While there is no question that America, and the world, lost valuable time for climate action during the negligent Trump years, many climate experts were also concerned that the damage to America’s diplomatic reputation would deflate future climate negotiations and hamstring U.S. efforts to lead by example and encourage commitments from other nations. By all indications from President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate last week, they need not have worried.
A gaudy event featuring heads of state and cabinet ministers from 40 countries, the two-day summit was a forceful demonstration of the Biden administration’s climate focus, and kicked off with an equally forceful commitment that America would halve its greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this decade on the way to a net-zero goal by 2050. This nearly doubled the American commitment at the time of the Paris Agreement.
The president was also keen to feature his cabinet secretaries, many of whom are climate leaders themselves and just as driven by the urgency of the issue as the president himself. These include Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who decried that “climate change is making the world more unsafe and we need to act,” and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who described the need for the United States to regain the high moral ground on climate change. For Indigenous participants who are used to fighting for a seat at the table, it was notable that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, America’s first Native American cabinet secretary, led a session on adaptation and resilience.
Also evident was the president’s trust in John Kerry and Gina McCarthy, his widely-respected climate advisers, as they described the painful challenges ahead in terms of opportunity and even prosperity. After the past four years it was almost surreal to hear such devotion to public service as the president and his climate team spoke extemporaneously about the road ahead.
By all appearances, the concerted effort was very well received by allies abroad and developing countries eager for meaningful climate action. Japan, the European Union and Canada responded with modestly elevated commitments, and heads of state were well-briefed and relished the opportunity to feature some of their ongoing innovations and actions. While there were some sobering accounts from around the world of frustration and obstacles to success, the overall energy over the two days was about what must be done, not what can’t be done.
The U.K. showed up with a flashy commitment to cut 78 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, but an accounting slight of hand has allowed them to pad their stats by calling emissions from their massive biomass investments “carbon neutral” – which is certainly not the case. Nonetheless, the climate energy was back, with a very strong intent on the part of most parties to generate momentum going into the next U.N. climate conference in Glasgow in November – an event that the John Kerry soberly described as the “last best hope we have to move the world in the right direction.” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres went so far as to say that 2021 is a “make or break year for people and the planet.”
That’s not to say everyone came with bold commitments and focus. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in hot water at home and abroad and no friend of the Biden administration, used the opportunity to jab American leadership for walking away from previous climate agreements and suggested that any new climate agreement should be legally binding, a non-starter in the U.S. as long as Senate Republicans retain their isolationist fear of international treaties.
China’s President Xi Jinping also used the opportunity to flex and seemed eager to focus on environmental issues ahead of the U.N. conference on the Convention on Biological Biodiversity, to take place in China in October. The straight-faced award went to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who pledged an end to illegal deforestation despite widespread condemnation of his administration for accelerating deforestation in the Amazon. Collectively, Russia, China and Brazil seemed to have a Trump hangover, groggily maintaining the status quo while the rest of the world was busy raising the bar.
The discussions did not hang on greenhouse gas reductions alone, there was a refreshing focus on environmental justice and the need to foster resilience and fund adaptation measures. Participants were not shy about the obstacles to success, pointing fingers at finance challenges in the private sector and a lack of technological parity, but they were eager to feature innovative ideas. Delivering opening remarks on behalf of youth climate advocates around the world, 18-year-old Xiye Bastida drew attention to frontline communities and areas at the greatest risk, reminding the audience that “climate justice is social justice.”
Overall, the event was an early success on the international stage for the Biden administration, and set the stage for active negotiations in the lead up to Glasgow. This is no great surprise, despite reputational concerns after the disastrous Trump years there was never any question that the invited heads of state would celebrate and welcome renewed energy and climate commitments from the world’s largest economy. Importantly, this also served as a wake-up call to Xi and Putin that the world once again expects action.
The more important effect may have been domestic. This event needed to demonstrate to the majority of Americans who are deeply concerned about climate change that this administration was not just playing politics with the issue. By advancing a challenging commitment, by bringing nearly the entire cabinet to the show, and by showcasing sincerity and public service, the Biden team likely succeeded in that goal.
As for the Americans who continue to resist climate action, Bastida reminded everyone that “you need to accept the era of fossil fuels is over.” Overcoming resistance to that imperative and transitioning our economy will take a lot more than one flashy event, but the summit made a strong point that the Biden administration is up to the challenge.
Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Prior to joining UCS and the Belfer Center, Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since resigning from public service in 2017, he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @jclementmaine.