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Politics

Scaling back Biden's $3.5 trillion plan means climate proposals may take a hit

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As moderate and progressive Democrats negotiate how to slim down the $3.5 trillion bill containing most of President Biden's domestic priorities, Biden is talking more and more about incremental progress. Here he is yesterday before boarding Air Force One.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My objective is to get everything that I campaigned on passed eventually. Won't all happen at once.

CHANG: But Biden doesn't have that same luxury when it comes to one major aspect of his Build Back Better and his policies aimed at drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. NPR's Scott Detrow has more.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: When it comes to climate change, President Biden is facing two tight deadlines. One of them is a major international climate summit that begins at the end of the month. Biden needs to arrive, showing other world leaders that after decades of dithering, the U.S. has a real plan in place to meet the climate goals he set for the country. Dan Lash Off is the U.S. director for the World Resources Institute, which works on climate policy.

DAN LASHOF: To meet the 50% or more reduction in U.S. emissions by 2030, we need action now.

DETROW: That's the goal recently set by the Biden administration to keep pace with promises made in the Paris climate agreement. It's aggressive but what scientists say is needed to hold back the worst-case scenarios of climate change. That's where Biden's second, much more existential deadline comes in. The worldwide goal has long been to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. It's getting harder and harder to meet. The world has already heated a degree, and extreme weather is becoming more extreme.

LASHOF: There are potential tipping points where you cross a point of no return for the Amazon forest or for the polar ice caps. We don't know exactly where those tipping points are. That's one of the challenges. So the more we do sooner, the less likely we are to cross those tipping points.

DETROW: Even as a trillion dollars or even more will likely have to come out of the sprawling bill, environmental advocates like Jamal Raad of Evergreen Action are mostly feeling pretty positive the major climate provisions will stay in.

JAMAL RAAD: Because leader Schumer has made climate a priority, President Biden campaigned and won on bold climate action and has signaled its support as a priority in the reconciliation bill.

DETROW: Of course, Biden has repeatedly acknowledged that the fate of the bill lies with the two Democratic senators who are still on the fence - West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema. Manchin comes from a state where coal and natural gas loom large, and he's skeptical about the key new program that would cut emissions at power plants, something called the Clean Electricity Plan. The $150 billion program would pay grants to utilities that shift from fossil fuels to clean electricity sources. Shift 4% a year to sources like wind or solar and get a grant. Don't hit that threshold, pay a fine.

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JOE MANCHIN: I am just not for giving public companies who have shareholders, public dollars, free, when I know they're going to be very profitable at the end.

DETROW: Manchin suggested making those payments loans instead. Senator Tina Smith is leading the push for the Clean Electricity Plan. The Minnesota Democrat says grants would speed up utilities transition and make it more affordable in what's become a massive race against time.

TINA SMITH: What they are working hard to do is to add clean power at a fast rate, the rate that we need in order to meet our climate goals without having utility rates go up for their customers.

DETROW: Analysis from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's office says the proposal would make up the bulk of emission cuts in the reconciliation plan, along with other tax incentives to speed up the shift to clean energy. At the current funding level, Schumer's office projects the reconciliation bill would get the U.S. within 5% of Biden's end-of-decade climate goal. The more funding gets whittled away, though, the further off that result becomes. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESPER RYOM'S "PACER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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