(CNN)As Joe Biden heads to Europe, he is taking with him a significant chance to reclaim American leadership on what is perhaps the world’s biggest priority — climate change.
It is also an area where the world doubts that America is prepared to step up and do the right thing, rather than talk about it. This is Biden’s big chance. And at the outset, he seems to be failing. Spectacularly.
Climate change is an issue watched more intensively abroad than it is in the United States. Six years ago, I spent 10 days at Le Bourget Field outside Paris, where Charles Lindbergh landed in 1927 after completing the first solo flight across the Atlantic. There, in 2015, representatives of 196 nations set forth the milestones vital to curbing global warming by the end of this decade.
This week, the United Nations asserted in a dramatic, chilling report that the world, especially its major economies, is failing in almost every respect to meet the climate challenge. “We’re just so far off track, it’s really discouraging,” Drew Shindell, a Duke University earth science professor and co-author of Tuesday’s report, told the Washington Post.
The failure of American leadership is one critical element, though a host of nations, most egregiously China, must share the blame. And, as early as last summer, John Kerry, the US special envoy for climate, told Biden that there’s not much chance of cooperating with China on climate change as long as relations with the United State remain as frosty as they are on a whole host of barely related issues — from human rights to Taiwan to Hong Kong.
China emits more carbon than any other nation and has plans to build 43 new coal-fired power plants and 18 new blast furnaces.
The United States has failed to persuade Xi Jinping to change China’s behavior in the near term, though China has set goals for reducing carbon emissions, projecting that they will peak in 2030.
At least publicly, the United States says it’s anxious for a dialogue to open between the two leaders, who have yet to meet face-to-face since Biden assumed office.
Sadly, two of the key players will not be either in Glasgow for the COP26 climate sessions, or before, in Rome for the G20 summit of world leaders. Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are not attending the meetings in person.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told a White House briefing on Tuesday that he’d met in Zurich with his Chinese counterpart, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, and that before the end of the year, Biden and Xi “will be able to sit as close to face to face as technology allows to see one another and spend a significant amount of time going over the full agenda.”
Yet on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron was already holding an extended telephone conversation with Xi at noon in Paris (6 p.m. in Beijing). The readout from the Elysée Palace had Macron quite directly telling the Chinese leader to “give a decisive signal” that his country was moving toward an end of its reliance on coal.
So, the ball is now very much in Biden’s court. Clearly, he must act decisively at home if he is to sell himself abroad, particularly in the area of climate change, an area where Europe has found the United States wanting since the Paris accord was reached at COP21. Indeed, on President Barack Obama’s watch, the climate agreement was never structured as a formal treaty that needed full Senate approval.
And President Donald Trump’s sudden and ill-considered withdrawal from the accord meant four years of suspended animation for any American action, and as the first nation to withdraw, it set a bad example for a host of other climate-denying nations.
Climate change is the hinge issue that will determine the success or failure of Biden’s weeklong swing through the G20 and COP26, from Rome to Glasgow.
Beyond the immediate issues of climate change, however, this trip by Biden — along with the real and concrete signals he sends or fails to send — is his one big chance to prove himself after a string of stinging failures, from the botched Afghanistan withdrawal to the snub administered to France in killing a deal for Australia to buy French submarines.
If Biden doesn’t get a good climate plan in place in the next few days, he risks being seen as a failure in Europe.
The proclaimed price tag in Biden’s proposals of more than $500 billion would be the largest-ever commitment to a concrete reduction in greenhouse gases and it would show that Biden is prepared to make good on his pledge to cut US carbon emissions to half the level of 2005 by the end of this decade.
But with such a price tag and little evidence he has a majority in Congress behind him, Europeans and many others will be deeply skeptical he can deliver on any final, ratified program.
This European trip could be Biden’s moment. Sadly, Congress may send him off on a pivotal journey with a 10-ton load strapped to his back — no deal ratified or even firmly in place.
If this happens, promises will no longer cut it, especially with America’s partners, who have been burned multiple times across multiple administrations. Show, don’t tell. It’s time for America to show it’s for real, not just show up.
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