President Joe Biden did something fascinating on his first day at the major climate summit taking place in Scotland: He apologized.
“I guess I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact the United States, in the last administration, pulled out of the Paris [Agreement] and put us sort of behind the eight ball a little bit,” Biden told his fellow world leaders Monday during the United Nations summit, known as COP26.
Despite the U.S. being the leading contributor to climate change for most of the last century, America’s commitment to reversing that trend has been all over the map. The whiplash between Democratic and Republican administrations has been intense, leaving Biden in the unfortunate position of convincing the world that it’s OK to trust us again. Unfortunately, given our track record, I’m not surprised that the response on some of the thorniest issues has been a devastating side-eye.
The Paris Agreement that Biden referenced was the end result of the 2015 climate summit, known as COP21. The binding treaty committed countries to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial levels, to reach a “climate neutral world” by 2050. When I recently asked climate experts on Twitter which of the previous annual climate meetings was the most successful, “Paris” was the resounding answer.
Paris was a major achievement — one that former President Donald Trump abandoned within his first six months in office. His reasoning, such as it was, was that the treaty "put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, in a very, very big economic disadvantage." While the words were particularly Trumpian, it’s a sentiment climate change deniers and fossil fuel companies had been making for decades.
For once, Trump was following political precedence: President George W. Bush had done something similar in 2001 when he refused to support ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. That treaty would have seen the U.S. reduce its emission of greenhouse gases down to 7 percent below 1990 levels. Instead, the U.S. output of greenhouse gases continued to increase steadily until 2008. As of 2019, the U.S. was, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, still emitting 1.8 percent more greenhouse gases than in 1990.
Though Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement didn’t become effective until November 2020, it still signaled to the world (yet again) that the United States isn’t exactly a reliable partner on addressing climate change. Biden reversed that decision with an executive order on his first day in office, and the U.S. officially rejoined the climate treaty in February. But that doesn’t erase what’s occurred, nor does it change the fact that the U.S. isn’t poised to do that much better in the near future.
Everyone in Glasgow knows that no matter how sincere Biden’s promises are, it’s up to Congress to enact them. Yes, there are substantial investments in preventing and mitigating climate change inside the Build Back Better Act that Democrats have been preparing. The latest climate package includes $555 billion to “make it easier to buy electric vehicles, install solar panels, retrofit buildings and manufacture wind turbines and other clean-energy equipment,” as The Washington Post reported.
But delegates at COP26 recognize that Biden, after months of negotiations, showed up with the bill still unpassed. They also know that one person — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — has managed to veto the best tool on the table to pressure American energy producers to shift away from fossil fuels. And the Supreme Court is poised to take up a case that could reduce the EPA’s ability to limit greenhouse gases at all, tying Biden’s hands even further.
“The U.S. talks a big game on climate change, but they just haven’t delivered,” Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, recently told Bloomberg News. “From the international perspective, the United States is treated skeptically.”
A recent Pew Research Center poll backs up that claim. The survey asked respondents in 17 advanced economies what they thought of America’s efforts to fight climate change. The general view, Pew reported, is that the U.S. response is “wanting.” In all, a cumulative median of 61 percent of people polled said America is doing a bad job dealing with global climate change. That’s a better review than China got: A median of 78 percent of respondents gave Beijing a thumbs-down. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, decided to skip this year’s meeting. It’s not exactly encouraging that these two major greenhouse gas producers may not accede to any new commitments negotiated in Glasgow.
But Moscow and Beijing following in Washington’s footsteps — selfishly ignoring the need for collective action to combat climate change — doesn’t make Biden’s path to gaining global trust much easier. If anything, it shows how in eschewing its responsibilities over the years, the U.S. has set a pattern for other countries to selfishly follow, putting their domestic growth over our global society’s collective survival.
Biden departed Glasgow on Wednesday, but he left behind a veritable army of officials, including Cabinet members and members of Congress. It’ll be up to them to convince the skeptics that America will follow through on its promises this time. Honest.