Walking the Walk on Climate Change

By Tim Hirschel-Burns

This November, nations will come together for the international climate summit in Glasgow. The summit is the most significant since the 2015 conference that produced the Paris Agreement, and the recent wave of climate disasters only underlines the extreme urgency of global action to fight climate change. The US, now back in the Paris Agreement after the Trump Administration withdrew, aims to play a leading role in the negotiations. But as the US attempts to return to the head of the table, one key question will be in other countries’ minds: why should we believe what the US says?

Limited Promises, Even More Limited Action

Time and time again, the US has made international climate promises and failed to follow through on the domestic stage. The Clinton Administration signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, only for the Senate to refuse to ratify and the Bush Administration to withdraw. In negotiations for the Paris Agreement, the US successfully pushed to make much of the agreement non-binding, requiring countries to commit to emissions reductions but allowing them to decide the scale of those commitments.

Any just climate solution would require massive and rapid emissions reductions from the US. One estimate of the United States’ fair share found that the US should reduce its emissions by 70% of 2005 levels by 2030 (as well as supporting other countries to achieve reductions equalling 125% of US emissions levels in 2005), a far larger reduction than promised by either the Obama or Biden administrations. 

The Obama Administration’s Nationally Determined Contribution (under the Paris agreement) aimed to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by just 25% of 2005 levels by 2025. Upon rejoining the Paris Agreement, the Biden administration announced a somewhat more ambitious goal, targeting 50% emissions reductions by 2030. But the US is on course to fall short of the 25% by 2025 goal, and – on its current trajectory – may not even reach that goal by 2030.

These are not wildly ambitious targets: they would take the US from an extreme emissions outlier to merely an outlier. The US is currently the second largest source of emissions in the world, after China. On a per capita basis, the US emits more than twice as much as China, eight times more than India, and 150 times more than Ethiopia. The US is the world’s largest historic emitter, having burned a quarter of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

The damage produced by these emissions is borne by people around the world, with those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis typically suffering its harshest consequences. Although climate change will cause extensive suffering in the US, as the past month has made abundantly clear, sheer wealth will allow the US to insulate itself to some extent. Of course, that wealth was accumulated through fossil fuel-powered development, much of which occurred while most of the Global South was colonized.

As Taylor Hynes has argued on this site, the US has a responsibility to advance global climate solutions through an internationalist Green New Deal. One important piece of this global green transition is the Green Climate Fund, which provides funding to developing countries for climate mitigation and adaptation. But here, too, the US is falling short of even its own insufficient promise: international climate negotiators agreed to aim for the fund to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020, but the US has delivered even less than the $3 billion it pledged in 2014.

Climate action’s Congressional black hole

Why does the US continue to make international promises it can’t keep? It’s easy to place the blame on American climate negotiators, but the structure of American institutions – and especially Congress – makes their job far more difficult. The president negotiating international climate agreements rarely has a majority in the House or Senate, the bodies capable of legislating emissions reductions and appropriating funds. Therefore, whatever the president says on the international stage, they will struggle to credibly commit to that promise unless their party controls Congress. Worse, because the Republican Party remains committed to climate denial, the US can effectively only take meaningful climate action when Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress.  

Though we are experiencing a rare alignment of the federal government under Democratic control, the president’s party almost always suffers midterm losses – both Clinton (1992) and Obama (2008) entered office with unified Democratic governments, only to lose control of one or both houses of Congress after just two years. The period between now and the end of 2022 may therefore be the United States’ best chance to pass climate action for a decade. But there has been no sign of a standalone climate bill. Though it initially appeared that President Biden would push for climate measures in the infrastructure bill, the administration ultimately backed a bipartisan bill that could survive the Senate filibuster but was woefully insufficient on climate provisions. 

The last remaining hope for serious climate action is the budget reconciliation bill, which would require only 50 votes in the Senate rather than 60. There are some promising signs that the bill will take climate seriously: it includes a clean electricity standard to reduce emissions in the utility sector, the bill would offer extensive tax credits for electric vehicles and renewable energy, and it would create a Civilian Climate Corps. Progressive lawmakers’ “no climate, no deal” pledge—refusing to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless there are serious climate measures in the reconciliation bill—also gives teeth to calls for strong climate action. 

But the details of the reconciliation bill remain unclear, and the 50th Democratic vote for the bill will have to be Joe Manchin, who famously shot a 2009 climate bill with a gun for a campaign ad. Even if the reconciliation bill survives Manchin’s complaints, the current proposal may not get the US to Biden’s 2030 emissions reduction target. It would neither eliminate fossil fuel subsidies nor devote 40% of climate investments to marginalized communities, both of which Biden promised on the campaign trail.

The Indirect Costs of Inaction

US climate action would have important global benefits beyond the direct impact of reducing emissions – accordingly, the indirect costs of inaction are far greater than US carbon output alone. 

First, US climate action would speed up the development of green technology. Driving down the cost and feasibility of clean energy would significantly undermine the case for fossil fuels; the rapidly falling costs of wind and solar energy shows the promise of investing in green technology. US climate action, by providing a major market for this technology and funding green research and development, would stimulate the creation of technology that could be adopted globally to reduce emissions. US climate action would also financially weaken the fossil fuel industry, limiting its ability to lobby against climate action on a global scale.

By contrast, US failure to live up to its climate commitments provides a ready argument to opponents of climate action around the world: why should our country take on the costs of climate action when US emissions will doom us anyway? This skepticism could be especially strong in countries of the Global South, which have far smaller emissions than the US, face far greater development needs, and are experiencing a prolonged pandemic as rich countries hoard vaccines. While the US is not the only country falling short on its climate commitments, the country stands out in contributing an outrageously disproportionate share of global emissions while still expecting to be feted as a climate leader.

As the Green New Deal recognizes, addressing climate change can provide new opportunities, like green jobs creation, and it is far cheaper than dealing with the disasters brought about by unmitigated climate change. But climate action inevitably imposes at least some costs in the short term. The Paris Agreement is designed to create a pathway towards collectively overcoming global hesitancy to absorb these costs – building confidence that if individual countries fulfill their climate obligations, other countries will too. The Paris Agreement does not mandate specific emission reductions, and countries’ initial round of  commitments fall far short of those needed to limit global warming to well below 2° Celsius. However, the hope coming out of the agreement was that countries would ratchet up their targets after seeing other countries fulfill an initial round of commitments. 

Unfortunately, US foreign policy often implicitly relies on a logic of “do as I say, not as I do.” This logic is misguided at the best of times, but it is even more damaging when US failures to reduce emissions directly impact the rest of the world and undermine support for global climate action. Lawmakers resistant to passing ambitious climate action should consider what the situation looks like to the rest of the world: the world’s largest historic emitter is not on track to meet its original Paris Agreement commitment, even though that commitment would still leave US per capita emissions significantly higher in 2025 than even China or Germany’s current emissions. More ambitious goals from President Biden mean little if there is no follow-through. 

Even now, with a Democratic trifecta in the federal government, while lawmakers watch heatwaves roast their constituents to death amidst the United States’ best chance to pass climate legislation in a decade, Congress might not even pass climate legislation strong enough to accomplish the bare minimum on climate action. If not now, really, when?


Tim Hirschel-Burns is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. Find him on Twitter at: @TimH_B.

One thought on “Walking the Walk on Climate Change

  1. Pingback: Walking the Walk on Climate Change | Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College

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