Biden to Bring Back Climate Diplomacy

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to redefine the role of the United States as a global climate leader if elected on November 3. Standing in stark contrast to President Donald Trump, Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement and working with other nations to reduce emissions.

Under Trump, the United States has moved to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and reversed much of the progress made under former President Barack Obama. The current Administration has presided over an unprecedented rollback of environmental regulations and pulled out of numerous international agreements and treaties.  Crude oil and natural gas production has increased significantly, with Trump committed to “unleashing energy dominance.”

A Biden presidency would be a welcome change from Trump, but it is unclear if his Administration would be a transformative one for U.S. climate diplomacy.

Biden to Rejoin Paris

What Biden has made clear is that the United States will reenter the Paris Agreement on day one of his Administration. This is a necessary first step. The United States would join every other country in the world on a path toward limiting the global average temperature increase to 2°C.

In his foreign policy plan, Biden has vowed to lead by the power of America’s example and “lock in enforceable commitments that will reduce emissions in global shipping and aviation.” Biden has singled out China and vowed to pressure that nation to stop subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing its pollutants through dirty fossil fuel energy projects.

A Biden Administration would begin coordinating immediately with other major greenhouse gas emitters to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, promising to convene a world summit in his first 100 days in office to raise ambition in climate pledges. The campaign’s Press Secretary, Jamal Brown, said that a Biden Administration would pressure countries to increase their domestic climate targets and ensure that the commitments are “transparent and enforceable.”

If Biden wins, the United States is expected to submit a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement. The first NDC, which was submitted in 2016 under Obama, commits the United States to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025 from its 2005 levels. 

“We cannot have Paris be the standard,” said Natalie Mebane, Policy Director for 350 Action, which has endorsed Biden’s candidacy. “Paris is obviously the bare minimum and we are happy to see he is definitely going to do that. We want the United States to be a leader.” 

A Biden presidency would also have major ramifications for international climate finance. Under Obama’s leadership, the United States committed to transferring $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund. Regrettably, Trump has reneged on the final $2 billion of that commitment. Biden would recommit the United States to the Green Climate Fund, although his team has not provided specifics. 

For many, the path toward restoring legitimacy on the global stage must begin with reducing greenhouse gas emissions domestically.

“The first thing that the United States needs to do if it wants to seriously engage in climate internationally is to engage in climate nationally and care about it at home,” said Mebane.

Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan is the most ambitious and comprehensive climate agenda by a Democratic nominee for president. At its core, it will set the United States on an “irreversible path” toward net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by 2050. 

Biden has also committed to charting a path to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and ending new oil and gas leases on federal lands. As president, he would unleash a series of executive orders requiring aggressive methane pollution limits on oil and gas leases, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and protecting biodiversity. However, the campaign has stopped short of endorsing a Green New Deal and has rejected a nationwide fracking ban.

Obama’s Mixed Record

Under Obama and Vice President Biden, the United States emerged as a global leader on international climate diplomacy, joining the Paris Agreement, submitting its first NDC and making major climate finance commitments. Biden has promised to put the United States “back in the driver’s seat” and make the United States a leader again.

But the United States has often been an impediment to progress on climate, even with Obama in charge. The Obama Administration opposed some of the more robust language proposed. It notably objected to wealthy nations providing loss and damage payments based on historical emissions.   

“We’re not against it,” said former Secretary of State John Kerry in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine. “We’re in favor of framing it in a way that doesn’t create a legal remedy, because Congress will never buy into an agreement that has something like that, after witnessing what happened in Kyoto. If you really want to get something done, don’t go down that road.” 

While the signing of the Paris Agreement represents one of the most important environmental achievements by any administration, Obama’s climate commitments were also faulted as “insufficient” to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement by the Climate Action Tracker. At the end of his presidency, Obama outlined a more ambitious strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

The Administration also had a mixed record domestic climate record. Under Obama, carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement production decreased 11 percent and renewable energy increased by 44 percent. However, Obama oversaw a major expansion of domestic oil and gas production in the United States.

“You wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president … suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas that was me, people,” said Obama.

How far will Biden go?

While Biden’s plan is by far the most ambitious set forth by a Democratic nominee, it falls short of proposals by such other presidential candidates as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and even his pick for Vice President, Kamala Harris.  

Inslee, whose 200-page climate plan was dubbed the “gold standard” by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, had called for reorienting U.S. foreign policy around climate change. Although Inslee has helped influence Biden’s agenda, it is unclear if Biden will follow his lead.

Another unknown is how a Biden Administration would address issues in the climate negotiations, such as loss and damage and human rights.   If the Democrats take the House and Senate this November, Republicans in Congress will have less power to handcuff the negotiating team.  

What is indisputable is that Biden would be a big improvement over Trump and there will be an emboldened climate movement ready to push him into adopting more ambitious policies.

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