Saving the planet from disaster

Going in Biden’s favour is the widely shared sense of urgency created by raging wildfires, crippling hurricanes

Shahid Javed Burki February 07, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Most experts agree that 2020 was the hottest year on record. It edged out the year 2016, the previous record holder. There was a difference in the circumstances that produced record temperatures in these two years. The high temperatures in 2016 were attributed to the weather phenomenon, El Nino, a part of a natural climate cycle with global consequences. It brings unusually warm waters across the tropical Pacific Ocean and generally results in high temperature in several parts of the world. But the opposite happened in 2020. Instead of El Nino, the year saw La Nina which tends to produce cool ocean water and cold temperatures.

The year 2020’s extreme heat means the planet last year, and in 2016, was roughly 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in the late 1800s, which climate researchers regard as the pre-industrial period. The warming that has already occurred is already producing some frightening effects: fires, hurricanes, floods, and the melting of the ice-cover. Lately the Earth has been warming at slightly over 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade which effectively means that while every year won’t be warmer than the last, they occur at regular and shorter intervals.

Leaders from 75 countries gathered in London on December 12, 2020, to review their commitment to address global warming. The United States was absent from the meeting. The only obligation of the signatories was to present a plan of action aimed at controlling the emission of global warming gases. Just before the beginning of the anniversary event, then president-elect Joe Biden issued a statement vowing to rejoin the Paris Agreement “on day one” of his presidency and to restore the US as a world leader in climate change. He promised to put the nation on a path to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and to ensure that the shift forward cleaner energy brings new jobs to the US.

From day one of his presidency, Biden made headway using executive orders and shaping policies at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and other parts of the government. But not much progress can be achieved without bringing Congress on board which remained deeply divided. He recognised the limits under which he would need to work while signing the executive order that brought the US back to the Paris Accord. He also ordered federal agencies to start reviewing and reinstating 100 environmental regulations that were rolled back by former president Donald Trump. According to one newspaper assessment, President Biden’s moves “represent an effort at healing one of the deepest step rifts between the United States and the rest of the world after Mr Trump defiantly rejected the Paris pact and seemed to relish his administration’s push to weaken or undo major domestic climate policies”.

Going in Biden’s favour is the widely shared sense of urgency created by raging wildfires, crippling hurricanes and other climate-fueled catastrophes. “We look forward for a very active US leadership in climate action from now on, as the US leadership is absolutely essential,” Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, told reporters after the Paris Accord’s anniversary gathering. “The United States is the largest economy in the world. It is absolutely essential for our goals to be reached.”

On January 27, a week after being sworn-in as America’s 46th president, Joe Biden said climate change should be regarded as “an essential element of US foreign policy and national security.” Pursuing this goal would bring major changes in America’s role in the world. Treating climate change as a high priority would require a reassessment of everything from the United States military posture in the Arctic to helping fragile countries with the fallout of climate risks. The White House executive order gave an indication of the intended shift. It directed the nation’s intelligence agencies to reassess the risk posed by global warming around the world, and it directed all government agencies to determine how “climate considerations” fit into their international priorities.

Rejoining the Paris Accord was the easy part; the more difficult part — the need to set specific targets to reduce emissions by 2030 and to identify domestic policies to realise these goals — will be harder. The more ambitious targets would give the US leverage over other countries ahead of the next global talks set for November 2021 in Glasgow, Britain. The White House expects the emissions reduction targets to be announced before the global summit on April 22, 2021, Earth Day. On January 27, John Kerry, the White House climate czar, told a meeting of the World Economic Forum that the Glasgow meeting would be “the last chance” to get the world on track to avert the worst effects of climate change. “The stakes on climate change just simply couldn’t be any higher than they are right now. It is existential. President Biden knows when almost 90% of all of the planet’s emissions come from outside the US borders. We could go zero tomorrow and the problem isn’t solved.” Climate may be one of the few areas of cooperation in an increasingly tense relationship between Washington and Beijing

John Kerry has repeatedly said that the US could use its aid and investment activities in countries critical for bringing climate change under control. He could encourage US investment in countries such as India and Pakistan to move away from coal and go towards renewables. Kerry said that having reneged on a $2 billion pledge to the UN backed Green Climate Fund, the US would “make good” on its financial commitment to help vulnerable countries deal with climate risks.

Several important parts of the administrative structure including the State, Treasury and Transportation Departments, the National Security Council and the Office of the Vice-President will have dedicated climate policy staff. Once having been sworn in, President Biden issued a series of executive orders that started the process of rolling back some of the Trump administrations most debated environmental decisions such as restricting the science that can be used to create new air and water protections.

President Biden spelled out his ambitious programme in a speech given on January 27, seven days after taking the oath of his office. There was support from some surprising quarters in addition to welcoming comments from those who had wished for the government to play an activist role. According to one account, “automakers are coming to accept that much higher fuel economy standards; large oil and gas companies have said some curbs on greenhouse pollution lifted by former president Donald J Trump should be reimposed; shareholders are demanding that corporations acknowledge and prepare for a warmer, more volatile future; and youth movement is driving the Democratic Party to go big to confront the issue.”

But to get Congress to move will not be easy.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2021.

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