Two years after a flashy press conference in the White House Rose Garden, the United States officially filed notice last fall that it would be leaving the Paris Agreement—the international community’s main attempt at coordinated climate action. Wednesday morning, as election results remain up in the air, that departure became official. If he’s reelected, Donald Trump will keep the U.S. out of the agreement. Joe Biden has long pledged to reenter it.
A second Trump term would be a domestic and international nightmare for climate policy, activists say. But a Biden win wouldn’t be a quick fix, either. Going back to Obama-era climate diplomacy won’t meet the challenge at hand, nor will it rebuild the trust decades of combative U.S. officials have squandered. Trump may have exacerbated America’s global reputation as a climate saboteur—but he didn’t create it. That’s a lesson Joe Biden would do well to heed if he prevails and wants to rejoin the Paris Agreement, international activists say—because recommitting without changing the way the U.S. does climate diplomacy could just make the problem worse.
The Paris Agreement is often seen domestically as a crowning achievement of U.S. diplomacy. But its legacy internationally is more controversial. At the agreement’s core are each country’s Nationally Determined Contributions: voluntary emissions-reduction pledges from each country that are intended to be “ratcheted up” over time. That’s a far cry from the earlier, legally binding approach embodied in the Kyoto Protocol, in which wealthier countries took more responsibility for bringing down their emissions and helped to finance energy transitions in poorer parts of the world. The U.S. Senate rejected that treaty in 1997 in a 95–0 vote, egged on by Robert Byrd, Chuck Hagel, and polluters in the climate-denying Global Climate Coalition. Paris, while a remarkable diplomatic achievement, is also the result of other countries trying to accommodate U.S. corporate and political interests with a weaker and less equitable framework.
The U.S. has long been a barrier to serious international cooperation on climate change, objecting to binding targets, enforcement mechanisms, funding commitments, and any policy recognizing that developed countries are far more responsible for global warming than developing ones. During the Obama administration, top U.S. negotiator Todd Stern used the National Security Administration to spy on other countries’ delegations to gain advanced intel on their negotiating in climate talks leading up to Paris. The U.S. is also widely suspected of having strong-armed the Filipino government into dropping the late Bernarditas de Castro-Mueller—a frequent critic of U.S. climate policy—from her country’s delegation when she served as a leading coordinator and spokesperson for the G77 plus China, an umbrella group of 130 developing nations.
“Of course under Trump it just got much worse,” Meena Raman, Head of the Third World Network’s Climate Program and a veteran of United Nations climate talks, told me by email. “But overall having the U.S. in the [U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change] or the Paris Agreement for developing countries has been very challenging and difficult, given its hard stances.”
Even with Trump’s withdrawal from Paris, the U.S. remains in the UNFCCC, the body under which the Paris Agreement is housed; career diplomats and administrative appointees alike have advocated for long-standing U.S. interests, while going to unprecedented lengths to reject established science. In 2018, the U.S. joined fellow oil and gas producers Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait in refusing to “welcome” the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on the benefits of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) rather than two degrees. And at last year’s talks in Madrid, U.S. obstruction on issues of climate finance meant that several key topics were left unresolved, shunted to meetings that—thanks to Covid-19—now may not happen until late next year, when COP 26 is set to convene in Glasgow.
“I would say that there has been more continuity than divergence, overall, under Trump from the previous administrations,” Raman said of U.S. engagement in the UNFCCC, though she was clear to note that four more years of Trump “will be adding fuel to what is already on fire right now.” One notable point of departure, she added, was the Obama administration’s $3 billion commitment to the Global Climate Fund, a body set up under the auspices of the UNFCCC to finance international climate mitigation and adaptation. Before leaving office, Obama pledged $3 billion toward the GCF but was only able to deliver $1 billion before Trump took office and cut off contributions. Looking toward a transition to a possible Biden administration, Raman wrote, “it is vital for the U.S. to at least double its contribution to the GCF in addition to paying up the $2 billion shortfall from its old commitment.”
She cautioned against the White House taking a disciplinary approach to climate diplomacy, like raising tariffs on imported goods and inflaming trade tensions. “Instead, the U.S. should assist developing countries in becoming more climate-friendly through technology transfer and the provision of financial resources,” she said. “The Biden administration should create an atmosphere of collaboration rather than confrontation in the UNFCCC process.”
Though the U.S. could reenter as soon as February, should Biden wind up in the White House, climate activists fear that pursuing such a policy in a purely symbolic way carries its own dangers. Martin Vilela, of the Bolivian Platform on Climate Change, a civil society group, worries about a Biden administration rejoining Paris without substantive commitments. “The risk,” he said over email, “is that the U.S. will use their reinstatement politically, to push and reinforce the application of false solutions, such as carbon markets, that will dangerously delay climate action” and spread the “false global public idea that the problem is being addressed.” Prior to leaving the Paris Agreement, the U.S. had committed to reduce its emissions by just 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. To satisfy the terms of the agreement, a Biden White House would at the very least need to present a ramped-up commitment that extends through 2030.
Symbolic climate pledges have become a problem in recent years. A recent report from the Third World Network and several other civil society groups across the global north and south argues that “net-zero” pledges from both corporations like Shell and the United Kingdom rely on either unproven technologies or vast amounts of land through carbon offsets and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS—a term for harvesting new plants on millions or even billions of hectares of land to generate bioenergy, whose emissions would then be captured and stored underground. Beyond the question of whether society can actually devote that much land to the project, the technology to capture emissions—as many experts have pointed out—doesn’t yet exist at the massive scale many of these optimistic plans assume. Making climate commitments contingent on future technological breakthroughs amounts to a gamble that critics say distracts from more concrete efforts to reduce emissions in the near term.
That doesn’t mean that if he wins, Biden should simply walk away from the Paris Agreement: While many still criticize Paris as being inadequate, there isn’t a more attractive alternative on offer. And there’s not much time to build something new in its place. Without the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, campaigners fear a future of ad hoc climate diplomacy built on shaky net-zero pledges and lacking any clearly defined standards and accountability, however voluntary those may be now.
From a climate perspective, the best option would be for a Biden administration to rejoin the Paris Agreement but this time with a more serious and cooperative approach. “When you talk about loss and damage, mitigation in the global south, and climate change impacts, the U.S. has not been particularly forthcoming. They’ve played an obstructionist role,” Akinbode Oluwafemi, of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa, told me by phone. “We want to see a Biden presidency moving from the body language shown by the Obama administration into very concrete action: to the U.S. beginning to show that leadership in climate change and funding, in treaties that ensure that polluters pay for the climate catastrophes that are happening down South.… The most important thing is to let the American people know that this situation is not only about America.”
The U.S. still holds enormous power to shape international climate policy. Whether signed onto the Paris Agreement or not, the country will still be a party to the UNFCCC and thus can participate in that body’s annual meetings and Conference of Parties, like COP 21, which finalized the Paris Agreement. Its strongest tools for curbing emissions internationally, though, lie in trade and finance. Trade agreements and U.S. sway in the Bretton Woods Institutions—namely, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank—can shape trade flows toward lower carbon ends, reform arcane intellectual property statutes that make clean energy inaccessible, and push to relieve sovereign debts that put low-carbon development out of reach for poorer countries.
There’s some reason to believe the Biden campaign is actually considering using these tools. Biden campaign press secretary Jamal Brown told Vox this week that Biden would be pursuing something more ambitious than just reentering the Paris Agreement—though he provided few details on what exactly that would look like, aside from stopping other countries from “cheating,” and integrating national security interests. He reiterated Biden’s pledge to recommit the U.S. to the Green Climate Fund, without mentioning a specific pledge amount. The campaign noted its commitment to working with Bretton Woods Institutions on “green debt relief,” as well, though the prospect of the U.S. determining the strings attached to developing country finances is likely to raise alarm bells for those that have been on the losing end of IMF-imposed structural adjustment packages.
A Democratic White House, then, would be only a starting point for global collaboration on climate. “We just continue to hope that Americans will spare us the nightmare of another four years of Donald Trump,” Oluwafemi said. But there are plenty of fights ahead, either way. If Biden prevails, Vilela said, “much will depend on how U.S. civil society organizations and movements articulate and pressure the Biden administration so that their reincorporation into the Paris Agreement is increasingly serious, real, and transparent, and that it provides the possibility of a just transition for the poorest and most affected communities in developing countries and also in the U.S.” Building back better—as Biden has promised in his climate-focused stimulus plan—would also mean rebuilding international trust. But he’ll have to make it to Oval Office first.