climate change

Why the World Can’t Trust America on Climate

Biden our time. Photo: Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

America has finally kicked its climate-denial habit.

I know, you’ve heard that one before. Twenty-eight years ago today, a Democratic president announced that the U.S. would “take the lead in addressing the challenge of global warming,” and reduce “emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000.” Then Republicans took Congress, the tech boom exploded, we went into relapse, elected an infamous failson, ditched the Kyoto Protocol, and got stupid high on atmospheric CO2.

And eight years later, we came crawling back to the world stage, insisting we’d finally gone clean. That was “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” our Democratic president assured us. And we swear, we really meant it. It’s just, we got caught up with our health problems, let cap-and-trade fall through, started injecting sand into our mineral veins (just to tide us over until getting clean got easier), elected an infamous con artist, pulled out of the Paris Agreement, and did damn near everything in our power to expedite the onset of the ecological eschaton.

But we’re done with that life now. And this time, we really mean it. Truly. Not even tempted. We feel great, clear-headed, and on fire with purpose. Once and for all, America “has resolved to take action” on climate change.

This was, more or less, Joe Biden’s message to his fellow world leaders at the White House’s virtual climate summit Thursday morning. The president committed the U.S. to bringing its annual CO2 emissions down to 50 percent of its 2005 level by the end of this decade, a markedly more ambitious target than the Obama administration had set in 2015. Aware that most working people, in the United States and abroad, are more worried about their immediate financial security than human civilization’s long-term sustainability, Biden emphasized that cooling the planet could heat up the economy. The countries that take decisive actions now” on emissions reductions, Biden argued, “will be the ones that reap the clean-energy benefits of the boom that’s coming.”

Other world leaders followed Biden’s rhetorical example, reaffirming their commitments to a green transition, and spotlighting the economic benefits of such a policy. (The economic case for swift emissions reductions was buttressed Thursday by a new report from one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, which projected that climate change is poised to shave 14 percent off of global GDP by mid-century.) Most notably, Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed that his nation — currently the world’s largest CO2 emitter — would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Of course, if such nonbinding pledges were a reliable currency, U.S. CO2 emissions would have peaked in the late 1990s. And, as suggested above, America’s rhetorical commitments on climate are less trustworthy than most.

Vox’s Ella Nilsen and Alex Ward brought up this point in an interview with senior administration officials yesterday. Asked why other nations should take America’s targets seriously, given our serial reneging on such commitments, one Biden adviser replied, “We’re number two in the global emissions … But at the same time, currently we’re at about 13 percent, so the rest of the world’s going to have to act, and they know that.”

This is a reasonable answer to a different question, namely, “Why would other countries keep their climate promises when they know they can’t trust us to keep our own?” It is true that American progressives sometimes lapse into a U.S.-centric view of the climate crisis. Ultimately, the U.S. could hit all of Biden’s emissions targets — or even all of AOC’s — and that still wouldn’t be enough to avert catastrophic warming, should China and India pursue carbon-intensive development strategies. We’ve got the highest per-capita emissions on the planet; but we’ve only got 4.25 percent of the world’s people. Either developing countries will find a way to sustainably industrialize (and the planet will be saved) or they won’t (and the bullfrogs will inherit the Earth). Regardless, America’s carbon trajectory will not be decisive.

But none of that means U.S. climate action doesn’t matter. Emissions reductions in the U.S. don’t need to be decisive to be mitigating. And American policy may well determine whether leaders in the developing world find a politically tenable way to decarbonize their economies. If rich countries do not treat warming as a serious issue, they cannot expect poor ones to do so either; it’s not like entrenched fossil-fuel interests or anti-science demagogues are phenomena peculiar to the United States.

More concretely, no nation-state on planet Earth is better positioned to spur green innovation than the U.S. We have the world’s top research universities, more per capita wealth than any large country, and the world’s reserve currency, which allows us to finance public investment at near-zero interest rates. Breakthrough technologies that allow low-income nations to have their rapid economic development — and CO2 reductions, too — are humanity’s last best hope. The U.S. should spend as much as we can afford on facilitating such breakthroughs.

Instead, Biden has proposed spending roughly $4.375 billion a year. As the economic historian Adam Tooze writes:

[Biden’s] core promise on clean energy R&D is to invest $35bn “in the full range of solutions needed to achieve technology breakthroughs that address the climate crisis and position America as the global leader in clean energy technology and clean energy jobs.” This sum, $35bn, is less than Americans spend annually on pet food and will be spread over eight years. Either you don’t dare ask for more, or you underestimate the scale of the technological challenge and believe that “the full range of solutions” needed for the US to make these breakthroughs and become a global leader will be as easy as buying dog treats.

The limitations of Biden’s climate agenda would be less concerning if the odds that it will constitute America’s last major legislation on the issue for a decade weren’t so high.

The GOP remains about as hostile to climate science, and deferential to dirty-energy rentiers, as it’s ever been. Some of the party’s senior leaders have taken to acknowledging the existence of man-made warming. But the last year has established that “trust the experts when they tell you that dramatic policy changes are required to avert mass death” is not a position that animates the Republican base or the party’s new generation of lawmakers. America will only stay on the green-and-narrow path for as long as the GOP stays out of power.

And Republicans are unlikely to remain in the wilderness for long. Absent a ban on partisan gerrymandering, the GOP is overwhelmingly likely to retake the House in 2022, and will have an excellent shot at flipping the Senate. Last year, the Electoral College’s tipping-point state was about 4 points more Republican than the nation as a whole; which is to say, there is a good chance the GOP can win the White House in 2024 while losing the popular vote by 3.9 percent.

Democrats have the power to mitigate some of these structural disadvantages. They could use their tenuous grip on power to grant statehood to D.C., the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, and mandate nonpartisan redistricting in the House. And they also have the power to pass a more ambitious climate plan.

Yet the same political geography that makes the GOP’s minority coalition so formidable also keeps Democratic congressional majorities less than radical. The House and Senate both overrepresent rural areas with right-leaning electorates, carbon-intensive transport systems, and relatively high levels of fossil-fuel employment. Combine this with the centrality of car ownership and cheap gas to our national conception of the good life, and it’s no wonder that Biden’s plan spends an order of magnitude more on electric vehicles than passenger rail, or that it includes no mechanism for pricing carbon. Meanwhile, the deep-seated deficit-phobia of red-state moderates like Joe Manchin — and the limited appetite for progressive taxation among some rich-district House members like Josh Gottheimer — threaten to shrink the president’s already inadequate green infrastructure proposals.

Which isn’t to say that climate realists should acquiesce to these political headwinds. If Democratic lawmakers love their grandchildren (or, failing that, power),  then it is in their interest to enact a large climate package, D.C. statehood, and a gerrymandering ban. At the very least, progressives should seek to increase the share of Biden’s $2.25 trillion plan that is dedicated to green R&D.

Democrats cannot single-handedly turn the U.S. into a trustworthy actor on the world stage (as the last two decades have amply demonstrated). But for now, they do have the power to single-handedly pass major legislation. If they want to minimize sea-level rise, they’re going to have to rock the boat.

Why the World Can’t Trust America on Climate