Amid Biden climate push, a question looms: Is America’s word good?

Despite a four-year absence from the climate fight, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said America would not shy from throwing its weight around in order to make sure other countries do more to cut their emissions.

Written by Lisa Friedman

President Joe Biden faces a fundamental question as he convenes heads of state this week in a virtual summit to declare that the United States is ready to reclaim a leadership role in the fight against climate change: Is America’s word still any good?

The question is dogging Biden as he tries to reassert the American role in other parts of the world stage after four years of Donald Trump’s America First isolationism. Trading partners wonder how long a thaw on multilateral economic accords might last. Overtures to the trans-Atlantic alliance must overcome four years of Trump’s NATO-bashing.

And on Friday, China likened the United States’ desire to rejoin the Paris Agreement global warming accord that Trump abandoned to a naughty child trying to sneak back into school after cutting class.

Perhaps nowhere is the skepticism about U.S. credibility as consequential as on the issue of climate change.

“If America fails to lead the world on addressing the climate crisis, we won’t have much of a world left,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Monday in a speech that kicked off a weeklong climate push that culminates in the virtual Earth Day summit meeting Thursday and Friday.

The need for American leadership is enormous, a point Blinken emphasized in his address at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Headquarters in Annapolis, Maryland, on the central place global warming would take in U.S. foreign policy.

And despite a four-year absence from the climate fight, Blinken said America would not shy from throwing its weight around in order to make sure other countries do more to cut their emissions. With other countries producing more than 80% of climate-warming pollution, he said, the United States has a duty to do so.

“Our diplomats will challenge the practices of countries whose action, or inaction, is setting us back,” Blinken said. “When countries continue to rely on coal for a significant amount of their energy, or invest in new coal factories, or allow for massive deforestation, they will hear from the United States and our partners about how harmful these actions are.”

Some countries already are pushing back.

“The U.S. chose to come and go as it likes with regard to the Paris Agreement,” Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Friday in pointed remarks ahead of the summit. “Its return is by no means a glorious comeback but rather the student playing truant getting back to class.”

Biden’s global climate envoy, John Kerry, traveled last week to China, now the world’s largest emitter, to try to persuade Beijing’s leaders to adopt new targets that are in line with the Paris Agreement goals of keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels.

The meetings ended with an agreement to jointly cooperate on the climate crisis, but no promises of new targets. Zhao later told journalists that despite pushing China to do more, the United States “has offered nothing on how it plans to make up for the lost four years.”

There is good reason for such skepticism. After all, Biden’s summit marks the second time in a generation that the United States has re-entered climate negotiations after abandoning a global agreement to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gases.

Complicating those trust issues is the fact that, while the Biden administration may declare on Thursday that the United States is “back,” Congress remains as divided as ever on climate.

Biden is expected Thursday to announce a new U.S. target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. How ambitious other countries feel America’s new goal is, and how credible its path toward getting there is viewed, will largely determine how much the administration can prod other nations to make stronger commitments.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has already said his party will oppose Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which is the cornerstone of the administration’s efforts to meet current and future climate goals. A group of Republican House leaders last week also introduced legislation calling for a wholesale renegotiation of the Paris Agreement and denounced Biden’s plans for global re-engagement.

“Anyone who says the United States is united in working on climate change is drinking the Kool-Aid because we aren’t,” said Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

White House officials said this week the United States remained credible; America is still on track to meeting the Obama administration’s goal of cutting economywide emissions about 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, despite the Trump administration rollbacks.

But those numbers are arguable. This year, a study from the Rhodium Group did estimate that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were about 21% below 2005 levels at the end of 2020 — putting the country within striking distance of the Obama administration’s pledge under the Paris Agreement. But about a third of that decline was because of the coronavirus pandemic, which sharply curtailed driving and business activity last year. Emissions will very likely rise again this year as the economy rumbles back to life unless policymakers enact significant new clean-energy policies, the study warned.

Ali A. Zaidi, the White House deputy climate adviser, pointed to another factor that should bolster U.S. credibility: American climate pledges go beyond the word of Washington. Yes, Trump abandoned the Paris Agreement. But, he said, “our states and our cities and our businesses and our workers stayed in.”

Many diplomats said this time around they are more cleareyed about the ability of the United States to commit on climate change. But they were nevertheless inclined to give the Biden administration the benefit of the doubt.

“I think on climate change the U.S. policy is viewed like a pendulum,” Malik Amin Aslam, adviser to the Pakistani prime minister on climate change, said in an interview. Vulnerable countries are just “happy that the Biden administration has put the pendulum in the right direction,” he added.

Adam S. Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said America’s inconstancy on the world stage started long before Trump. From climate change to international development to trade laws, he said, allies have learned to live with the shifting priorities of Republicans and Democratic administrations as Congress remains largely unable to pass major policy into law.

“Obviously, Trump made it worse because of incompetence and overt nationalism,” he said.

The problem for the world is that, on global issues like climate change, America holds all the diplomatic cards.

“The United States is big and rich and has a nuclear deterrent and two oceans, and there’s not that many people who can impose consequences on the United States,” Posen said. “The consequences are the problems that don’t get solved.”

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