The United States has made a radical change in its approach to climate change since Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump to the presidency in January. Paul Rogers argues that Washington is still doing too little but its recognition of the urgency of climate breakdown should encourage other leaders and activists to push for accelerated global action, including at UK-hosted G7 and COP26 summits.

After four years of Donald Trump, President Joe Biden’s first hundred days in office have brought many major changes in direction. Although most have been around domestic issues, some also have much wider implications, never more so than with climate change. This briefing looks at that particular element in the new US thinking and questions whether it really is significant.

The Biden environment

Examining the poor US record on climate change, the starting point has to be not just the change from Trump but the record over the past twenty years. As far as the US was concerned, the eight Bush years from 2001-09 were wasted, with climate change deniers and sceptics in control and scarcely any movement, apart from in a few progressive states and cities.

Then came Barack Obama and things did start to improve. But with Republicans dominant in Congress for so much of his two-term period in office there was always a brake on progressive change. On the international stage Obama did have a positive effect, not least in his support at the COP21 climate change session in Paris in 2015. The agreement reached there was promptly ditched by Trump after the 2016 election. One of the key, if largely symbolic, acts of Biden has been to reverse that, signing an executive order within hours of assuming the presidency.

He has also tightened up on setting new targets for carbon reduction, putting forward some schemes to speed up economic decarbonisation overall. There will be substantial support for electric vehicles and renewables, more funding for innovative research and a requirement for electricity power systems to be carbon-free by 2035. At the global level Biden wants a measly $1.2 billion to support the UN Climate Change Fund, climate-linked debt relief for poorer countries, and wants to build better links on climate issues with China.

Much of this was linked to his recently chaired two-day Climate Summit, but in terms of domestic politics it means that the 18 months until the mid-term congressional elections late next year will be key to attempts to solidify the plans through legislation. While there are many other things a US President can move on without support from Congress, there are still hard legislative limits to progress.

The tilt in context

The United States is just one player in the global game of stopping climate breakdown. China is the biggest carbon emitter (although not on a per capita measure) and many other states show little interest in serious decarbonising, including Australia, Brazil, Russia, the Gulf States and India. But that doesn’t mean Biden’s changes aren’t significant. They are because they are relatively progressive, not to say radical compared with Trump and Bush, and because the United States does still have global influence. With the key Glasgow climate summit (COP26) due later this year, the sense of urgency has been significantly increased with Biden getting into the White House. Just consider how things would have looked if Trump was a hundred days into his second term.

The catch

There is a problem with all of this if we are serious about preventing catastrophic climate breakdown. The unpalatable fact is that the targets for reaching net zero carbon emissions are at least twenty years late. If what is being proposed now was seriously considered and acted on world-wide at the start of the century we would now be heading for a zero-carbon world economy by 2030 or thereabouts. We would certainly not be out of the woods but still in a healthier position as far as the global climate was concerned.

We are simply not there or anything remotely like it and the signs of impending climate breakdown become more obvious by the month. It has recently been reported that the world’s glaciers are melting at twice the rate of two decades ago. Glaciers, and especially the ‘Third Pole‘ of the Himalayas and the Karakoram range, are important in their own right, especially for South and South East Asia, but they are also global markers of change and the accelerating loss of ice is an indicator of the rate at which we are heading for breakdown. It is in marked contrast to the world-wide political responses to the climate experts’ call for a 7.6% decrease in carbon emissions every year until 2030. Even if we followed the Biden-type change in every country across the world, that would not come near to what is needed.

Prophecy and hope

Does that mean that we will simply not do what demonstrably has to be done? In other words: are we all doomed! That might be a reasonable conclusion based on objective evidence, but there is a lot more to it than that, not least with some more positive elements to consider.

Climate Science:        The huge improvements in climate science have led to much higher quality modelling and far better acquisition of data worldwide. They have also done much to increase the confidence that climate scientists have that they know what they are talking about and must, simply must, be listened to.

Evidence of Change:  This gets added credence by the evidence all around us of the climate becoming more chaotic and unpredictable. Whether it be glaciers receding, more violent storms and floods, droughts, wildfires and sea level rise, it is more and more difficult for sceptics and deniers to argue their corners, in spite of all the resources made available by fossil carbon companies and producer countries. The denial community is slowly but surely in decline, but will still hang in there for years to come.

New Technologies:    The pace of technological improvements has been incredible in the past two decades. Photovoltaic conversion is a fraction of the cost it was at the turn of the century, wind turbines are hugely more efficient and reliable and both forms of renewable energy can be converted into electrical energy at below grid parity (the cost of using fossil carbon). Electric transport is getting ever cheaper and intensive energy storage research is now being more realistically funded. Renewable energy engineers are frustrated not by what they can do but by not being provided with the resources to do it.

Activism:         Extinction Rebellion, school strikes and many other forms of activism, including substantial nonviolent actions are all having their impact. See, for example, how German NGO and student activists this week secured a constitutional court ruling to force their government to do more to reduce emissions. Three young activists are now mounting a similar judicial review of UK actions in the British courts. Temporarily eclipsed by the pandemic, activists are still there and many are pointing to the need to learn from the failures in policy and intergovernmental cooperation over the pandemic in order to get radical carbon reduction right.

Three missing aspects

Even so, there are three missing elements. One is that if all these positive elements are to have an impact, we need a much higher level of political leadership at local through to intergovernmental levels. Counting New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden and a few others, possibly including Biden, they are in very short supply worldwide. More may come forward but the harsh fact is that really good activism – persuasive and pervasive – has a much better chance of success if it can enhance effective political leaders.

Secondly, combatting climate change is essentially about reducing carbon emissions. Capturing carbon by tree planting, carbon sequestration or other means may have a role but in relation to the urgency and extent of the threat they are little more than peripheral. The problem is that radically reducing emissions is a head-on challenge to the oil/coal/gas-based structure of current economies as well as the post-war geopolitical model in which the US and its allies control maritime supply routes for fossil fuels and dominate upstream oil and gas production.

This brings in the final element, that the biggest single obstacle to positive change is a world economic system still largely dominated by the neoliberal model. This prioritises competition over cooperation and the private over the public, is rooted in the need for winners and losers, and looks to short-term gain as the driver of growth.

While that whole outlook is being challenged as never before and is even fraying a bit around the edges, it is still deeply embedded. Many of the economic ideologues are convinced that the actions that may have had to be taken to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic must be short term, with a rapid return to the competitive neoliberal norm as soon as it is over. That will be fatal in preventing climate breakdown.

Conclusion: Why Biden is significant.

Looked at this way, Biden’s climate speech looks far too modest, if not irrelevant. But it can be look at it in another way. Take a rough and ready prognosis for the next two decades and simplify it into two choices.

One is that we make painfully limited progress until faced with some utter transnational climate catastrophe forcing radical and transformative action on us, but only after huge numbers of people have died and whole economies wrecked. The other is that we really do accelerate the changes required in the next five years, further catalysed by many persistent instances of climate breakdown. If this route is followed and there are clear indications of serious progress by 2026 then that will provide a realistic but also optimistic chance of minimising overall temperature rises to below 2°C and even aiming to go into reverse.

If we do take that second route we have to be aware that the societal transformation required will be no less than a socio-economic revolution. Starting down that route, much will initially depend on Biden and his administration being relentless in pushing the agenda, not least at the G7 summit on 11-13 June and even more so in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow in early November.

Meanwhile, with the UK government chairing COP26, Boris Johnson may aim for a major public relations boost through multiplying his government’s vague promises. Given its behaviour in savaging green initiatives when the Conservative Party finally gained a parliamentary majority in 2015, and the lack of any detailed planning around implementing recent commitments, it is questionable whether that will amount to anything serious. In all of this, Biden’s recent rhetoric and action really represents a small but significant step along the way but the rest is up to us all, not least in the UK, in the coming months.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image CreditAdam Schultz, The White House. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, kicks off the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2021.