- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
U.S. President Joe Biden used last week’s Earth Day summit to reassert U.S. global climate leadership, pledging dramatic reductions in U.S. carbon emissions and encouraging ambitious commitments from other major emitters. After four wasted years under former President Donald Trump, U.S. climate policy is finally headed in the right direction. And not a moment too soon, given the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. With less than a decade left to avoid a planetary catastrophe, Biden has reenergized hopes that the world can still meet the daunting Paris Agreement target of holding the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The summit nonetheless leaves important, lingering questions, the most important of these being the feasibility and credibility of Biden’s plans. His topline commitment is to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent from their 2005 levels by 2030. This new target is nearly double what then-President Barack Obama offered as the U.S. contribution to the Paris Agreement in 2015. The good news is that U.S. emissions have been declining. They were down 13 percent from the 2005 levels in 2019 and are estimated to have declined 21 percent from that baseline last year, thanks to the pandemic-induced recession. The bad news is that emissions are now rising as the U.S. economy recovers.
Many climate experts believe the U.S. can meet Biden’s target through a combination of new regulations, economic incentives and the rapid deployment of green technologies. But achieving it will require a national mobilization that makes the Manhattan Project look like an elementary school science fair. It implies a root and branch transformation of the U.S. economy and American society in only nine years, encompassing among other things a sweeping shift from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources; an overhaul of existing electricity generation and distribution networks; the adoption of more climate-friendly industrial, manufacturing and agricultural practices; massive investments in more efficient transportation, including electric vehicles; wholesale retrofitting of existing buildings; and widespread changes in consumer behavior. Nothing of this magnitude has ever been attempted.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. Biden offered precious few of those last week, pleading for patience as his administration prepares a comprehensive national climate blueprint over the coming months. Responsibility for preparing that falls to White House climate czar Gina McCarthy, whose determination to decarbonize the U.S. economy has heartened progressives. Her success at drawing up such a plan “is essential to [America’s] ability to have credibility in the world,” in the words of John Kerry, the president’s special envoy for climate change.
A big question is whether the administration can deliver politically on the climate plan that McCarthy formulates. The White House can advance certain goals through executive action, such as raising fuel standards for automobiles or curbing power plant emissions. But many others require congressional authorization and appropriations, a daunting prospect given the intense partisanship on Capitol Hill. Democrats command a razor-thin majority in the House. Their position is even more precarious in the evenly divided Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris represents the tie-breaking vote. To advance its legislative agenda, the administration may need to make concessions to Democrats from fossil fuel producing states, lest they break ranks.
Picking up Republican votes will be even tougher. The most promising vehicle to engage the GOP is the administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill, which contains numerous climate provisions. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, promises to fight this legislation “every step of the way.” But the White House may be able to peel off some members of his caucus, like Sen. Mitt Romney, who acknowledge the reality of climate change and also seek federal funds for their states.
The Biden administration has wisely framed its climate agenda not in terms of the costs and sacrifices it will impose on Americans but the benefits and opportunities they will enjoy if the nation rises to the occasion. Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the United States risks falling behind China in the cutting-edge technologies and industries of tomorrow. “If we don’t catch up, America will miss the chance to shape the world’s climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values, and we’ll lose out on countless jobs for the American people.”
Significantly, both the U.S. private sector and organized labor are shifting toward the administration’s position. Many corporations, ranging from Apple to Walmart, have endorsed Biden’s 50 percent emissions reduction target, both because they assess climate risk as a threat to their bottom lines and because they anticipate economic gain from a clean energy transition. The Biden administration has also been wooing union leaders, with some success. Last week, the president of the United Mine Workers signaled “that [the union] would accept a transition away from fossil fuels in exchange for new jobs in renewable energy, spending on technology to make coal cleaner and financial aid for miners who lose their jobs.”
Despite these shifts, many foreign governments are asking themselves, as The New York Times put it, “Is America’s Word Good?” They have earned the right to be skeptical, given the multiple oscillations in U.S. climate policy since 1997, when the Clinton administration first signed the Kyoto Protocol. Foreigners cannot be comforted by a recent Gallup poll suggesting that U.S. public attitudes on climate change remain essentially “frozen” since 2016, when Trump was elected. If anything, partisan divisions today are even starker: Some 67 percent of Democrats, but only 11 percent of Republicans, believe that global warming will pose a serious threat in their own lifetimes. Should voters elect a Republican president in 2024, or even grant the GOP control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections, aggressive U.S. climate action would likely stop in its tracks.
America’s dubious credibility weakens its leverage over China—by far the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, with 28 percent of the global total—as well as India, the third-largest at 7 percent, after the United States’ 15 percent. In the run-up to Earth Day, one Chinese official likened the U.S. to a “truant getting back to class” rather than a global leader. Resisting pressure from Kerry, Beijing declined to accelerate its 2060 target for achieving carbon neutrality, or indeed to commit to absolute emissions cuts by 2030. Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged that China’s coal consumption would peak in 2025 but offered no plans for phasing it out. Both China and India, moreover, continue to insist on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” arguing that, as developing countries, they cannot possibly accept the same obligations as wealthier nations whose per capita emissions remain far higher and who, moreover, created this mess to begin with.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration will need to keep the pressure on China and other major emitters to accelerate their clean energy transition in the run-up to the critical 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow later this year. But the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. climate leadership will depend on whether the country gets its own house in order by moving swiftly to implement the massive commitments the president made on Earth Day.