Irish Times view on climate change: Joe Biden gives reason for hope

US president has kick-started a new era of climate-centred geopolitics

The collective sigh among heads of state appearing at the climate summit hosted by US president Joe Biden last week was almost palpable. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The collective sigh among heads of state appearing at the climate summit hosted by US president Joe Biden last week was almost palpable. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

 

Unquestionably the world is in a better place with the United States committing to halving its carbon emissions by 2030, signalling it is ready to lead global efforts, and calling on other nations to take greater climate action. The dark days of Donald Trump’s brutal brand of climate science denialism are over. The collective sigh among heads of state appearing at the climate summit hosted by US president Joe Biden last week was almost palpable.

Is it enough? Probably not. But it restores momentum to international action at the start of a decade where far greater urgency is needed to avoid the extremes of temperature and sea-level rise predicted by mid century.

As the second-worst emitter, the US is doubling its ambition, set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, and demanding – with eyes firmly set on China – that the biggest carbon polluters respond in similar fashion. The strong message emanating from Biden is that no state can tackle the climate crisis on its own, and none has the financial might to do so. He has been emphatic in his view there is “a narrow moment to pursue action to avoid the most catastrophic impacts”.

Critically, the US has underlined it is going to “catalyse public investments in green energy and private financing of green technologies” on a vast scale. With the backing of major economies, most notably the EU, it is also enabling the reconfiguration of the global financial system to fully face up to climate risk. Businesses will no longer be able to pander to notions of sustainability.

This is a moral imperative, an economic imperative, a moment of peril but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities

However, decarbonisation ultimately relates to trying to contain temperature rise. In that regard, the US declaration, tied into achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, brings a better prospect of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees – a key Paris Agreement target. Having collective focus on that target will drive progress in trying to limit the damage to Planet Earth that is already inevitable.

Biden has kick-started a new era of climate-centred geopolitics but it is not without risk, especially on his domestic front. Climate will be his north star with the promise of millions of jobs and an enhanced middle class, but it will require sweeping changes across the US economy, including transportation, the power sector and manufacturing in a country that continues to be polarised politically and heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

On the global stage Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, has changed the mood music almost single-handedly with his forceful frankness; getting to net-zero will be hard and new technologies will be necessary, but it is doable through collective action. His boss summarised best where the world stands now: “This is a moral imperative, an economic imperative, a moment of peril but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities. Time is short, but I believe we can do this”.

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