Climate Change with an American Face
The US record on climate change leaves much to be desired. Will this week's UN Conference of the Parties mark a change, or more of the same?
Derek here. As Foreign Exchanges readers know, this week marks the beginning of the 26th Conference of the Parties summit in Glasgow, the latest in an annual (well, except for last year) series of United Nations climate change summits. There’s been a concerted effort to portray this particular COP summit as the “last chance” for the world’s leaders to move humanity toward a future that is not completely ravaged by the effects of climate change. I’m not optimistic, but I suppose we’ll see.
This brings me to this piece, the first of three that will cover the first week of the conference from the perspective of someone who is actually there. I’m very pleased to welcome historian Michael Franczak to Foreign Exchanges to bring you his observations from Glasgow along with the analysis and historical context to help you make sense of them. This is a new kind of project for FX and I hope it’s one that provides value to you, the Foreign Exchanges reader. Please consider supporting the newsletter with a paid subscription to make more of this kind of coverage possible:
by Michael Franczak
Greetings! My name is Michael Franczak, and I’m a historian of US foreign policy and the world economy. My first book, Global Inequality and American Foreign Policy in the 1970s, shows how US foreign policy elites responded to the “Group of 77” developing countries’ demand for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). It’ll be out with Cornell University Press this June—please go buy it soon!
I’m now writing a new book, on climate change and US foreign policy after the Cold War. And for the next week, I’ll be reporting to you, live, from the 26th meeting of the United Nations Conference of the Parties, or COP26, where global North-South divisions loom large. Most COP26 “explainers” you’ll see in establishment US outlets (the NYT, WSJ, CFR) will contain the same useful but limited facts: who, what, where, when, why? My goal in the following pieces (this is the first of three) is to bring to you, the Foreign Exchanges reader, a more unique and focused perspective, through a mix of history and on-the-ground commentary from inside the UN’s Blue Zone.
The US has a lot of catching up to do at Glasgow. It hasn’t sent a full delegation to a COP since 2015 (COP21) in Paris, where the eponymous Agreement emerged. Finally, it seemed then, all countries—North and South—had committed to establishing rules by which states that failed to meet their emissions targets would literally pay a price through a global tax on carbon.
Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement immediately upon taking office in 2017. Four years later, Joe Biden’s first act as president was to reverse that withdrawal. On Earth Day 2021, at a US-organized climate summit, the Biden administration pledged to cut US emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030 and to earmark billions in new development aid for environmental projects in developing countries. It was a bold recommitment to climate multilateralism, the administration argued, a restoration of U.S. leadership in global climate governance dating back to the early 1990s.
Whether or not the US can deliver on its emissions targets and aid promises depends on many things. One is Congress, where Biden’s domestic green agenda is being stymied by (two) conservatives in his own party. Another is the growing rivalry with China and talk of a “new Cold War,” which is currently driving aid policy in the State Department. In October 2018, the US Senate passed the bipartisan Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development, or BUILD, Act, creating the Development Finance Corporation (DFC). “Countries are more excited to meet the head of DFC than the secretary of state,” former DFC chief executive Adam Boehler has bragged to the Wall Street Journal, “It’s hard money.” The DFC’s explicit prioritization of US national security—defined as the use of Chinese technologies, even by Western firms like Vodaphone—is more narrow than anything we saw during the Cold War.
Biden’s climate commitments are welcome, but activists and developing countries are right to be skeptical. The US has a long pattern of “multilateralism with an American face” when it comes to global economic negotiations, and climate change is no exception. I like to explain this dynamic at COPs through three acronyms: CBDR, NDC, and GCF.
CBDR, or Common but Differentiated Responsibility, is the principle that, since rich countries caused most emissions up to this point, they should bear the burden of adjusting to a zero-carbon future. In short: poor countries should not sacrifice their own growth or development for rich countries’ mistakes. CBDR is the starting point for all international environmental discussions, from the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the environment to the 1987 Montreal treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit establishing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In April 1995, at the first Conference of the Parties (COP1) in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Angela Merkel introduced the successful Berlin Mandate, codifying the CBDR principle in international climate law.
NDC refers to nationally-determined contribution. Simply put, this is the emissions target that each country pledges in the COP process. Debate over US targets defined the Clinton Administration’s policy toward the 1997 Kyoto agreements (COP3). Would the US commit to binding emissions targets? And would “key developing countries” such as India, China, and Mexico make their own pledges? In an unprecedented 95 to 0 vote just months before countries met in Kyoto to sign the agreements, the US Senate (in the form of the bipartisan Byrd-Hagel resolution) provided an answer: yes, it would agree to binding limits—but only if China and India also made pledges. Nor would it sign any agreement that might harm the U.S. economy. This seeming contradiction of the Berlin Mandate—which the US had not previously challenged—isolated the United States at Kyoto from developing countries and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states alike.
Though Clinton signed the Kyoto agreements, he called them a “work in progress,” and said that he would not submit them to the US Senate without the “meaningful participation of key developing countries in efforts to address climate change.” Clinton argued that stopping climate change could not happen without commitments from both North and South, and warned that by 2030 China would surpass the United States as the world’s largest source of emissions. Yet the United States already commanded a quarter of the world’s emissions, Chinese officials countered, consuming and polluting multiples more than even its European counterparts.
In 2001, the incoming George W. Bush Administration readily adopted this reasoning to justify continued US inaction on reducing emissions. Bush declared: “[The Kyoto Protocol] exempts 80 percent of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the US economy. The Senate's vote, 95-0, shows that there is a clear consensus that the Kyoto Protocol is an unfair and ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns.”
Clinton’s prediction that China would surpass the US as the world’s largest emitter came true—in 2006, in fact—and in the last two decades alone, China’s emissions have tripled. The upside is that hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted from extreme poverty, while still emitting multiples less per capita than any developed country. Meanwhile, as of 2019 the US trails only Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Canada—all major fossil fuel exporters—in per capita emissions. Washington’s insistence on sharing burdens, but not power or money, in the fight against climate change signaled that the US was not serious about reducing its own emissions, delaying action on mitigation in rich and poor countries alike.
GCF, or Green Climate Fund, is the UNFCCC’s multilateral development bank. At Barack Obama’s first climate summit, COP15 in Copenhagen (2009), parties agreed to the GCF’s establishment to finance green development and adaptation measures. Poor countries, who had been clamoring for this kind of aid since the 1992 Rio Summit—which was, after all, officially the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—saw the GCF’s establishment as long overdue.
In 2009, Obama promised $3 billion in US contributions to the GCF; by the end of his term, only $1 billion had been distributed. For the next four years, the US contributed zero dollars. Thus, in addition his new emissions targets, Biden pledged on Earth Day to double US international climate finance by 2024 and triple financing for adaptation. Still, this is doubling from a low start, for a total of $5.7 billion—mostly in bilateral aid. For the multilateral GCF, the Administration has asked Congress for a paltry $1.2 billion—again, well behind other rich country donors. The distinction is important. From the US perspective, channeling aid through the bilateral DFC instead of the multilateral GCF is a way to ensure accountability. All too often, however, this kind of aid politicizes and perverts development by subjecting it to Washington’s foreign policy priority du jour.
So what will I be looking out for at COP? Two things, for now. The first will be presentations of national climate plans by conference delegates, which will occur on Monday and Tuesday. Whether or not countries stick to those plans over time will depend in part on negotiations over the Paris Agreement’s Article 6, essentially its enforcement mechanism. The second is the high-level ministerial dialogue on climate finance, scheduled for Wednesday. At Paris, rich countries promised to raise a collective $100 billion a year, starting in 2020, for climate finance in poor countries. The global pandemic put that promise on pause, but the need today is even greater. The New York Times quotes Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator at climate NGO ActionAid International: “Making good on a promise made more than a decade ago is setting a pretty low bar for a successful COP26.” Judging by the past, I’d say making good on a decade-old promise would be a spectacular achievement.
Michael Franczak is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Global Order at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. Before that, Michael was a Postdoctoral Fellow in International Security Studies at Yale, where he also taught in the History department.
Michael’s first book, Global Inequality and American Foreign Policy in the 1970s, is forthcoming in June 2022 from Cornell University Press. He is now at work on a history of US foreign policy and global climate change negotiations.