President Joe Biden arrived at the United Nations COP27 climate change conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Friday with the wind in his sails. He signed the law into law in August Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the most significant climate legislation in US history, and the relative success of Democrats in the by-elections offered conference delegates a glimmer of hope that his climate agenda might live another day. It also came with new announcements: doubling U.S. support for a program focused on countries’ adaptation efforts and tougher regulations to address U.S. methane emissions. “We are delivering on our promise of leadership,” Biden told a packed COP27 conference room.
Still, it wasn’t enough. Before and after his speech, activists said the US had failed to do its part financial obligations to help developing countries deal with climate change. Just days earlier, the European Union, a close ally and major global backer of climate action, complained that the IRA violated trade norms with provisions that prioritized the US supply chain. Meanwhile, a number of critics have rejected a key US proposal to incentivize the private sector to finance climate efforts in the Global South.
“Biden is throwing crumbs into a lot of different pots,” says Mohamed Addou, director of Power Shift Africa. “That may sound impressive, but the help is not needed.”
It’s a challenging dynamic: The U.S. is both doing the best it’s ever done to address the dangers posed by climate change, and at the same time facing widespread pressure that it’s not doing fast enough. It’s a reality informed by both the US’s history on climate change and the country’s complex politics—not to mention the growing urgency to address climate change in some of the most vulnerable places.
President Biden dit is not so exist in a vacuum, and to understand how the US came to take such a tortured role in international climate negotiations, it helps to first understand history. The US is the largest historical emitter, responsible for a quarter of emissions since countries began burning fossil fuels.
But despite playing a critical role in causing the problem, for decades the US has been an erratic climate partner to the rest of the world. In its worst moments, the country rejected the efforts of the rest of the world. The Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol; President Donald Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement. In the best of times, the country helped broker agreement on key issues, including the final text of the Paris Agreement — though often with a careful eye to ensure the end result served US interests.
Perhaps more importantly, the country has repeatedly failed to enact meaningful climate legislation at home, even when the president was favorable. With all this in mind, for many around the world there is a sense of duty, given that not only has the US caused climate change with its own emissions, but the country has also crippled attempts by the world to do something about it.
Sometimes the US tried to offset this claim, but it was much more difficult to do so. In 2009, the US joined other developed countries in pledging to send a collective $100 billion a year to developing countries for climate initiatives starting in 2020. President Biden has continued to provide $11 billion for the effort, though Congress has yet to approve it. “We’re going to continue to fight for that money,” said John Podesta, a Biden adviser who oversees the IRA’s implementation.
And yet an analysis from Carbon Brief suggests that the U.S.’s fair share — given its historical contribution to climate change — would be close to $40 billion a year. “It was nice to see some movement,” says Gaya Larsen, director of access to finance at the World Resources Institute. “But you know, we’re falling short of the level of financial commitments that the international community would consider to meet what they need to be in good shape, not in a legal sense, but in a moral sense. “
In a strange turn of events, the EU has also expressed some dismay at the US approach to climate. Over the past few decades, the EU has pursued emission reduction measures with increased zeal, placing considerable emphasis on sticks that penalize emissions. With the IRA, the US for the most part pursued a carrot-only approach. In other words, while the EU has made life harder for industry with its climate policy, the US is making life easier for its own companies.
There is a simple explanation: domestic politics. Specifically, it’s really hard to get significant legislation passed in the US. This is at least partly why former President Bill Clinton tried and failed to pass an energy tax, and why former President Barack Obama could not get a cap-and-trade bill passed that would have put a cap on US emissions above the finish line. Biden’s IRA narrowly passed Congress and did so again by focusing on incentives.
Making something that is perceived as a gift is even more difficult. In 1997, the Senate preemptively rejected the Kyoto Protocol with a resolution that declared the US should not accept international climate treaties that give special treatment to developing countries. That resolution passed 95-0.
It is this reality, at least in part, that 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 channel money from the private sector to developing countries.
The proposal was met with widespread skepticism. Some activists criticized it in substance, saying the approach wouldn’t work, while others characterized it as a smokescreen to deflect attention from the US’s failure to meet its government’s commitment to international climate aid.
If this is a smokescreen, the political dysfunction and climate indifference in the US it hides may not be so appealing.
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