoke at the conference on Nov. 1, urging the world to begin “a decade of ambition and innovation to preserve our shared future.” Neguse, a Democrat from Lafayette and a member of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, traveled to the summit as part of a 20-member delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“There is no question that the international community recognizes that the climate emergency is here, that it is happening now,” Neguse said. “The sense of urgency that I felt, just collectively in the rooms that we were in over the course of the last several days, was palpable.”
The world’s top climate scientists have urged policymakers to cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner, keeping alive the possibility of limiting the planet’s temperature rise to an average 1.5 degrees Celsius, and preventing more catastrophic scenarios of 2 degrees of warming or more. In the U.S., that means a rapid, unprecedented decrease in nationwide emissions levels, which have declined slightly since peaking in 2007 but remained at more than 6.5 million tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent in 2019 — the second-highest total in the world, behind China.
Neguse said that turnaround begins with passing the $550 billion in tax credits and other clean-energy spending outlined in House Democrats’ budget reconciliation bill. Together with the climate resiliency and adaptation measures contained in a bipartisan infrastructure bill expected to be signed into law by Biden this week, Neguse said the spending would represent a “transformational investment” in U.S. climate action — but the reconciliation bill still faces several obstacles to its passage.
“The time to do something is now, and the solution is a clear one — it’s passing the Build Back Better Act,” Neguse said. “Which we certainly intend to do in the coming days in the House, and we trust that our colleagues in the Senate will recognize the urgency of the moment, and do the same.”
The time to do something is now, and the solution is a clear one — it’s passing the Build Back Better Act.
– Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado
Last year, amid a historic drought and unhealthy forest conditions intensified by climate change, Neguse’s 2nd Congressional District experienced the two largest wildfires in Colorado history. This summer, the burn scars left behind by the fires led to devastating flash floods that leveled homes and killed at least 4 people. At COP26, Neguse said, leaders discussed the growing threat from similar disasters all over the world.
“I spent a great deal of time talking about the visceral ways in which climate change has impacted our community, evidenced by those wildfires and flash floods,” he said. “What’s most striking in visiting with Australia or South America … is that the wildfires are becoming more pervasive and intense in every different pocket of the globe.”
‘Two separate planets’
Addressing his fellow world leaders at COP26 — widely considered the most important such meeting since the negotiation of the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015 — Biden acknowledged that the U.S. had lagged behind much of the rest of the international community on climate policy.
“We’ll demonstrate to the world the United States is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example,” he said. “I know it hasn’t been the case, and that’s why my administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words.”
But Biden’s domestic climate agenda has stalled in Congress amid pushback from moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose opposition has forced Democrats to scrap key measures like a clean-power plan aimed at electric utilities, leaving advocates bitterly disappointed.
Two equally true realities define the resulting $550 billion package of tax credits, grants and other clean-energy investments: It would be by far the largest investment the U.S. government has ever made in reducing carbon emissions, and it falls well short of what scientists and climate-finance experts say is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
A Reuters poll of 44 climate economists conducted prior to COP26 found that most respondents estimated the added investments needed to reach net-zero emissions by midcentury at between 2% and 3% of global economic output. The climate spending in House Democrats’ reconciliation bill would amount to 0.1% of the country’s annual GDP over the next 10 years.
“This COP, like a lot of COPs, actually, is two separate planets,” said Kevin Anderson, an influential British climate scientist, in an interview in Glasgow. “There’s planet politics, which is where you get these grand speeches … and you’ve got the other side of COP, which is where — whether it’s the scientific community or some of the civil-society groups, they’re talking about the scale of the challenge to meet the commitments … These are two separate planets with almost no connection between them.”
“The pledges that countries have made so far are nowhere near enough to avoid one-and-a-half degrees of warming,” agreed Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, director of Princeton University’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment, as COP26 drew to a close. “And if we’re to judge by actually how much has started to be implemented by the major emitter countries, you’re even further behind.”
Echoing Biden’s call to action, Neguse said the Build Back Better Act is the first step on the road towards closing that gap.
“We ultimately are going to define our nation’s history, and the entirety of humanity’s future, in the coming months and years, as we tackle this existential threat,” he said.
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