Biden’s climate diplomacy hits a wall

Protesters wearing giant heads of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and US President Joe Biden outside the G7 summit in St. Ives, Cornwall, England, on 13 June, 2021. (Keystone/AP Photo/Jon Super)

Environmentalists were left disappointed this week as wealthy nations failed to come up with any new major proposals to tackle climate change. As the US returned to the global stage, many hoped to see President Joe Biden push for more ambition, but his climate plans are already facing major roadblocks back home.

President Biden wrapped up his overseas tour on Thursday after sending a clear message that “America is back” on the global stage. During his seven day tour, where he renewed ties with his European allies and shook hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden stressed that climate change was a major concern for the United States and assured the world that it would do its part in tackling the climate threat.

However, environmental groups were dismayed at what they saw as insufficient steps by rich nations. The topic was also seldom mentioned during the press conference Biden gave after meeting with Putin for two hours on Wednesday in Geneva.

Read also: Biden and Putin praise ‘constructive’ summit but disputes remain

A disappointing week for climate? After the G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, Biden assured the world that the US would support the “urgent” transition to cleaner energy and joined the other G7 nations in pledging to phase out new international funding for coal. The group also pledged to provide $2bn to help poorer countries steer away from the polluting fuel.

While rights groups welcomed the move to stop funding coal abroad, they criticised the wealthy group of nations for not setting targets to get rid of coal at home and for what they saw as insufficient financial contributions to tackling climate change.

The rich countries also renewed their unfulfilled decade-long promise of raising $100bn a year to help developing nations fight climate change and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) did commit to “significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from military activities” and consider decarbonising by 2050, but did not set any specific targets.

Undoing Trump’s damage. Since taking office in January, Biden has made a point of showing that his administration will make climate action a priority, unlike his predecessor Donald Trump’s administration. Hours after being sworn in, he rejoined the Paris Agreement, which former president Trump pulled out of during his term, and started undoing many of Trump’s rollbacks on environmental protection.

Biden has also caught up with several key global targets, promising to cut US carbon emissions by half in the next decade and put the country on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050.

But while his discourse on climate change has been loud and strong and promises have been made, leading many to hope for a US leadership in climate issues, Biden still has a lot to catch up on at home – particularly to reverse the impact of Trump’s damaging policies over the past four years.

“Above all, [Biden] is trying to repair the damage caused by Trump. In the four years that he was president, the US was seen as a completely unreliable partner,” David Sylvan, professor of international relations and political science and US foreign policy specialist at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, told Geneva Solutions. “So the first thing to do when you're in a hole is to stop digging, so he stopped digging.”

Biden is clearly trying hard to set himself apart from a president who  continuously denied the existence of a climate crisis and undermined multilateral approaches to combat it, but he still has enormous work to do to restore the US’ image in the eyes of his traditional allies. Rekindling those relations will be key to achieve many of his goals, particularly halting China’s expansion and the ensuing environmental consequences.

The US leader has made it clear that he considers China to be the biggest threat to the US and made it one of the prominent themes of his tour. Analysts have also pointed out that it was one of the main reasons for him meeting with Putin.

“The US is gearing up for a prolonged struggle with China and they wanted to make sure that the G7 countries, the EU and NATO would not hinder them,” said Sylvan.

Not everyone shared his position, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying during an interview that everyone joining against China would be “of the highest possible conflictuality [sic]”. Nevertheless, the G7 did launch the US-backed $40 trillion initiative Build Back Better World, or B3W, to fund infrastructure in developing countries and challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

NATO’s communiqué after the Brussels summit also included language that referred to “China’s growing influence and international policies” as a “challenge” – a significant win for Biden, according to Sylvan.

Biden’s domestic battle. Expecting more from the US’ climate diplomacy at this point would be unrealistic, explained  Sylvan. For starters, the real battle to affect real change, for Biden and any other leader, will be fought at a domestic level.

“However sympathetic Biden may be to issues about climate change, he has to get things through the US Congress, and that's much tougher,” said Sylvan. As the world’s second largest emitter, the US has a long way to go to reduce its carbon footprint and that will only be achieved through legislation. In four years, Trump rolled-back over 100 environmental and climate policies, including loosening restrictions for oil and gas drilling.

Six months in, Biden’s ambitious climate agenda is already facing major obstacles in Washington. One of his flagship proposals on infrastructure – to invest billions in repairing roads and tunnels and in cleaner energies – is struggling to rally up the necessary support in congress, as Republicans, moderate Democrats and the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party struggle to agree on a budget. This could put Biden’s plans to cut emissions by half by 2030 and have a carbon-free power sector by 2035 in jeopardy.

With the Senate split right now 50-50 between the two opposing parties, one of the key votes that Biden has to sway to get anything to pass is that of Democratic senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, one of the country’s top coal producing states. At a conference last week, Manchin expressed concern over Biden’s climate plans and what he saw as an “aggressive timetable”.

On Tuesday, a federal judge appointed by Trump blocked Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal lands, a huge step back from leaving fossil fuels behind.

Upcoming summits. As other major international conferences are set to take place in the coming months, including the Climate summit Cop26 in November and the Summit for Biodiversity in October all eyes will be on the US. While they can be expected to support new initiatives and commitments that might emerge, Sylvan noted that they will likely “take a backseat" and not lead in most environmental issues.

One area where the US could easily contribute without much political cost is climate adaptation, such as building infrastructure with technologies and materials that are resilient to extreme weather events. It would cost relatively little money and would not spark opposition from major interest groups such as the oil and coal sector.

“It's a perfect kind of thing for someone like Biden to do,” said Sylvan, “and I would expect him to do this type of thing.”

It has also been called by the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres “the neglected half of the climate equation”. While the UN chief has repeatedly urged countries to spend half of their climate finance on adaptation, currently only a fifth of funds go to projects to help cope with the impacts of climate change.