WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is convening a coalition of the willing, the unwilling, the desperate-for-help and the avid-for-money for a global summit today aimed at rallying the world’s worst polluters to move faster against climate change.
The president’s first task is convincing the world that the politically fractured United States isn’t just willing when it comes to Biden’s new ambitious emissions-cutting pledges, but also able.
Success for Biden in the virtual summit of 40 leaders will be making his expected promises — cutting coal and petroleum emissions at home and financing climate efforts abroad — believable enough to persuade other powers to make big changes of their own.
For small countries already fighting for their survival, global climate progress noticeably slowed in the four years of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the effort. Panama Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes hopes the United States’ high-profile return to international climate work will spur months of one-on-one worldwide deal-making leading up to November. That’s when there will be United Nations talks in Glasgow, where about 200 governments will be asked to spell out what each is willing to do to keep the Earth from becoming a hotter, more dangerous and less hospitable place.
With Biden’s summit, “we can start with that momentum,” Mouynes said. In Panama, freshwater shortages that officials blame on climate change already are complicating shipping through the Panama Canal, one of the world’s main trade routes and the country’s main money earner. Even Panama’s best climate safeguards, like hotlines and surveillance drones to catch rainforest logging, aren’t enough to save the country on their own, Mouynes says.
“Otherwise it’s just empty speeches one after the other, where we all say we want a green country, a green planet, and nothing happens,” she said.
The summit will see Biden — who campaigned on promises for a high-employment, climate-saving technological transformation of the U.S. economy — pledge to halve the amount of coal and petroleum pollution the U.S. is pumping out by 2030, officials said this week. That’s compared to levels in 2005, and nearly double the voluntary target the U.S. set at the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord.
The European Parliament confirmed Wednesday that it will set a similarly ambitious target. The U.S. is looking to other allies, such as Japan and Canada, to announce their own intensified climate efforts, hoping that will spur China and others to slow building of coal-fired power plants and otherwise chill their smokestacks.
And the world is looking to well-off countries to make clear how they’ll help poorer countries shutter coal plants and retool energy grids, including $2 billion that the U.S. already promised but has never paid.
“The summit is not necessarily about everyone else bringing something new to the table — it’s really about the U.S. bringing their target to the world,” said Joanna Lewis, an expert in China energy and environment at Georgetown University.
This is an urgent but hardly perfect time for the U.S. to try to spur action for multiple reasons, and the summit will play out as a climate telethon-style livestream because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The world’s top two climate offenders, China and the United States, are feuding over nonclimate issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping waited until Wednesday to confirm he would even take part.
India, the world’s third-biggest emitter of fossil fuel fumes, is pressing the United States and other wealthier nations to come through on billions of dollars they’ve promised to help poorer nations build alternatives to coal plants and energy-sucking power grids.
“Where is this money? There is no money in sight,” Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said ahead of the summit this month, after Biden climate envoy John Kerry visited.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nation by some assessments is the world’s fourth-worst climate polluter, also accepted the U.S. invitation but is fuming over Biden calling him a “killer,” as part of high tensions over Putin’s aggressiveness abroad and U.S. sanctions.
And at home, political divisions exposed by Trump’s presidency have left the United States weaker than it was at the 2015 Paris global accord.