Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

By Not Acting on Climate, Congress Endangers U.S. National Security

Another failed bill further weakens the country’s global position.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy, and , a professor of the practice of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.
People hold up signs saying "#Build Back Better" and "JOE MANCHIN IS BURNING OUR FUTURE FOR PROFIT"
People hold up signs saying "#Build Back Better" and "JOE MANCHIN IS BURNING OUR FUTURE FOR PROFIT"
People participate in a rally in support of the Build Back Better legislation during morning rush hour in Washington on Jan. 31. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last week, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin seemingly dashed Democrats’ hopes for congressional action to slow climate change. Sen. Bernie Sanders accused Manchin of “sabotag[ing] the president’s agenda”; Rep. John Yarmuth, when asked about the consequences of Congress not acting on climate change, said, “We’re all going to die”; and climate activists, as well as some Democrats in Congress, wondered if Manchin should be removed as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Without a doubt, the failure to act now to slow climate change will move the United States further away from its goals to reduce carbon emissions, with serious implications for the climate and the planet. But Manchin’s rejection of the Biden administration’s energy package should not only be viewed as a tragedy for the climate; it’s also bad for U.S. national security and energy security.

In the years to come, the United States’ resilience and geopolitical influence will require the country to lead on all forms of energy—not just in oil and gas but also in a broad range of clean energy technologies and materials. It was these clean energy sources that the Democrats’ reconciliation bill included provisions to support. A failure to move these energy provisions forward leaves the United States more energy insecure, more vulnerable to the energy-inspired blackmail that Europe is experiencing right now, and less able to advance U.S. geopolitical interests abroad.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin seemingly dashed Democrats’ hopes for congressional action to slow climate change. Sen. Bernie Sanders accused Manchin of “sabotag[ing] the president’s agenda”; Rep. John Yarmuth, when asked about the consequences of Congress not acting on climate change, said, “We’re all going to die”; and climate activists, as well as some Democrats in Congress, wondered if Manchin should be removed as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Without a doubt, the failure to act now to slow climate change will move the United States further away from its goals to reduce carbon emissions, with serious implications for the climate and the planet. But Manchin’s rejection of the Biden administration’s energy package should not only be viewed as a tragedy for the climate; it’s also bad for U.S. national security and energy security.

In the years to come, the United States’ resilience and geopolitical influence will require the country to lead on all forms of energy—not just in oil and gas but also in a broad range of clean energy technologies and materials. It was these clean energy sources that the Democrats’ reconciliation bill included provisions to support. A failure to move these energy provisions forward leaves the United States more energy insecure, more vulnerable to the energy-inspired blackmail that Europe is experiencing right now, and less able to advance U.S. geopolitical interests abroad.

Take nuclear energy. The package Manchin rejected provides for the extension of tax credits for existing nuclear power plants. Without this support, nuclear power in the U.S. energy mix is projected to decline. This downward trajectory is worrisome not only because the world needs all the zero-carbon energy it can muster but also because experiences in California and Germany, to name just two, demonstrate that when nuclear power declines, it is largely replaced by natural gas. Not only would U.S. emissions rise, but there are national security downsides. Burning more natural gas at home pushes up domestic prices and crimps the ability of the United States to help export energy and inoculate Europe and other parts of the world from events like Russia’s current energy squeeze, which has Europeans leaders bracing for the worst and planning for emergency gas rationing.

The now thwarted legislative package would have promoted new sources of domestically produced energy.

A decline in U.S. nuclear power also relinquishes an opportunity for the United States to reclaim its waning standing as the premier global supplier of civilian nuclear power and the geopolitical influence that comes with it. Of the nuclear reactors planned or under construction outside Russia’s borders in 2018, more than 50 percent involved Russian companies, and around 20 percent involved Chinese ones; fewer than 3 percent were being built by U.S. companies. With Russia’s credibility as a competent and reliable partner in question, now may be the opportunity for the United States to reassert its global leadership in the nuclear realm—before China succeeds in stepping in where Russia recedes. Not only would U.S. leadership in nuclear energy be a boon for U.S. companies, but it would help minimize security and proliferation risks by ensuring more countries adhere to higher U.S. standards.

U.S. energy security would also be enhanced by leading on carbon capture and removal. Provisions supporting this were also in the bill. Carbon capture technologies will be essential to the global energy transition, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) projecting they will deliver one-fifth of the reductions needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The United States is well positioned to lead on these technologies, with good geologic storage capacity for carbon dioxide, an extensive pipeline network to move the emissions, and a well-developed regulatory framework. Through decarbonization, these technologies will also allow the country’s abundance of oil and gas to play a role—albeit a smaller one—in the decades ahead.

The legislation that Manchin rejected could also help ensure that the energy transition does not create vulnerabilities for the United States and advantages for China. As more policymakers and business leaders are realizing, China is decades ahead in the development of critical minerals needed for everything from defense equipment to smartphones. It has successfully established its dominance in supply chains involving these minerals. Moreover, the ongoing transformation of the energy system means that the United States—and others—will need many more of these critical minerals and metals in the future, such as the lithium, cobalt, and copper needed for electric vehicle batteries. The package proposed by the administration, which included significant investments using the Defense Production Act, would have helped the United States meet more of its own needs from domestic resources.

Perhaps most obviously, the now thwarted legislative package would have promoted new sources of domestically produced energy, helping to ensure that the United States relies less on others and is more resilient to inevitable global energy shocks. In addition to renewable energy for the U.S. electricity supply, the plan would have invested large sums in the development of low-carbon fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia. These fuels can store energy, fuel ships and trucks, and power heavy industry such as cement and steel. In a world that meets the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the global market for low-emission fuels such as these would increase from 1 percent of global energy demand today to 20 percent by 2050, according to the IEA.

Government investments now can prevent greater import dependence in the future and the ceding of the global market to others investing in low-carbon fuels, from Chile and Spain to Saudi Arabia and China. Moreover, by significantly expanding the tax credits for advanced energy manufacturing, the package under consideration would have encouraged domestic production of clean energy technologies.

Meeting more of the energy needs of the United States through alternative sources of energy can lessen exposure to global markets by reducing U.S. consumption of oil and gas overall; a move to drive more electric vehicles is also a step toward greater energy security, given it reduces overall oil consumption. Even though the United States is a net exporter of these fuels, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that the market is global and supply disruptions anywhere, even small ones, can have an outsized impact on consumers at the pump.

As Europe melts under historically high temperatures, Manchin’s rejection likely puts U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate goals out of reach. And as Russia’s cuts plunge Europe into a worsening energy crisis and Western leaders plead with Middle Eastern countries to pump more oil, it is also important to remember that the failure of Congress to pass the bill’s energy tax provisions is a missed opportunity to strengthen U.S. energy security in the increasingly turbulent times ahead.

Jason Bordoff is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs, and a former senior director on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council and special assistant to former U.S. President Barack Obama. Twitter: @JasonBordoff

Meghan L. O’Sullivan is the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the Practice of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power. She was a deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan and a special assistant to the president during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @OSullivanMeghan

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.