By Ella Nilsen and Alex Ward
President Joe Biden’s administration has quite the pitch to 40 nations at this week’s global climate summit: Yes, America hasn’t truly led on climate change recently, but we will now and into the future. Trust us.
Senior administration officials spoke with reporters on a Wednesday call ahead of two days of remote meetings featuring world leaders like Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. While they didn’t confirm reports that the US hopes to cut emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, they did answer Vox’s question on why other nations should trust America to keep its climate promises — given the US government has swung wildly on climate policy depending on who the president is.
One of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity per the White House’s guidelines, offered an illuminating — though not entirely convincing — three-part answer. It makes clear that the Biden administration could struggle to convince other nations that the US really is trustworthy as a climate leader, regardless of what the president and his team say.
First, this official said that climate change is a global problem that other nations must, and therefore will, address. “We’re No. 2 in the global emissions … But at the same time, currently we’re at about 13 percent, so the rest of the world’s going to have to act, and they know that,” the official said. Of course, that’s more an argument for why nations should take climate change seriously, not necessarily America’s moves to curb its effects.
Second, countries shouldn’t read too much into the last four years of President Donald Trump, who abruptly pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord and appointed fossil fuel lobbyists to run America’s environmental agencies. Despite Trump falsely claiming climate change is a hoax fabricated by China, state and local governments and even businesses didn’t necessarily follow Trump’s lead, and still pushed to cut their carbon emissions. In other words, it doesn’t just matter what the president says, but what the US is doing as a whole.
“We look at the Obama administration and the commitments that have been made at that point in time, and look at where we are, we are pretty close to being on the trajectory that we said we would be on,” the official told Vox, pointing to the fact the US is on track to meet the Obama administration’s goal to get economy-wide emissions about 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
“The fact that the change [in] administration led to a topline view that [climate] wasn’t the priority didn’t in fact affect a lot of the trajectory in the country,” the official continued. That point is fair, but could signal to other leaders that they personally don’t have to make climate change a big deal or priority if progress happens without a top-down mandate.
Third, America will lead by example, and other countries should follow it — and feel free to critique the US if it fails to live up to its promises. “We are urging people to pay attention to what we say, and what we do, and what we deliver,” the administration official told Vox. The Biden administration’s commitments, participation from state and local governments, and buy-in from the private sector “are things you can watch, and you can judge.”
“We think there’s going to be a lot of engagement and willingness to support us going forward, and all three of those reasons have been well received by our partners around the world,” the official concluded.
That all sounds well and good, and fits with Biden’s mantra that “America is back.” It also tracks with the administration’s desire to treat climate change as the top national security threat of our times.
The question is if other nations, namely other top carbon emitters including China, India, and Russia, will buy what America is selling. Experts say it’s not entirely clear that they would follow Washington’s lead anyway because each nation has its own priorities and sense of how existential climate change is. But the Biden administration’s thinking is that if America leads and sets the right example, others will join the climate fight — even adversaries.
The problem is, they already seem skeptical. “The US chose to come and go as it likes with regard to the Paris Agreement,” Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said recently. “Its return is by no means a glorious comeback but rather the student playing truant getting back to class.”
America’s political swings make meaningful progress difficult
The biggest issue with the Biden administration’s argument that it’s back to being a world leader on climate could be the next midterm election.
World leaders have watched as two previous Republican presidents — George W. Bush in 2001 and Donald Trump in 2017 — have either rejected major climate treaties or pulled out of them altogether. And Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on how bold the US should go in response to climate change.
So even if Biden or a Democrat wins four more years in the White House in 2024, the swings of congressional elections every two years could mean progress grinds to a standstill if there’s a split Congress after the 2022 elections. In other words, the US has an extremely limited window to make significant strides toward deep emissions reductions.
Under the Paris Agreement, countries across the world agreed that the goal should be to limit warming to below 2°C by 2100. But as Vox’s Umair Irfan noted, “At our current rate of emissions, we’re likely to soar past 1.5°C as early as 2030 and hit 3ºC by 2100.” Keeping emissions to 1.5°C is the best-case scenario, but even that level of warming will be devastating to the world’s most vulnerable areas.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to decarbonize the US electricity sector by 2035 and put the country on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050. Administration officials view the president’s American Jobs Plan — which would move US transportation decisively toward electric vehicles and enact a clean electricity standard — as their best bet to get there.
Democrats have the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 split US Senate, giving them the slimmest of majorities. This could be enough to get Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan — which doubles as the president’s climate bill — through without Republican support using an obscure procedural tool called budget reconciliation.
But the fact remains that whether it’s in 2022, 2024, or 2028, Republicans will likely gain control of at least one chamber of Congress or the White House again, which could put Biden’s current climate ambitions in serious doubt. While both parties mostly agree that climate change is real, Republicans’ initial plans to tackle climate change revolve around planting 1 trillion trees worldwide and investing in technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere — rather than reorienting the American economy to not produce carbon in the first place.
“Their rhetoric has been so lacking in any specifics or follow-through,” Josh Freed, the head of the climate and energy program at centrist think tank Third Way, told Vox in a recent interview. “What are their ideas? Do they actually want to govern and solve problems, or do they want to compete to get on Fox News and Newsmax?”
The Biden White House is very aware of the potential for climate progress to be reversed by Republicans. That’s why it is far more focused on proposing concrete changes that are “hard to roll back,” according to a White House official. That includes constructing 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations around the nation’s roads, building energy-efficient homes and offices, and doubling down on solar and wind to power clean energy in the country.
Still, it complicates things for world leaders looking for assurances.
Businesses and states are looking for federal guidance
The second issue with the Biden administration’s argument is that many experts agree that in order to achieve steep emissions reductions needed to avert global catastrophe, the US needs strong federal leadership.
The Biden administration is correct that many businesses, states, and municipalities forged ahead with climate goals in the absence of any leadership from Trump. As Trump was slashing environmental regulations for vehicles, states like California were stepping up to implement stronger emissions standards for cars.
“States and cities have been the engines of both innovation and deployment of existing opportunities for the past four years,” White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy told Vox in a recent interview. “They have been a remarkable success; it’s like 25 states have renewable energy or clean energy standards. We’re talking about hundreds of cities. The very last thing I would ever do as someone who worked at the state level for more than 20 years is forget about them.”
It’s true some states have set their own ambitious goals. But the federal response to climate still matters, and wild political swings from Barack Obama to Trump to Biden have meant investors, public utilities, and businesses have been on edge, waiting for the next curveball.
“Investors like certainty and they haven’t gotten any certainty at the federal level,” Karen Wayland, policy adviser to electricity utility coalition group Gridwise Alliance, told Vox. In the Trump years, Wayland added, utilities were “setting goals absent federal policy.”
A recent study from the Rhodium Group found that though the US is indeed on target to hit the Obama-era emissions goals, that hasn’t necessarily happened because of the good intentions of American business and industry. The Rhodium Group study found that the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly grinding the economy to a halt led to a 10.3 percent drop in US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020.
“With coronavirus vaccines now in distribution, we expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the US economy, emissions will likely rise again as well,” the Rhodium Group study concluded. In other words, the federal government can’t just rely on businesses to do the right thing.
The Biden administration has come in with firmer guidance, and many businesses are already responding. American automaker General Motors announced this year that they were moving their cars to be zero-emissions by 2035, following Ford and others.
American industry is headed toward zero emissions, but it takes leadership from the federal government — and major investments in infrastructure — to follow through on big pledges.