Can America prevent a global warming cold war

At the 11th hour of climate negotiations in Scotland last week, the U.S. and China released a “Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s” outlining increased cooperation on a wide range of climate and clean energy topics. The communique’s careful language was redolent of Cold War détente documents, increasing a sense that climate change bargaining with China, Russia and other adversaries is becoming like Cold War nuclear nonproliferation negotiations: failure could be catastrophic, so enhanced cooperation is crucial, but often slow-going.

Yet, the climate crisis doesn’t permit the luxury of time. Leading science finds that to limit devastating near-term climate impacts, and reduce risks of runaway warming, China especially must cut its emissions as soon as possible this decade, not just in the long-term. So far, however, despite the new declaration, and climate discussions this week between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has made no such commitment. In fact, Chinese coal use just reached an all-time high.

This has not gone unnoticed at the White House. At the beginning of the Glasgow talks, Biden himself expressed frustration at the lack of engagement from leading autocracies. “The disappointment relates to the fact that Russia, not only Russia but China, basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change,” Biden said. “It’s going to require us to continue to focus on what China’s not doing what Russia is not doing or what Saudi Arabia is not doing.” Former President Barack Obama also criticized China and Russia for their “dangerous lack of urgency.”

At the same time, most democratic nations — the U.S., EU countries and others — have not only committed to deeply cut their greenhouse emissions, they have actually begun to enact policies to decarbonize their economies. Even as the Glasgow climate conference was underway, Congress passed and Biden just signed an infrastructure bill containing about $230 billion in clean energy and climate funding, nearly three times the climate heft of Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan. Democrats also still hope to pass an additional $550 billion clean energy and climate package as part of reconciliation legislation, attempting to fulfill Biden’s commitment to reduce U.S. emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The European Union has committed to even deeper emissions reductions, 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and has enacted a nearly $1 trillion “Green Deal” EU clean energy plan. Leading democracies from Japan to Canada to the UK have made similar emissions reduction commitments and begun to take many policy actions.

Notably missing, however, is anything close to commensurate climate action by the world’s major autocratic countries. China is the world’s largest annual greenhouse gas emitter with 28 percent of the global total, an amount twice the U.S. and indeed greater than all developed nations combined. China’s continued emissions growth is effectively preventing a bending down of the global emissions curve needed to keep warming not only under 1.5 degrees Celsius, but even the far riskier goal of 2 degrees, the very goals leaders pledged to meet in Glasgow.

Likewise Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and other autocratic nations with large emissions have done little or nothing to limit them. A visit to Moscow by Special Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry earlier this year has yet to spur Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime to any serious climate efforts, despite Russia being the world’s fifth largest emitter. And recent investigations find Russia is the world’s largest emitter of methane, a powerful climate pollutant that Biden has made a top domestic and global priority, and which over 100 nations (but not China and Russia) have pledged to reduce.

This glaring geopolitical disparity in climate action between democracies and dictatorships is occurring even as climate protection is becoming a premier global security issue. Just last month a major Pentagon, White House and U.S. intelligence agency report found that left unchecked climate change could destabilize whole populations, economies and nations. No wonder Biden has increasingly put more international responsibility for climate change within the National Security Council, on which Kerry now has a permanent seat.

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At the 11th hour of climate negotiations in Scotland last week, the U.S. and China released a “Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s” outlining increased cooperation on a wide range of climate and clean energy topics. The communique’s careful language was redolent of Cold War détente documents, increasing a sense that…

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