How could Joe Biden’s climate plans shift America’s global footprint?

As well as tackling its own emissions, the US can help shape green policies around the world

Smoke after a forest fire in the Blue Mountains, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images

Smoke after a forest fire in the Blue Mountains, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images

 

US president Joe Biden on Wednesday said climate change should be regarded as “an essential element of US foreign policy and national security”. That is likely to bring big changes for America’s role in the world.

That the Biden administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement, the global pact embraced by nearly 200 countries to slow down climate change, is only the first step, foreign policy experts say. Taking on climate change will require a reassessment of everything from United States military posture in the Arctic to helping fragile countries deal with the fallout of climate risks.

“It changes defence posture, it changes foreign policy posture,” said John Podesta, a former Obama administration official. “It begins to drive a lot of decision making in foreign policy, diplomacy and development policy.”

The White House executive order offered a glimpse of that shift. It directed the nation’s intelligence agencies to assess the risks posed by global warming around the world, and it directs all government agencies to figure out how “climate considerations” fit into their international priorities.

“Addressing climate change can, and will be, a central pillar of the Biden administration’s foreign policy,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, who served as a deputy national security adviser under President George W Bush and now leads the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. “It means infusing the issue of climate and environment into our trade policies, our foreign aid programmes, our bilateral discussions and even our military readiness.”

John Kerry, a veteran politician-diplomat who is the new American envoy for climate change and a member of Biden’s National Security Council, is in charge of navigating that shift. Here are four big things to watch in the coming weeks and months.

Can the United States address its own climate problem?

On his first day in office, Biden began the process of rejoining the Paris Agreement. Now comes the hard part: The United States, which is responsible for the single largest chunk of greenhouse gases that have warmed the planet since the industrial age, needs to set specific targets to reduce its own emissions by 2030 – and to put in place domestic policies to achieve them.

US president Joe Biden signs an executive order at the White House in Washington on Wednesday, as vice-president Kamala Harris and his special envoy on climate John Kerry watch on. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/Bloomberg
US president Joe Biden signs an executive order at the White House in Washington on Wednesday, as vice-president Kamala Harris and his special envoy on climate John Kerry watch on. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/Bloomberg

Greenpeace has urged a 70 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels, while the World Resources Institute and other American advocates have pushed for about 50 per cent. That puts Kerry in a tricky position. More ambitious targets would give him more leverage over other countries before the next global climate talks, set for November in Glasgow. But setting targets for domestic emissions reductions will not be so simple politically, especially with a split Senate.

White House officials said on Wednesday they expect the new emissions reductions targets to be announced before the global summit on Earth Day, April 22nd. In a speech to American mayors on Saturday, Kerry signalled that the administration would seek to balance the ambitious with the realistic.

“We have to go to Glasgow with reality, and we have to go to Glasgow with strength,” he said.

On Wednesday, speaking to the World Economic Forum, he described the Glasgow meeting as “the last best chance” to get the world on track to avert the worst effects of climate change. “The world has high expectations of all of us,” he said.

How will the United States deal with China?

Climate may be one of the few areas of cooperation in an increasingly tense relationship between Washington and Beijing. The two countries are the world’s largest emitters and the world’s largest economies, and without ambitious steps from both, there is no way the world can slow down warming.

Podesta said the Biden administration would need to create “a protected lane in which the other issues don’t shut down the conversation on climate change”. China is also ahead in some ways. Its president, Xi Jinping, said last September that Beijing was aiming to be carbon neutral by 2060, which means it plans to either capture its carbon emissions or offset them by buying credits for green projects like tree-planting programmes.

Kerry on Wednesday pointed out that China had revealed little about how to reach its 2060 ambition – “we don’t have a clue” is how he put it – but warned that other issues between the United States and China should not prevent talks on climate. “It’s urgent we find a way to compartmentalise to move forward,” he said at a White House press briefing.

Not for nothing have Kerry’s first overtures as climate envoy been to European leaders. His best chance of putting pressure on Beijing is to do it alongside the world’s other big economy: the European Union.

What leverage does the United States have?

Kerry has repeatedly said he intends to “raise ambition” by all countries. The United States has at its disposal a few diplomatic sticks and carrots. Kerry could use a bilateral United States-Mexico trade agreement, for instance, to persuade Mexico to open up to American investment in clean energy projects. He could encourage private US investment to encourage India to move away from coal and accelerate renewables.

And he could channel US development aid to help countries pivot to a green economy – not something Washington is known for, as Kelly Sims Gallagher, a former Obama administration official, pointed out.

“For the United States to be seen as a country that’s helping vulnerable countries to become resilient and enabling low carbon development, actually fostering low carbon development, would earn us a lot of good will,” said Gallagher, now a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “It would be a major turnaround.”

Climate advocates have called on the Biden administration to ensure that development aid is channelled to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change and to work with allies in Europe to encourage developing countries to build clean energy projects instead of polluting coal plants.

Few details have emerged from the White House about how to use American money to advance climate goals abroad. Kerry has said only that the United States, having reneged on a $2 billion pledge to the United Nations-backed Green Climate Fund, would “make good” on its financial commitment to help vulnerable countries deal with climate risks.

How will US alliances with oil-producing countries change?

The elephant in the room in a climate-focused White House is what to do about US relations with Saudi Arabia. The geopolitics of energy had already been changing.

The United States had steadily become less dependent on oil from the Middle East, thanks to the shale boom at home. A climate-focused White House stands to accelerate the change.

“We do have an opportunity to rethink and reset our relationships in the Middle East because of that,” Gallagher said. “Climate change is an additional factor.” No sooner had Biden been elected than Saudi Arabia’s crown prince unveiled plans for a car-free city. – New York Times

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