As president, Biden must restore U.S. influence on climate change
The day after the November 3rd election in 2016, the United States formally left the Paris Climate Accord. President-elect Biden says this will not stand.
President Trump began the process of withdrawing from the agreement early in his presidency despite the urging of world leaders, members of Congress, leading corporations and members of his own cabinet -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to name two -- to remain in the agreement.
The president, who has called climate change a Chinese hoax, had several reasons for withdrawing. He suggested, falsely, that the United States would be compelled to transfer funds to developing nations. He said he could negotiate a better deal and that he represented "Pittsburgh and not Paris," so it fit with his "America First" rhetoric and played to his base. Of course, the deal also was regarded as a signature achievement by his predecessor President Obama.
However, that treated the Paris Agreement as a stand-alone accord unconnected to the ongoing process of which it is just one chapter and unconnected to larger economic pressures that continued to gather force independent of words on paper that might or might not lead to significant change.
Starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the world's leaders -- or Conference of the Parties (COP) -- have met annually trying to overcome two major hurdles to collective action that might prevent rising temperatures from exceeding 2.0 degrees Celsius. First, to bring developing nations such as India on board when they have argued that rich nations were able to pollute their way to prosperity and if that path is denied to them, then they must have help. Second, the costs of trying to shift from an energy system reliant on fossil fuels to a more sustainable model when the new technologies remain more expensive or not fully developed.
Paris (COP 21) was a breakthrough in that 196 nations pledged to develop concrete plans to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. However, the accord is voluntary and there is no enforcement mechanism and activists have argued that the world needs to do much more to reach the professed goals.
As the rest of the world continued to meet in Bonn, Katowice, Poland, and Madrid in the last three years to continue to grapple with the issue of climate change, American influence has been missed, but not totally
absent. Democratic Party leaders have sent delegations; 24 states and Puerto Rico have formed the United States Climate Alliance, vowing to follow the Paris agreement; and hundreds of major American corporations have done the same.
However, the political counter-reaction to President Trump's decision is only part of the story. Electricity generation from renewable sources has grown from 14.94 percent to 18.9 percent. In California, often on the cutting edge of trends, the percentage is 29 percent. Consider that in the past month that NextEra, a clean power utility, surpassed ExxonMobil to become America's biggest energy firm. Renewables have passed coal as a source of energy in the U.S. Investors have made Tesla more valuable than the Big Three automakers combined.
If one believes the scientific conclusion that the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to the warming of the planet with all the consequences that flow from that, consequences we have seen evidence of this year with a record hurricane season and record wildfires, then government has a crucial role. The climate does not care about borders or national sovereignty, so the international response must be coordinated.
And, private industry will lead in developing of new technologies, but government can help by funding R&D and backstopping the more risky investments. The new technologies are coming but will they be German or Chinese or American?
America's voice and helping hand have been missed these last four years. A President Biden must restore these as soon as he can.
• Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.