With Climate Agenda Stalled at Home, Biden Still Hopes to Lead Abroad

On his first day in office, President Biden recommitted the United States to the Paris climate agreement, noting in his inaugural address “a cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.”

He promised an intense focus on the climate crisis at home, but also abroad. As the world’s greatest historic emitter of the pollution that is dangerously warming the Earth, the United States would cut its emissions and lead the way to a safer future, he said.

But 18 months into his administration, Mr. Biden’s domestic climate agenda is hobbled. And his weakened position at home makes it difficult for the United States to convince other nations to follow its direction in the fight to hold back the rising heat, drought and storms that threaten every country.

“When Biden came into office, the world breathed a sigh of relief,” said Ani Dasgupta, chief executive of the World Resources Institute. “It hasn’t worked out that way.”

A divided Congress and dissent within his own party have blocked Mr. Biden from acquiring his most desired tool to cut pollution — legislation to speed the replacement of coal and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

The war in Ukraine has reignited global demand for fossil fuels and created a domestic political problem for Mr. Biden in the form of record gas prices, opening the door for his Republican critics and the fossil fuel industry to call for more, not less, gas and oil drilling.

And on Thursday, in the latest blow to Mr. Biden’s climate plans, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that will constrain the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Together, these setbacks will make it nearly impossible for Mr. Biden to reach his goal of cutting emissions from the United States roughly in half by 2030. And it becomes harder for America to convince other nations to do the same.

“The U.S. domestic legislation and governance systems are making it very difficult for the Biden administration to do everything they wanted to do,” said Saleemul Huq, the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh. “It is very disappointing that the U.S. is not able to demonstrate leadership.”

Even as Mr. Biden’s domestic climate agenda faces trouble, his climate envoy, John Kerry, continues to crisscross the globe, trying to persuade other countries to quickly move away from fossil fuels ahead of the next round of global climate talks, known as COP27, in Egypt this November.

“John Kerry goes around the world saying all the right things, but he can’t make the U.S. deliver them,” Mr. Huq said. “He loses credibility when he comes and preaches to everyone else.”

Through a spokesman, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called the Supreme Court ruling “a setback in our fight against climate change, when we are already far off-track in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.” Under that agreement, nearly 200 nations promised to cut pollution to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. Scientists say if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius, the likelihood of catastrophic climate impacts increases significantly.

The planet has already heated by an average of about 1.1 degrees Celsius, and worldwide emissions continue to climb. Humans burned enough oil, gas and coal to pump 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2021, more than in any previous year.

The Supreme Court decision came during a week of meetings for President Biden with allies in Europe — with leaders of the Group of 7 nations in the Bavarian Alps and then with fellow NATO members in Spain. At each meeting, leaders renewed their promises for strong climate action. But immediate emissions reduction took a back seat to efforts to shore up energy supplies across the continent and ease the pain of oil and natural gas price spikes driven by the war.

Many of Mr. Biden’s counterparts find themselves struggling for leadership authority on the climate issue as well.

The European Commission in May unveiled a sweeping plan to transition to renewable energy. But after shuttering its nuclear power plants and finding itself squeezed by reliance on Russian gas, Germany is seeking to increase imports of liquefied natural gas. Germany, Austria and the Netherlands are temporarily boosting coal power generation.

“What we have seen is that the high prices on oil and gas, and also the cut in supply, has to some extent led to that some countries are moving back to coal,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, told a special session on climate at the Madrid summit. “That is bad for climate, but of course it reflects the desperate situation they are in.”

The United States occupies a fraught role in the global efforts to combat climate change.

It has generated more greenhouse gases than any other country, and is home to many of the oil and gas companies that have worked against climate action for decades. Americans use far more energy per capita than people in other countries, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. And climate change has become a partisan issue, with most elected Republicans questioning the need to rapidly reduce emissions.

Despite all this, however, the United States has still managed to play an important role in mobilizing the international support to address climate change over the past 30 years.

Starting in 1992, with the signing of the first global climate treaty known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, American presidents and diplomats have been instrumental in the efforts to shape a unified international approach to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

“The role that the U.S. has played has been as an architect of international coordination on the issue of climate change,” said Sarah Ladislaw, managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research group specializing in energy efficiency. “It is also a key thinker around the strategy behind how to uphold those commitments.”

Yet American policy has been inconsistent, with Democratic administrations pressing for more forceful climate action, and Republican administrations often backing away from the very commitments their predecessors helped design.

Under President Bill Clinton, the United States helped design the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, where dozens of countries agreed to reduce the levels of seven greenhouse gases. A few years later, President George W. Bush walked away from it.

The same dynamic repeated itself more recently.

In 2014, the Obama administration announced that the United States and China would work together to tackle climate change, albeit at different paces. The next year, leading economies and developing nations together signed the Paris agreement where they promised to fight climate change.

Then under President Donald J. Trump, the United States became the only country to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

“American leadership has waxed and waned,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

When Mr. Biden took office last year, he recommitted the United States to climate diplomacy, appointed Mr. Kerry as the first ever presidential climate envoy, and flew to Glasgow to call other world leaders to action at the United Nations climate conference in November.

In Glasgow, the United States helped secure several new efforts to help tackle global warming, including the Global Energy Alliance, Global Finance Alliance and a pledge by more than 100 countries to slash methane emissions.

“Major global coordination to tackle the world’s toughest problems simply cannot happen without American leadership,” said Raj Shah, chief executive of the Rockefeller Foundation and the head of USAID under President Obama. “That’s true on the food crisis, and it’s true on climate.”

“There are so many dramatic setbacks with respect to the climate agenda, that the international diplomacy aspect is the one aspect that gives me hope,” Mr. Shah added. “These things are all generating real momentum.”

More recently, the Biden administration has been working to develop partnerships between the public and private sectors to encourage big companies to buy more environmentally friendly versions of products like aluminum and steel that are responsible for substantial emissions.

Yet after the policy whiplash of the past six years, the rest of the world is nervously watching the fall midterm elections and beyond.

“There is very much an existential angst that there could be another Trump presidency or Trump-like presidency,” said Ms. Kyte. “That really weighs heavily on the rest of the world.”

Ramón Cruz, president of the Sierra Club, said the prescription for restoring American leadership was clear.

“The U.S. can maintain the credibility President Biden sought to rebuild if his administration and Congressional Democrats fulfill the climate commitments they have made,” he said. “President Biden must use every tool at his disposal to address the climate crisis and show the world that the U.S. is a leader.”

Scientists are issuing increasingly dire warnings about the risks of continuing to burn fossil fuels, and around the globe, extreme weather, heat waves, fires, drought and rapid changes to the climate are unleashing successive waves of human suffering.

“New funding for fossil fuel exploration and production infrastructure is delusional,” Mr. Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, wrote on Twitter this week. “Fossil fuels are not the answer. Renewable energy is.”

For now, however, despite their lofty commitments, major industrialized nations — including the United States and European countries — are showing little capacity to take the kind of swift action that scientists say is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“The whole world is like a junkie that is addicted to fossil fuels,” Mr. Huq said. “Now that the Russians have turned it off, instead of weaning themselves off it, they are trying to find it elsewhere. We are going backward rather than forward.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting from Madrid and

Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.

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