US Dysfunction Makes China a Climate Leader

The “Build Back Better” legislative package of US social and climate-related measures was supposed to be the fuel that propelled the US into a global leadership role in confronting climate change. The failure of the US Senate to pass President Joe Biden’s landmark bill has produced a vacuum of leadership when it comes to confronting global warming. China is filling that vacuum.

As a candidate, Joe Biden made the pressing need for US leadership on climate change a central plank of his campaign platform. One of his first acts as president was to sign an executive order for the US to rejoin the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, which Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, had resigned from in 2020. Biden declared that the US had resumed its rightful place as the world’s leader in promoting climate-change policy. He also declared that the US was on the path to achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2035.

While Biden’s heart may have been firmly behind his bold commitments, from a political standpoint he was punching above his weight. Rather than being cast as a universal problem requiring bipartisan support, climate change has become entangled in the divisive rancor that defines the US two-party system. Former President Bill Clinton signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol but did not submit it to the Senate for ratification, primarily due to Republican opposition. This left the door open for Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, to withdraw — behavior replicated by Obama and Trump regarding the Paris Accords.

While the future is always uncertain, oddsmakers are predicting the Republicans will regain control of the House, and possibly the Senate, in 2022, all but assuring that any legislation proposed by the White House to Congress would be dead on arrival. This reality made passage of Biden’s landmark Build Back Better legislation — with its $555 billion in direct investment in green technology — critical to advancing his promise of American leadership on climate change.

Biden seized on the Build Back Better theme at this June’s G7 meeting as a means of rallying support for a counter to China’s multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Biden coined the term “Build Back Better World,” or B3W, to define the G7’s response to BRI. This was all premised on US ability to lead from the front, with momentum that would build once Build Back Better became law.

Likewise, US carbon emission reduction commitments made at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last month were predicated on policies that could only happen once Build Back Better became reality. However, unable to attract the 50 votes needed to pass, Build Back Better is dead in the water. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated he will bring this legislation to a vote early next year, with political postures deeply entrenched, the political compromise needed to change the vote tally is unlikely.

Executive Disorder

If so, Biden will have to fall back on executive orders designed to achieve what he had hoped to accomplish through legislation. Demonstrating the president’s considerable powers to take independent action, before the dust had settled from the collapse of the Build Back Better plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had finalized a new rule requiring US automakers to cut vehicle emissions by 5%-10% annually from 2023-26, and all new cars sold in 2026 to average at least 40 miles per gallon.

However, executive action such as this lacks the permanence and resiliency of laws passed by Congress. A future president can undo this rule with the stroke of a pen. Given the politicization of climate change in the US, it is likely that should the Republicans retake the White House in 2024, this new EPA rule, and any other restrictive climate-change policy, will be reversed in short order, if for no other reason than it was enacted by a Democrat. Thus is the state of climate policy in the US today.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted at a recent press conference that, especially on climate change, “many questioned whether America would — or even could — lead again.” He followed up by setting forth “guiding premises” that animated US diplomacy in 2021. First and foremost was “American engagement — American leadership — matters.” The world, Blinken declared, “doesn’t organize itself.”

When questioned about the significance of the seeming demise of Build Back Batter, Blinken replied “[I]t’s true that it does make a difference if we’re able to get things done, to demonstrate, as the president said, that democracy can actually deliver,” adding “and he’s [Biden] already shown powerful examples of that.” By way of example, Blinken pointed to “a historic investment in infrastructure, something that goes directly to our competitiveness.”

Blinken was referring to the Infrastructure Bill, passed by Congress in November, which provides billions of dollars for research and development in low-carbon energy technologies. However, these technologies will take years to develop and will have virtually zero impact on meeting Biden’s goal of cutting US greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. The heavy lifter in achieving this was supposed to be the Build Back Better plan.

Leadership Matters

Using Blinken’s benchmark, if “American leadership matters,” its failure to make an appearance on the climate-change playing field is a game-changer for the international community. Biden has uttered all the right words. But words alone are meaningless, and unless backed by action, only highlight the deficit of US leadership on climate change.“ When we’re not engaged,” Blinken said during the same press conference, “when we don’t lead, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one does, and then you get chaos.”

A world leadership deficit has arisen thanks to the inconsistent reality of US partisan politics. Chaos will result, it appears, unless another nation takes the lead. Unfortunately for the US, China is stepping up. Deemed an adversary and having studiously avoided piling on at COP26, China has remained above the political fray, limiting itself to bold statements regarding its climate objectives, including carbon neutrality by 2060. Unlike the US, China has taken considerable steps toward making this a reality. Blinken’s fear of a nation taking the lead without having US interests and values in mind is coming to pass.

While many in the West question China’s commitment to meeting this ambitious goal, citing its ongoing construction of coal-burning power plants, there is no questioning China’s leading role in solar and wind energy — with three times as much wind generation as any other country — as well as large batteries and electric vehicles. While the US struggles to implement a 40 mile per gallon standard by 2030, China has said it will, by 2035, prohibit the sale of all gasoline and diesel cars.

This is not to minimize the huge challenges China faces in implementing its ambitious climate change agenda. But the reality is that China, unconstrained by the uncertainties and inefficiencies of US partisan politics, can sustain and commit massive resources to accomplishing long-term strategies. China is leading by action, not rhetoric. In a world starving for meaningful movement toward achieving the common objective of slowing global warming, China has emerged as the indispensable nation.

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