Nye Bevan, the British socialist, famously denounced the nuclear unilateralists in his party for sending a future foreign secretary ‘naked into the conference chamber’. Unless Congress passes the stalled budget reconciliation bill, President Biden will fly to the COP26 Glasgow climate conference, which starts in less than three weeks’ time, in a similar state of undress.

Before the Paris agreement in 2015, UN climate change conferences were about hammering out the texts of binding climate treaties and agreeing to emissions reduction targets. All that has changed. Climate change targets are now decided in advance by individual countries in their Nationally Determined Contributions, draining climate conferences of drama and turning them into a giant show-and-tell. Unless, that is, the world’s self-styled climate leader turns up in Glasgow with nothing to show.

The Biden administration’s NDC is long on rhetoric, starting with climate change as an existential threat. Yet when it comes to the ‘bold action’ the threat demands, the cupboard is bare of bankable action. Interviewed in April, Gina McCarthy, Biden’s national climate adviser, who put together the NDC, was asked what was the one piece of legislation she wanted Congress to pass. ‘To make sure that by 2035 we have a clean energy sector,’ McCarthy answered.

Much of what McCarthy wants is embedded in the gargantuan reconciliation Build Back Better package, including $300 billion of clean tax credits and a Clean Energy Standard to meet Biden’s goal of having a zero-greenhouse gas emitting grid by 2035, items that McCarthy describes as ‘non-negotiables’. There is a reason for this. The White House touts the falling cost of renewables, but its convoluted formulation that clean alternatives ‘may start looking like the cheap alternatives’ suggests cost competitiveness is still years away. Until recently, the rapid transition the White House wants ‘looked anything but cheap’, so it seeks to place the cost of decarbonizing electricity on taxpayers rather than in higher electricity bills. Doing this will require congressional approval.

McCarthy claims the administration has ‘lots of regulatory authority’ should the administration fail to get the reconciliation package through Congress. But she knows as well anyone that regulation is a distant second to legislation. Build Back Better’s Clean Energy Standard is a successor to the Clean Power Plan, which McCarthy oversaw when she was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the second Obama term. Challenged in the courts, the Supreme Court imposed a stay on the EPA implementing the plan. Would the Supreme Court’s decision slow down the transition to a low carbon future? ‘Absolutely not,’ McCarthy responded two weeks later. If so, what was the point of the plan?

Without legislation, Biden’s NDC is an empty suit. The last effort to get Congress to pass climate legislation was the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in 2009, which didn’t make it through the Senate despite a sizable Democratic majority. The liberal Center for American Progress sees the budget reconciliation process as a ‘ray of hope’ and ‘our shot to stop climate change’, as Biden’s unpopularity paves the way for Democrats to lose both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections in a year’s time.

Failure to enact climate legislation might well lead foreign observers to conclude that the United States is constitutionally incapable of delivering the climate commitments Biden has made under the Paris agreement. Yet in economic terms, aggressive decarbonization is the closest democracies will come to the forced collectivization of the communist bloc. It requires the deployment of coercive state power on a scale and intrusiveness exceeded only by emergency COVID lockdowns and mandates, but lasting for decades.

The constitution of the United States is designed to prevent the systematic use of coercive state power. If the President finds himself walking naked into the Glasgow climate conference, he will only have himself to blame for failing to understand the politics and government of the country he leads.

Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow of the RealClear Foundation and author of Green Tyranny.