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America is making climate promises again. Should anyone care?

Policy, not aspirations, will determine Biden’s legacy on climate change.

Biden campaigned on climate.
Biden speaks outside the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington on September 14, 2020.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

In 2015, when President Barack Obama signed the US on to the Paris climate agreement, he did what all participating nations must do and made an emissions reductions pledge: The US would reduce its emissions 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

President Donald Trump notoriously yanked the US out of the Paris agreement. Now President Joe Biden is getting the US back in, and once again, an emissions reductions pledge is required. Last Thursday, Biden offered it: The US will reduce emissions 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

That is not, contrary to some of the more enthusiastic headlines, a doubling of Obama’s target or a halving of current emissions. It is a relatively modest boost in ambition and a halving of 2005’s much higher emissions. (Vox’s Umair Irfan has a great piece on this.)

Nonetheless, it is an ambitious target that would require sweeping changes across US society, on which Biden’s infrastructure plan would be a mere down payment.

I suppose I should be excited about it, but reader, I must confess: I am not.

I know that targets and pledges serve an important signaling function. They communicate intentions within countries — when they come from states, provinces, cities, or companies — and between them, in the context of international climate relations. They “send a message.” Sometimes, a particularly bold target or pledge will even go so far as to “change the conversation.”

But messages and conversations do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Policies reduce emissions, by driving changes in behavior, and targets and pledges are not policies. They are vouchers, promises to pass policies in the future. They are wrapping paper. It’s the policy inside that matters.

In part because it has involved so much talk and so little action, climate politics has always been preoccupied with symbolism, with grand gestures, statements of intent, coalitions, declarations, and treaties — words, words, words. But history will judge Biden not by how much he cares or what he says, but by which policies and investments his administration and Democrats in Congress put in place, how they are implemented and enforced, the emission reductions they produce, and whether they lead to further policy.

There’s a better-than-average chance that Democrats will lose the House in the 2022 midterm elections, and with it the ability to legislate. They may have nothing but the next 18 months in which to make their mark on the country’s near future. There is precious little time to spend on symbolism.

4 ways Biden’s climate pledge amounts to less than it appears

Despite their centrality in international climate negotiations, especially in the Paris climate agreement, it’s not clear that national carbon targets have much effect on the national emissions of the countries that offer them. The history of the Paris agreement so far is one of escalating targets without the domestic policies needed to reach them.

It seems there is enough domestic political will in most countries to force policymakers to promise the moon, but not enough to force through the tangible policy changes that would fulfill those promises.

The new US climate pledge is unlikely to be exempt from this general rule. It boasts four features that it shares with many other national targets across the world, which reveal why targets are such an unreliable guide to action or results.

First, it isn’t enough. US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has acknowledged as much. Given that the US is the largest historical emitter and has arguably benefited more from dumping carbon into the atmosphere than any other country, activists argue that it should be aiming for something more like a 70 percent reduction by 2030, with a ramp-up of assistance for developing countries to decarbonize.

Second, it almost certainly promises more than US national politics can deliver. It certainly promises more than Biden can deliver. Even assuming he is reelected in 2024 and serves through 2028 without being impeached or overthrown by a lawless Republican opposition, to reach the target, he will need the cooperation of Congress and the courts.

He does not have control of either. And both are heavily weighted in favor of a revanchist reactionary minority that does not want to reduce fossil fuel use or submit to international agreements.

Biden’s pledge reflects the worldview and intentions of the Democratic majority that gave him 7 million more votes in the 2020 election. It reflects the intentions of Democrat-led states, hundreds of cities, more than 100 companies, thousands of researchers and entrepreneurs, and thousands more civic, academic, and scientific institutions. It reflects the global scientific and political consensus.

But in the context of US politics, it reflects the will of a party that is likely to lose control of Congress in 2022. Even in the best-case scenario, it won’t hold Congress all the way through 2030. It can’t help but rely, for any 2030 goal, on some help from Republicans — which it can’t rely on and certainly can’t promise to the international community.

Third, it is not connected to any policymaking levers. It doesn’t make anything happen or bind anyone to anything. Biden will surely try to reduce emissions, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll try any harder, or be capable of any more, in the wake of this pledge than he was before it.

That’s why the US debate (such as it is) over the Paris agreement has always been so surreal. Trump said all kinds of deranged things about Obama’s pledge, including that it would shut down whole industries and cause blackouts and destroy the oil industry.

In fact, America’s Paris pledge won’t do anything. It doesn’t trigger any policy process. There’s no penalty for not meeting the target. The only enforcement mechanism is the opinion of other nations.

This was the entire premise of the Paris agreement: Rather than agreeing to a legally binding target, which had been pursued fruitlessly for decades, countries offer voluntary pledges for how much they believe they can reduce emissions. Every five years there is an international “stock take,” wherein countries report their progress. Presumably, they don’t want to report failure, so the public pledge creates some pressure.

But it’s only pressure. It’s not policy. Policy involves a whole separate process, subject to the dynamics and restrictions of domestic politics, over which international agreements have very little sway.

Fourth, even with a compliant Congress, Biden’s climate policies can’t guarantee any particular target. In reality, the only policy that could truly guarantee a particular emission target is a loophole-free, legally enforceable, economy-wide, declining cap on carbon — a policy that does not exist anywhere in the world.

National Democrats aren’t even aiming for cap and trade anymore, anyway. They are pushing standards, investments, and justice (SIJ), the elements of old-school industrial policy. The kinds of investments and incentives Biden would put in place would reduce emissions, but there’s no way to know (certainly not a decade in advance) exactly how much they would reduce emissions. The specificity of Biden’s target, and all similar targets, is faux.

If you add these features together, you see that the pledge can serve as a welcome signal of Biden’s commitment and intentions — but not much more.

Getting beyond symbolism in climate politics

In the US climate debate, conservatives have behaved like petulant adolescents, stomping their feet and refusing to acknowledge the science or scale of the problem, folding their arms and refusing to cooperate on policy.

Consequently, it’s been impossible to have an adult conversation about the solutions needed and how best to design them. We’ve just talked in circles about whether climate change is real, whether it’s anthropogenic, whether it matters, how much it matters, how one ought to talk about it, the right tone and degree of urgency, the correct balance of anger and hope and sorrow, and, of course, the proper targets. Net zero by 2050. No, 2040!

When national problems get politically polarized, they become identity battles, and that’s what so much climate debate has become, a cotton candy tangle of identity signifiers — who’s a “denier” and who isn’t, who’s willing to say “existential” and who isn’t, who’s willing to cheerlead for nuclear power and who isn’t, and on and on. Various factions feel like they’ve won something when they force some other faction to adopt their rhetoric or preferences or targets. It’s an insular game of words and gestures and messaging.

United Nations climate negotiations have been more or less the same thing at an international level, with similarly little emission reductions to show for it.

Here’s the thing: From a climate perspective, what matters about the Biden administration is how much it can reduce US emissions and how much it can reduce the cost of clean technologies so other countries can do the same — not how it feels, what it believes, or the things it says.

Targets and pledges may be a prelude to policy, but it’s policy that matters: passing the infrastructure bill, which contains a trillion dollars in green investments, through the Senate; getting Michael Regan’s Environmental Protection Agency spun up and running at high speed, cranking out new standards on cars and power plants; unleashing Gina McCarthy to butt heads and coordinate rulemakings across federal agencies; spinning up research programs at the Energy Department and other labs; and aggressively deploying the federal government’s purchasing and procurement power to boost the electric vehicle market.

And beyond that, seeing to it that these policies are well-designed (ideally resistant to Supreme Court fuckery), well-implemented, and well-enforced. Advocates and activists often treat passage of a policy as the finish line, but it’s only the starting gun. There are myriad ways any policy can be poorly implemented or enforced, and it takes steady civic attention and pressure to keep regulators on track.

All of those gory details of politics and governance, however frustrating and tedious, matter more than the most flowery rhetoric or grandiose target. The details are where the emission reductions meet the road, as it were.

Like I said, I don’t fault Biden for this pledge or people for getting worked up arguing about it. I may not be able to feel the thrill of targets anymore, but I’m not such a grinch that I begrudge others their thrills.

I hope, though, that focus can return quickly to the basic political blocking and tackling necessary to make progress in months to come. There is a very brief period in which Democrats can get things done — maybe 18 months, probably less because election season starts so early these days — and the details of what they do with this limited time matter enormously.

Biden’s climate pledge is like a bugle call, rallying the troops and pointing them in the right direction, but it is execution that will win the day. Amid the usual fog of political war, fateful policy decisions are being made. Attention must be paid.

David Roberts is a contributor to Vox. He also writes a newsletter about clean energy and politics: Check out Volts on Substack. You can also find him on Twitter.