Painting the world green

How committed is the Biden administration to reshaping U.S. foreign policy to save the planet?

SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

Once upon a time, a rich hypochondriac was complaining about pains in his head and stomach. He consulted a wise man who pointed out that the root of the problem lay somewhere else: in the man’s eyes. To resolve the persistent headache and stomachache, the sage suggested focusing on just one color in the surrounding environment – green – and ignoring all others.

The rich man promptly hired workers to cover everything in sight in green paint so that he could easily follow the peculiar prescription. Ten days later, when the wise man returned in his saffron robe, a worker hurried over to douse him in green paint as well.

“You have wasted so much money through your monumental stupidity,” the paint-splattered sage upbraided the rich man. “If only you had purchased a pair of green spectacles, worth perhaps four rupees, you could have saved these walls and trees and pots and pans and chairs and sofas and also a pretty large share of your fortune.”

The sage drew himself up to his full height to deliver his final message: “You cannot paint the world green!”

The moral of this Hindi tale is simple. You cannot change the world. You can only change the way you look at the world. Perception is everything.

This cautionary tale is particularly ill-suited for these modern times. With the climate crisis pressing down upon the planet, humanity must change the world or face extinction. Figuratively speaking, we must indeed paint the world green—and ignore the so-called wise men who tell us just to put on green-colored glasses.

In the real world, this choice boils down to either shrinking the global carbon footprint or succumbing to a form of “greenwashing” that offers only an illusory environmental protection.

The Biden administration faces this same choice. Will it spend a lot of money to help paint the world green or just hand out tinted lenses, whether green or rose, to make us all think that the planet has been saved?

How Green Is His Policy?

The first task for the incoming Biden administration has been to clean up the toxic waste dump of the previous presidency. That has meant rejoining the Paris climate deal, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, and restoring the many environmental regulations that Donald Trump gutted. The new administration has put a pause on new oil and gas drilling on federal lands. It has reversed Trump’s effort to weaken the Clean Air Act. It has supported an international agreement to end the use of hydrofluorocarbons. In all, the administration is looking to roll back around 100 of Trump’s attempts to favor business over the environment.

These moves will bring the United States back to the status quo ante. The administration, however, has more ambitious plans.

In its January 27 executive order on “tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad,” Biden laid out a detailed list of initiatives that runs over 7,500 words. The very fact that the order addresses the “climate crisis” and not just “climate change” is an important signal of the seriousness with which the administration takes this issue.

The order begins with these words:

We have a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of that crisis and to seize the opportunity that tackling climate change presents. Domestic action must go hand in hand with United States international leadership, aimed at significantly enhancing global action. Together, we must listen to science and meet the moment.

To this end, the administration has declared that the United States will become carbon-neutral by 2050, which will require steep cuts in emissions. “We need to increase tree cover five times faster than we are,” says John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate. “We need to ramp up renewable energy six times faster. And the transition to electric vehicles needs to take place at a rate 22 times faster.”

But like its initial promise to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days, the administration is already being pushed to do better. Other countries are competing to become carbon-neutral faster: Sweden has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2045, Austria and Iceland have more informally set 2040 as their goal, Finland is looking at 2035, and both Norway and Uruguay expect to achieve the mark by 2030. AppleMicrosoft, and General Electric have all committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030 as well. General Motors announced at the end of January that it would sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

A key component of the U.S. race to carbon neutrality is the Biden administration’s version of a Green New Deal. This “clean energy revolution” calls for investing $400 billion over 10 years into transforming the U.S. economy along sustainable lines, creating 10 million good-paying jobs in the clean energy sector and putting environmental justice at the center of these efforts.

But the administration can do just so much with executive orders and through federal agencies like the Department of Energy. At some point, Congress must decide whether the next four years will be world-transforming or just greenwashing.

But Congress—especially the Senate—is a problem. It’s going to be difficult to persuade Republicans as well as Democrats like Joe Manchin, who represents the coal-mining state of West Virginia, to sign on to anything truly transformative. But tax credits for wind power and solar energy were included in the December 2020 stimulus package, which Republicans backed. And Manchin is already co-sponsoring the American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act, which provides tax incentives to businesses that switch over to clean energy products. Also in the works is a Civilian Climate Corps, modeled on a similar New Deal-era initiative, that would enlist the unemployed and underemployed to help with such tasks as reforestation and protecting biodiversity.

It will be hard to move Congress on this domestic agenda. The international component may be an even tougher sell.

Going Green Internationally

At least on paper, the Biden administration intends to make the climate crisis a way of reshaping much of U.S. foreign policy. The January 27 order reads: “It will be a United States priority to press for enhanced climate ambition and integration of climate considerations across a wide range of international fora, including the Group of Seven (G7), the Group of Twenty (G20), and fora that address clean energy, aviation, shipping, the Arctic, the ocean, sustainable development, migration, and other relevant topics.”

The first challenge for the new administration will be to put its money where its mouth is, and one example of that is its contributions to the Green Climate Fund. Established in 2010 to assist poorer countries transition away from fossil fuels, the Fund raised about $7 billion out of the $10 billion initially pledged. A major reason for the shortfall was the United States, which promised $3 billion but delivered only $1 billion. At the end of 2019, the Fund put out another call to replenish its coffers and received pledges of another $9.8 billion.

Kerry has already announced that the United States will make good on its previous commitment by sending $2 billion to the Fund. But he has made no mention of U.S. support for the additional replenishment. Climate campaigners have called on the administration to double its original commitment, as a number of European countries plus South Korea and New Zealand have done, and top up its contributions to $9 billion total. Such a firm action by the United States might not only persuade other countries to achieve this higher standard but also pressure outliers like Russia and Australia to join the effort in the first place.

The more immediate problem, however, will be the rising levels of debt, particularly in the Global South, that the pandemic has turned into an acute crisis. A number of countries—Zambia, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Brazil—have either defaulted on their loans or are close to it. Meanwhile, the fiscal crisis of poorer countries has pushed several to consider abandoning climate- and environment-friendly restrictions on such harmful sectors as industrial mining in order to make financial ends meet. International financial institutions have suspended debt repayments for the world’s poorest nations and are considering various remedies, including the provision of more Special Drawing Rights (SDR) to the worst-off countries through the International Monetary Fund.

It’s unclear where Biden stands on debt relief or cancellation. But the January 27 executive order on the climate crisis includes the following provision: “develop a strategy for how the voice and vote of the United States can be used in international financial institutions, including the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, to promote financing programs, economic stimulus packages, and debt relief initiatives that are aligned with and support the goals of the Paris Agreement.” It’s possible that the administration will, instead of debt cancellation, promote some form of debt-for-nature or debt-for-climate swaps, preferably in versions that include a greater range of stakeholders including indigenous groups, or perhaps back the issuance of bonds linked to performance on green indicators.

The climate crisis will also affect how the United States negotiates trade agreements. Biden’s appointments to key trade positions suggest that he will be putting labor and environmental concerns at the center of U.S. policy. As a presidential candidate, Biden urged making future trade deals contingent on countries meeting their commitments under the Paris agreement, and members of Congress are already pushing the new president to change the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal to reflect this condition. Another potential option is a fossil fuel export ban, for which Biden has expressed some support.

The new president is planning to hold a Global Climate Summit on Earth Day next month, though it’s unclear how such a meeting would differ from the one held in December 2020 to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement. Climate campaigners are urging the administration to use this opportunity to focus on “super pollutants” such as methane, black carbon, and HFCs, which contribute disproportionately to global warming.

In the meantime, preparations for COP26 are beginning for November in Glasgow. The hostility of the Trump administration and the divided attention span of the Biden team—not to mention the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—may compromise the efficacy of the UN meeting. The Paris agreement came together because of 18 months of intensive preliminary negotiations. A similar effort to forge a pre-meeting consensus for COP26 has been slow to emerge.

The Biden administration has made commitments on other environmental issues. It has endorsed a “30 by 30” initiative: protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and coastal areas by 2030. This effort would require setting aside 440 million more acres of land for conservation. This pledge, part of a global campaign to preserve biodiversity, would require a significant scaling back of extraction activities on federal lands.

Cooperation between the United States and China is critical for any global environmental effort to move forward. China is currently the leading emitter of carbon in the world, with nearly twice the annual rate of the United States at number two (though the United States still leads in terms of cumulative output over time and per-capita carbon footprint). During the Obama years, the two countries created the Clean Energy Research Consortium (CERC), a public-private initiative that spurs research and development in several energy-related sectors. Renewing CERC would be a first step in boosting U.S.-China cooperation.

Greening national security can and should go well beyond superpower cooperation. The United States currently spends $81 billion a year to protect global oil supplies, according to one estimate. The bulk of that money should instead go toward ending reliance on fossil fuels. If access to oil becomes less dependable, that would be an even greater incentive for U.S. allies to accelerate their own transitions to renewable energy.

An Administration in Search of a Doctrine

Presidential doctrines have always presented different ways of preserving U.S. global power. The Nixon doctrine was about protecting allies. Carter vowed to defend U.S. national interests in the Persian Gulf. Reagan promised to push back against the Soviet Union worldwide. George W. Bush emphasized unilateral U.S. military action. Trump went on and on about “making America great again.”

Joe Biden has an opportunity to adopt an entirely different kind of doctrine. He should make explicit what is now implicit in his executive orders, that environmental sustainability will hereafter be the major litmus test for American foreign policy. If this happens, it will be the first time that a presidential doctrine focuses on the good of the planet and not just the good of the United States.

I’m sure that plenty of foot-draggers in Congress, industry, and the media are just waiting for Biden to have his “sweater moment,” an updated version of the televised address when Jimmy Carter famously tried to elevate the energy crisis of the late 1970s into a larger discussion of morality and malaise. They will want to paint Biden as a green opponent of the working stiff, a clueless globalist, an America-laster. So, perhaps it’s best for Biden to avoid grand statements of doctrine for the moment and focus instead on painting U.S. foreign policy green, issue by issue.

The fate of the United States has never been more linked—virally, environmentally, economically, and existentially—to the fate of the rest of the world. As such, there hasn’t been a better moment for an American president not just to look at the planet differently but to join hands with other countries to make it greener.


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