“We have been asked to sign a suicide pact.”
– Ambassador Lumumba Di-Aping, Copenhagen 2009
“Round up the usual suspects.”
– Captain Renault, Casablanca
The day after the presidential election, amidst a flurry of panic surrounding the lack of a decisive outcome, the US formally exited the Paris Agreement. When states began to swing for Joe Biden in the days that followed, there was a palpable sense of relief. At last: the exit from the White House of an avowed climate denier after four years of obstruction, and a perceived reaffirmation of the country’s willingness to cooperate internationally on climate, rather than retreat into isolationism.
But while some relief is certainly merited – a Biden administration’s approach to the climate crisis will be a considerable departure from the consensus of the past four years – we should be wary of celebrating too much, too soon.
It should go without saying that the climate and environmental crises are global problems that will require global cooperation. The multilateralism facilitated by the 2015 Paris Agreement – which entered into force this year and saw countries make ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) which outline emission reduction commitments to be ‘ratcheted up’ over time – will, for the time being, be a central part of this process, and the US’ intended return will be pivotal to any success the Agreement might have. But for many reasons, the Paris Agreement is no panacea.
Lobbying by industry, oil majors and reticent governments weakened the Agreement’s target, enshrining “well below 2°C” rather than a clear and vital commitment to limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels at most, as called for by many nations on the frontlines of climate impacts. The differentiated responsibility for emissions reductions built into the Agreement’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, has been replaced by self-submitted targets that need not adhere to science-based timelines, while the penalties for noncompliance for affluent nations that were mandated by Kyoto are gone. The Agreement doesn’t contain the words ‘coal’, ‘oil’, or ‘fossil fuels’ – let alone a recognition of the need to rapidly end their use. Despite the absence of legally binding mechanisms for enforcement, the unconditional NDCs set a course for a catastrophic 3.2°C of warming, and as of the 2019 UN Emissions Gap report, countries were well off track for meeting even these inadequate commitments.
In light of this, the fanfare surrounding the US’ re-entry to the Paris Agreement must be paired with ever stronger demands for action that delivers climate justice on a global scale. This will require international cooperation – but not of the type embodied by global summits and non-binding treaties. International action on climate change is often cloaked in the language of an Econ101 lecture: the quintessential collective action problem, an inescapable prisoner’s dilemma, plagued by free rider pitfalls. In short: while everyone working together to mitigate the climate crisis would provide the best outcome for all, despite some individual costs, self-interest and the ability to ‘free ride’ on others’ efforts prevents the action we need, absent a binding and enforceable collective agreement. The influence of these assumptions on the shape of global climate negotiations – particularly the Paris Agreement – cannot be understated.
But a recent study has challenged this deeply embedded consensus, failing to find empirical evidence to support these tidy assumptions. For instance, the dramatic exit of the US from the Kyoto protocol did not negatively impact progress or policy changes in other countries.
What really matters, the study suggests, is domestic politics, and crucially, conflict between the economic ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of climate policy (what the authors call “distributive conflict”). And there, as they say, is the rub. Because for all its traditional diplomatic quality, the incoming Biden administration has thus far sold its climate politics as in many ways a return to the Obama era, and many of its failed approaches to climate action.
The appointment of Brian Deese is perhaps the most fitting metaphor for the president-elect’s emerging climate politik: Deese worked first as a climate adviser in the Obama administration, followed by a stint at asset management titan BlackRock, before being tipped for a role as Biden’s chief economic adviser. The proposal has quite fairly kicked up a lot of dust among climate advocates. But for me, the main issue with Deese isn’t necessarily that he worked at BlackRock, however concerning the institution and its ever-expanding power may be. The trouble is, whether or not he is decent, well-intentioned or talented (as his friends like Bill McKibben might know him to be), it doesn’t change the fact his appointment embodies the exact type of politics that has long plagued the Democrats, and which contributed to the election of Donald Trump in the first place. This is the often all too valid perception of a Democratic establishment served by a revolving door between the party and a powerful elite, populated by emissaries of Wall Street, large corporations, and other powerful institutions.
This is climate politics by and for insiders, in which market-based climate solutions are still considered the ‘progressive’ route, and technocratic governance that sees the climate and nature crises as siloes – divorced from harsh political and human realities – reigns. As progress on these accelerating catastrophes stutters and far right politics marches on around the world, it’s blindingly clear this approach cannot and will not work. Even in Europe, often looked to as a beacon of liberal hope with respect to climate change, the Green Deal – which leans heavily on neoliberal innovations like public sector ‘de-risking’ of green investments to crowd in profit-seeking private finance – has been stymied by the resistance of Viktor Orban’s Hungary and a coal-friendly Polish government. A return to international summits with photo ops of politicians shaking hands in front of oversized flags won’t fix this problem.
The global political challenge for the Biden administration won’t be re-establishing itself as a ‘leader’ at elite multilateral summits. Rather, it will be navigating the “distributive conflict” of decisive climate action domestically, against the backdrop of an election in which nearly 74 million Americans voted for Trump, and with a complex Democratic electorate that owes a debt to young voters – particularly youth of colour – who lean left. This means approaching the climate and nature crises not with the language of carbon markets and the frames of finance capital, but with the language of climate justice and the leadership of organised labour, workers in affected industries, community organisers, and frontline communities. It is an approach that recognises the path to combating climate crisis globally means countering the destructive currents of globalisation that run beneath it, and which have contributed to the alienation of economically devastated communities who view the ‘climate agenda’ as an elitist priority.
But despite the importance of the domestic, this approach need not represent a retreat from global cooperation; it’s simply a recognition that global responsibility means delivering deep and rapid changes within the world’s second largest emitter. There are many areas where it can and should flex its international muscle. For instance, the Biden administration should push for the transformation of the global financial system to support climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in the Global South, rather than wealth extraction and structural adjustment. It should advocate climate reparations for countries whose exploitation and enslavement gave the world’s affluent nations their wealth and relative resilience to climate and environmental breakdown. It should eliminate the investor-state dispute mechanism, which enables corporates to sue governments for climate legislation, from trade agreements. And, as proposed by David Adler and Kate Aronoff, it should recognise the role of American corporates in obstructing global climate negotiations and drive the establishment of a conflict of interest framework for the UNFCCC – similar to the WHO framework that excludes tobacco companies from its core negotiations.
The prospects for any of these ‘shoulds’ are, to say the least, not great. After all, under then-secretary of state John Kerry (now Biden’s climate envoy) at the Paris Agreement’s negotiation, the US pushed a hardline position against accountability for its outsized role in climate damage in vulnerable countries. That’s not to say it’s impossible – thanks to the efforts of activists and labour movements, Biden’s climate plan, with 40% of renewable investment committed to frontline communities, for example, is already making departures from the previous consensus. But this has to be fought for.
So while we’re right to celebrate the reversal of Trump’s climate denial and isolationism, in our relief we can’t tacitly accept a return to neoliberal globalism. Neither offers a feasible path to the scale and pace of climate action we need, let alone to securing justice in doing so. There has to be – dare I say it – a Third Way. But rather than an elite-serving centrism, that way is a politics that embraces the complexity, the humanity, and the discomfort of climate action, and understands global responsibility not as the glossy theatrics of diplomacy but as the commitment to justice both within and between countries. Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure we’ll find that politics at BlackRock.
Adrienne Buller is a senior research fellow at Common Wealth think tank.
- The Climate Focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).