President Donald Trump will hand the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden a daunting set of foreign policy challenges, including controlling the raging COVID-19 pandemic, stabilizing the global economy, and managing acute tensions with China. Each problem could be the defining issue of a less tumultuous and high-stakes tenure. But of all the global threats Trump has neglected, mismanaged, or actively inflamed, the climate crisis is the most dangerous and far-reaching. Left unchecked, climate change will inflict untold harm and hardship on people across the globe, devastate economies, and threaten the viability of countries. The effects of climate change will cascade in profound and unpredictable ways, straining the capacities of governments—even those of the wealthiest countries.
The Trump administration embraced an overtly hostile approach to international cooperation on climate change, rolling back climate protections at home and withdrawing from the 2015 Paris climate accord that won commitments from all countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. But the rest of the world did not follow suit. The Paris agreement retains broad international support, and many of the countries most responsible for causing climate change are beginning to take more concerted steps to address the crisis. The United Kingdom, the European Union, and many others have committed to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and China—the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide—recently pledged to reach “carbon neutrality” (absorbing at least as much carbon as the country emits) before 2060.
Countries are also beginning to implement the near-term measures needed to reach these long-term targets. The EU is placing action on climate change at the center of its economic recovery from COVID-19 as well as its overall economic growth strategy. The United Kingdom will ban new gasoline and diesel cars beginning in 2030. And China is building domestic renewable energy infrastructure at a breakneck pace. Still, the world remains far off track from keeping climate change within manageable limits. All countries must do significantly more to curb rising global temperatures.
Biden understands the gravity of the crisis and has pledged to steer the United States’ climate policy back on course. In the closing arguments of his presidential campaign, he warned that climate change is an “existential threat” and “the number one issue facing humanity.” Biden discussed climate change cooperation with nearly all the world leaders who called to congratulate him on his win. And by appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as his cabinet-level climate envoy, Biden has signaled that climate change will be a foreign policy priority. But for Biden to squarely address the climate crisis as “the number one issue facing humanity,” his administration will have to fundamentally reorient U.S. foreign policy. Biden must raise climate change to the first rank of international priorities and treat it with the same urgency as other threats to core U.S. national interests, such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
Not only must the United States lead by example and cut its own emissions, it must reframe its engagement with other major economies around climate issues, consistently prioritize the climate agenda at the highest diplomatic levels, and use its diplomatic power to encourage more concerted climate action around the world. It must engage with both allies and rivals, including China, to tackle the crisis. And it must help poor and vulnerable countries better deal with the effects of climate change. These goals are all achievable, but they will require a sea change in approach from the foreign policy of any previous administration.
Even before Trump became president, the United States earned a reputation as an unreliable partner in the global fight against climate change. Democratic presidents helped design two major global climate pacts—the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris accord in 2015—that were promptly abandoned by subsequent Republican administrations. At the same time, U.S. federal climate policies have veered between insufficient incrementalism and outright denial.
The United States should swiftly reenter the Paris agreement as the first step in restoring its credibility on the international stage. But rejoining the agreement is not enough, as Kerry noted in his first remarks as Biden’s climate czar. The United States must pursue further reductions in domestic greenhouse gas emissions. Implementing an ambitious domestic agenda will face political and legal hurdles, as the Senate looks likely to remain in Republican hands. But even without control of Congress, Biden can use his significant executive and regulatory power to strengthen emission limits and energy-efficiency standards, redirect public investments and government purchasing programs toward climate solutions, reduce climate risks to the financial system, and support states, cities, and businesses in their efforts to cut emissions. These and other actions will enable the United States to set a bold new 2030 emission reduction target, well beyond President Barack Obama’s target of 26 to 28 percent reductions by 2025. World leaders will not expect Biden to perform feats of political alchemy, but he needs, as Obama used to say, to get caught trying.
The scope, complexity, and duration of the fight to contain climate change rivals any previous foreign policy project. In terms of both the scale of the necessary effort and the consequences of failure, its closest historical analogue may be the Cold War. Just as containing the Soviet Union provided the strategic lens through which presidents of both parties conducted foreign policy for much of the second half of the twentieth century, containing the climate crisis should be the primary lens through which presidents view the United States’ role in the world in the coming decades.
U.S. officials should place climate change at the top of the agenda in discussions with every country and in every forum, from the UN Security Council to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. China will be vital to these efforts, as it must make aggressive cuts to its greenhouse gas emissions in order to put the world on a path to climate stability. The sheer size of China’s energy sector and its continued reliance on coal power puts global climate targets at risk unless it makes major near-term reforms. Even as the United States addresses long-standing bilateral tensions around trade, regional security, and intellectual property, policymakers in Beijing and Washington must keep climate change at the top of the agenda.
The Obama administration achieved important successes in its engagement with China around climate change. A 2014 agreement between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping set the stage for the Paris climate accord the following year. But Biden will need to take on more difficult and potentially contentious matters, including convincing China to accelerate a transition away from coal—as China is currently responsible for half of global coal consumption—and to stop investing in foreign infrastructure projects that produce high carbon emissions.
The Biden administration will have to find ways to encourage China and other countries to take bolder action on climate change. But when necessary, it will also have to impose consequences on countries that refuse to do their part. Leaders in more recalcitrant countries must understand that their inaction will adversely affect their relationship with the United States.
Countries have rarely been held to account for inaction on climate change. But in the absence of U.S. leadership during the Trump presidency, the EU has begun to leverage access to its market—the world’s largest—in order to compel other countries to improve their climate policies. In 2018, for example, the EU warned new governments in Australia and Brazil that it would end negotiations on new trade pacts if those governments followed through on threats to leave the Paris agreement. Both countries quickly reversed course.
In 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who supported efforts by farmers and others to clear forested land, presided over disastrous burning and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. As a result, France, Ireland, and other European countries threatened to block approval of a trade agreement between the EU and several South American countries. Finland, as EU Council president, went even further, proposing to ban the import of Brazilian beef. Bolsonaro claimed such threats constituted a violation of Brazilian sovereignty, but he eventually took modest steps to control the fires and curb deforestation. Access to the European market is so important that the prospect of the EU adopting a “border carbon adjustment mechanism,” which would tax imports from countries with less stringent emission standards, likely contributed to China’s recent pledge to achieve net zero carbon emissions before 2060.
Biden has signaled that he will follow Europe’s lead in using points of leverage to improve the behavior of other countries. In his presidential campaign’s climate plan, he promised “strong new measures to stop other countries from cheating on their climate commitments” and pledged to use “every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions.” Trade policy and border carbon adjustments can form part of that expanded toolkit.
Biden could use a similar approach to press China to eliminate its overseas support for coal plants. China has approximately 50 large coal plants in the works overseas, all of which would need to be retired long before the end of their useful lifetime to meet the Paris climate goals. The Biden administration could build upon the United States’ previous actions to stop funding overseas coal plants and assemble a coalition of countries with aligned commitments, including European countries, to pressure China to implement higher standards, even if it incurs some diplomatic costs. Simultaneously, the United States could partner with other wealthy countries and multilateral funders, including the World Bank and regional development banks, to offer attractive financing packages to poor countries to pursue renewable energy alternatives to coal and other carbon-intensive forms of economic development.
The United States must take a more concerted role not just in deterring big emitters, such as China, but in assisting vulnerable countries that sit on the frontlines of the climate crisis. As a wealthy country that has historically emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other, the United States must help the developing world cope with a changing climate. Biden should provide substantially more aid to at-risk countries to help them prepare and prevent the society-disrupting impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels that threaten megacities and changing rainfall patterns that reduce agricultural yields.
Any U.S. climate containment strategy must take seriously the threat climate change poses to areas that lack resources and strong governance capabilities. Helping countries become more resilient would boost the United States’ moral standing and influence in the world. It would also guard against political upheavals, since national borders offer little protection from the economic and social consequences of a changing climate. Climate migrants don’t belong to a dystopian future; they already exist. And the scale of the coming displacement will likely be immense. The United Nations forecasts that by the middle of the century, climate change impacts may help push hundreds of millions of people from their homes. Displacement at this scale could be unmanageable—and may overwhelm the United States’ capacity to provide humanitarian assistance and uphold human rights.
The consequences of climate change can cascade in complex and unexpected ways. For instance, far-right nationalists in Europe and elsewhere have exploited the plight of refugees for political gain, inflaming divisions within and outside their countries. An agenda that limits possible displacements due to climate change would help safeguard the political stability of the United States and like-minded democracies.
To date, U.S. support for vulnerable countries has been limited to relatively small pots of funding. That must change. According to the UN, every dollar invested in projects to make communities more resilient to climate change saves at least $6 down the road. U.S. officials should ensure that all U.S. development assistance is “climate proofed” to account for climate change risks.
Together, these strategies begin to form an ambitious foreign policy agenda for containing the threat of climate change. No major power has pursued such a comprehensive climate strategy, but that is only because most countries have not yet treated climate change as an immediate threat to their core national interests. The growing scientific understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis makes any other approach indefensible. Containing climate change should be the central organizing principle of the next generation of U.S. foreign policy, and the Biden administration must lead the way.
STEVEN HERZ is Senior Attorney at the Sierra Club.