Firefighters battle a blaze at the Angeles National Forest, California, the U.S., on April 5. Extreme weather conditions across the U.S., including frequent wildfires in California and sandstorms in Texas, are largely attributed to climate change (VCG)
'What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event," former U.S. President Barack Obama said during an interview in 2016. "It's a slow-moving issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don't experience and don't see." He stressed that the aftermath is "terrifying."
To deal with this challenge, Obama initiated the Clean Power Plan, which sought to lower pollution by power plants using fossil fuel. But the initiative was blocked by the Supreme Court and furthermore, just one year after he stepped down, his successor Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.
Four years later, President Joe Biden, Obama's vice president from 2009 to 2017, is hoping to put the U.S. back at the center of global efforts to address the climate crisis. "The United States isn't waiting. We are resolving to take action, not only our federal government, but our cities and our states all across our country, small businesses, large corporations, American workers in every field," Biden said at the global Leaders Summit on Climate held virtually on April 22.
For the international society, it is welcome news that the U.S. has returned to reassume its due responsibility. However, whether the Biden administration can fully fulfill its promise is being widely questioned as the struggle between the two leading parties in the U.S. as well as a lack of domestic consensus on how to address climate change fallouts might largely block the implementation of Biden's plan.
In a Pew Research Center's survey in the U.S. in January 2019, of the nearly 20 topics the respondents were questioned on, Republicans and Democrats were the furthest apart in their views on how much priority should be accorded to mitigating climate change. While 67 percent of the Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents surveyed said dealing with the issue should be a top priority, only 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents echoed that—a 46-percentage point gap.
"The Republicans are unwilling to accept the energy transition, believing that it will harm the interests of the energy groups that support the party. Some conservatives believe that reducing emissions will sacrifice the quality of life of the middle class," Sun Chenghao, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of American Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said.
Therefore, although the Biden administration is calling for emission reduction in the international community, it faces great resistance to implement it domestically, Sun said.
During the April summit, Biden committed the U.S. to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent below its 2005 levels by 2030, and setting America's economy to net-zero emission by no later than 2050.
But the targets are being criticized domestically. Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito said they would "hurt American workers and our economy," kill the Keystone XL pipeline, and "eliminate good-paying jobs."
"My constituents and I have not forgotten the harm brought by this approach under the Obama administration," she said, calling it virtue signaling "at the expense of low-income and rural families that rely upon industries opposed by liberal environmental groups."
The Keystone Pipeline is a recent leading example of the rift in the thinking of Democrats and Republicans. The pipeline running from Alberta in Canada to the U.S. saw three stages implemented but the fourth, Keystone XL, which would have connected different oil terminals in the U.S., fell foul of environmentalists. It was delayed by Obama, while Trump wanted to proceed with it. Currently, the Biden administration revoked the permit given to the company that commissioned and ran it.
For fossil fuel-rich states, such opposition and criticism is only to be expected due to their own economic concerns. Therefore Kenneth Medlock, Director of the Center for Energy Studies at the Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, doesn't expect big changes on climate change among the Republican elected officials in Texas, although the state was recently hit by snowstorms, extreme weather caused by climate change.
He predicted that the extent to which they would acknowledge climate change would be more likely to talk about fortifying communities against its effects rather than to talk about reducing carbon emissions.
Over the past 30 years, oil and gas producers have given more than 80 percent of their massive $711-million campaign contributions to Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Whether the U.S. can achieve Biden's emission reduction targets depends on the Congress. Though the Republicans don't control the Congress any longer, still they hold a large number of seats in the Senate. The party has always opposed climate policies and will not support related bills and legislation, according to Xie Laihui, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Lack of stability
"We must join hands, not point fingers at each other; we must maintain continuity, not reverse course easily; and we must honor commitments, not go back on promises," Chinese President Xi Jinping said during the April summit.
However, the U.S. already has a stained record when it comes to its climate change promises, making it lose its credibility as a partner in climate governance.
In 2001, President George W. Bush rejected the legally binding Kyoto Protocol, signed by his predecessor in 1998, saying it exempted major populous countries such as China and India from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy.
Bush's claims were unfounded. When the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992, the international environment pact adopted a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities for individual countries to address climate change. The responsibilities were decided on the basis of their economic development and the environmental damage caused by them.
Developed countries, like the U.S. and many European countries, emitted more carbon dioxide during their industrial progress than others. Therefore, the pact determined they should shoulder more duties to mitigate the impact. That is why the responsibilities are differentiated.
But with the U.S., one of the most polluting countries, boycotting the pact, the Kyoto Protocol hasn't worked exactly as intended. It marked the first U.S. withdrawal from climate change deals, bringing more in its wake.
In 2017, Trump again pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. It was the second time the U.S. breached its climate pledge.
"The U.S., the world's largest economy, is the country with the largest cumulative emission of greenhouse gases and also ranks first in terms of cumulative emissions per capita. It should shoulder its responsibilities in tackling climate change," Xie said. "Its irresponsible and self-serving practices have not only discredited its own reputation in the field of climate governance, but also created a bad impact on global climate governance."
According to Sun, the flip-flops of the U.S. Government on its climate policy are causing the biggest damage to global climate governance. And a big question hangs over whether the U.S. domestic climate policy can match its commitments made on international platforms. BR
(Print Edition Title: Flip-Flop on Climate Change)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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