Shortly after arriving at the Oval Office, President Joe Biden signed a number of executive orders. The third of these restored the United States to the Paris Agreement. This recommitment to global climate action leadership is historic, necessary, and a great benefit to the US and the world.
The climate crisis is complex, operates across many different interacting natural systems, spans the ocean, atmosphere, glaciers, watersheds, and ecosystems everywhere, and affects everything human societies aspire to.
The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or “the Convention”) bound historically industrialized nations, whose carbon pollution had created the global heating crisis, to act to stop catastrophic climate disruption. Under Article VI of the US Constitution, that responsibility is “the supreme Law of the Land”.
Until the Paris Agreement, the US was legally bound, by its own Constitution, to meet that obligation, but most of the world was not. This created real practical problems for effectively reducing the overall global heating impact of human industrial activity. If the US, Europe, and Japan stopped polluting, most other nations could freely continue to pollute.
The Paris Agreement fixed this problem. For the first time, all nation-state Parties to the Convention agreed to contribute to the global effort to avoid dangerous climate disruption. Each nation would make a “nationally determined contribution”, which it would also be bound to upgrade and accelerate periodically. The Paris Agreement opened the global “race to the top” in terms of climate-related innovation and ambition.
The first good news is: the world wants the US back in and recognizes the constructive role sustained, committed US leadership can play. As Christiana Figueres, who presided over the Paris process, noted today, the American people—scientists, localities, banks and businesses—kept doing the work even when Trump tried to back out:
Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was a potentially catastrophic blunder for the US. US leadership on climate action is a key ingredient to building the most sustainable, inclusive, fair, and prosperous future for the American people. Climate disruption is putting biodiversity, our food supplies, and the entire financial system at risk.
The context is different now, however, than it was in 2016. The world has charged ahead, and Europe is now firmly in the lead on developing the future climate economy. South Korea, Japan, and China, have also accelerated their “race to zero” actions. The US needs the Biden administration’s high-ambition climate agenda to succeed, and to have bipartisan support.
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the US economy, destroying millions of jobs, freezing payments for all kinds of services, and pushing thousands of businesses to close forever. Reliable investment value trends—for real estate, energy, or other financial assets—have become disconnected from the lived reality of most Americans.
The work of building back better is essential, and cannot fully succeed without a sustained national effort to build a climate-smart, pollution-free economy. Climate action is a far more multifaceted, everyday solutions space than our politics suggest. The Biden administration’s climate appointments show climate will be an all-of-government national priority.
As the US enters a new era of accelerated climate innovation, it is important to recognize:
- This creates new opportunities for participatory process, to localize solutions and ensure they have roots in lived experience.
- Climate-safe approaches to agriculture also help to produce healthier food, which in turn reduces the risk of major shocks like COVID.
- Fiscal stability is contingent on reducing and reversing climate disruption and related compounding costs.
- We need to design the economy we will inhabit in the future to exclude preventable climate-related threats.
There is growing bipartisan support for climate action in Congress, as we saw in the passage of the omnibus spending bill in December. Citizens from all 50 states have been hard at work asking their lawmakers to come together to pass transformational climate legislation and secure a livable future.
The Biden administration’s efforts to restore US climate leadership on the world stage now presents our last, best chance to bring the benefits of a climate-smart economy—including widespread, diverse new job creation—to all communities, large and small.
But this work is not only about giving Americans a better deal; hundreds of millions of people are facing increased hunger, economic crisis, political instability, and risk to basic rights, both from the pandemic and from escalating climate impacts. The work of achieving a livable climate future is the work of achieving a world where health, peace, prosperity, and democracy, can be sustained.