President Joe Biden arrived at the United Nations COP27 climate change conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Friday with wind in his sails. In August, he signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the most significant climate law in U.S. history, and the relative success of Democrats in the midterm elections offered conference delegates a glimmer of hope that his climate agenda may live to see another day. He came with fresh announcements, too: a doubling of U.S. support for a program focused on countries’ adaptation efforts, and a tightened regulation to tackle U.S. methane emissions. “We’re delivering on our promise of leadership,” Biden told the packed conference hall at COP27.
And yet it wasn’t enough. Before and after his speech, activists said the U.S. had failed to follow through on its financial obligations to help developing countries address climate change. Just a few days earlier, the European Union, a close ally and key global supporter of climate action, complained that the IRA violated trade norms with provisions prioritizing the U.S. supply chain. Meanwhile, a wide range of critics rejected a key U.S. proposal to incentivize the private sector to finance climate efforts in the Global South.
“Biden is throwing crumbs into lots of different pots,” says Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa. “That might sound impressive, but it’s not the help that is needed.”
It’s a challenging dynamic: the U.S. is simultaneously doing the most it ever has done to address the perils posed by climate change and, at the same time, facing widespread pressure for not doing enough fast enough. It’s a reality explained by both the U.S. history on climate change and the country’s complicated politics—not to mention the growing urgency to address climate change in some of the most vulnerable places.
President Biden doesn’t exist in vacuum, and to understand how the U.S. came to occupy such a tortured role in international climate talks, it first helps to understand the history. The U.S. is the largest historic emitter, responsible for a quarter of emissions since countries first began burning fossil fuels.
But, despite playing a critical role causing the problem, for decades the U.S. has been an inconsistent climate partner to the rest of the world. At the worst times, the country rejected the rest of the world’s efforts. The Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol; President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. At the best of times, the country helped marshal agreement on key issues, including the final language of the Paris Agreement—though often with a careful eye toward ensuring that the final outcome served U.S. interests.
Perhaps more importantly, the country repeatedly failed to enact meaningful climate legislation at home, even when the president was sympathetic. With all that in mind, for many around the world there’s a sense of debt owed given that not only has the U.S. caused climate change with its own emissions, but the country has also crippled attempts for the world to do something about it.
At times, the U.S. has sought to redress that claim, but following through has been much more difficult. In 2009, the U.S. joined other developed countries in promising to send a collective $100 billion annually to developing countries for climate initiatives beginning in 2020. President Biden has pursued providing $11 billion to that effort, though Congress is yet to approve it. “We’re going to continue to fight for that money,” says John Podesta, a Biden advisor who is overseeing implementation of the IRA.
Yet, an analysis from Carbon Brief suggests that the U.S. fair share—given its historical contribution to climate change—would be nearly $40 billion annually. “It was nice to see some movement,” says Gaia Larsen, finance access director at the World Resources Institute. “But you know, we’re not reaching the level of financial commitments that the international community would consider to be up to par with what they need in order to be in good standing, not in the legal sense, but in a moral sense.”
In an odd turn of events, the E.U., too, has expressed some measured frustration at the U.S. climate approach. The E.U. has pursued measures to cut emissions with increased fervor over the last several decades, placing a significant emphasis on sticks that penalize emissions. With the IRA, the U.S. has, for the most part, pursued a carrots-only approach. In other words, while the E.U. has made life tougher for industry with its climate policy, the U.S. is making life easier for its own companies.
There’s a simple explanation: domestic politics. More specifically, it’s really hard to pass significant legislation in the U.S. That’s at least in part why former President Bill Clinton tried and failed to pass an energy tax, and why former President Barack Obama couldn’t get a cap-and-trade bill that would have set a limit on U.S. emissions over the finish line. Biden’s IRA passed Congress narrowly, and, again, it did so by focusing on incentives.
Doing anything that’s perceived as a giveaway is even more difficult. In 1997, the Senate preemptively rejected the Kyoto Protocol with a resolution that declared that the U.S. shouldn’t accept international climate treaties that give special treatment to developing countries. That resolution passed 95-0.
It’s this reality that, at least in part, explains why the Biden Administration has tried to use other levers—including the private sector—to get things moving. On Wednesday, John Kerry, the former secretary of state who serves as Biden’s climate envoy, announced a carbon offset scheme designed to help funnel private sector money to developing countries.
The proposal was met with widespread skepticism. Some activists criticized it on the merits, saying the approach wouldn’t work, while others characterized it as a smokescreen to keep eyes off U.S. failure to deliver on its government commitment to international climate aid.
If it is a smokescreen, the political dysfunction and climate detachment in the U.S. that it’s hiding may not be all that appealing.
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