WASHINGTON DC – Let us imagine that a country – say, the world’s richest country, and historically the most egregious greenhouse gas-emitter – was to take a leadership role in the fight against the climate crisis. What would that look like?
This theoretical country would probably head into a major international climate conference with relevant legislation already passed. It would focus less on what other countries haven’t done and instead make sure that its own house was in order. It would end fossil fuel subsidies. If it turned out that one legislator from this hypothetical country – one that had dramatic influence over a critical climate-related bill – was being hailed as a “kingmaker” by an energy company, it would be a career-ending scandal. It would shift its spending priorities to help the world fight the climate crisis.
The United States is not doing any of these things.
In fairness to US president Joe Biden, he has attempted to make climate change a priority. He appointed John Kerry, seasoned statesman, to the position of special envoy for climate. He also sat Kerry on the National Security Council (NSC), marking the the first time in US history there is a principal singularly dedicated to climate change on the NSC. Under the new framework for his Build Back Better legislation, $555bn of the $1.75trn budgeted would go towards clean energy investments.
The reality remains, though, that the $555bn remains stalled in Congress, and that one of the legislators holding it up is Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who reportedly makes millions from stock he owns in a coal company and regularly communicates with major oil companies. Manchin’s vote is so important to passing this legislation because Democrats currently only have 50 seats in the Senate and not one Republican has shown a willingness to sign on, and because, broadly speaking, attitudes towards the climate crisis are politically polarised. This means the US swings back and forth on how seriously it takes climate change every four to eight years (it also means that Biden feels the need to apologise for his predecessor).
Biden, speaking at Cop26, said that the US has an “overwhelming responsibility” to help other countries. But at the UN in September, Biden pledged that the US would spend $11.4bn in climate aid to other countries by 2024. That would be four times what the country is spending now – but would still be over 68 times less than what the US spent on defence in 2020. And incredibly, Biden, mere days ahead of the climate conference, asked the world to increase fossil fuel production, a response to rising gas prices. “We’re going to stop subsidising fossil fuels,” Biden promised. But the US hasn’t yet.
Biden, ahead of Cop26, spoke of his disappointment that Russia and China didn’t “show up” to G20 climate talks. If the US was hitting its own targets, perhaps it wouldn’t sound so much like the passing of the buck.
Does all of this mean that Biden should throw up his hands and the US should do nothing? It does not. The government should take an honest accounting of what it has – or has not – done up to this point and comport itself on the international stage accordingly. It means American leaders should spend less time lecturing and more time listening, particularly to those countries that will be most dramatically and imminently affected by the climate crisis, such as those in the Global South. It means that, rather than worrying whether China will take its commitments seriously, the US should focus on living up to its own commitments.
That would be a less prestigious position, and it would require some humility. It would require sacrifice. It might require following others.
“We will demonstrate to the world that the United States is not only back at the table, but hopefully leading by the power of our example,” Biden said in his opening address at the climate conference on 1 November. But the world doesn’t need the US to lead. It needs it to start doing its part.
[See also: Is John Kerry the man for the climate moment?]