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How Joe Biden could reorient foreign policy around climate change

A new report lays out a series of bold steps Biden could take as president without any help from Congress.

Joe Biden pauses while speaking to supporters in front of an Arizona state flag in Phoenix on October 8.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

When climate activists evaluate Joe Biden, they tend to focus on domestic policy. But the realities of the US system of government are such that the president is fairly constrained on domestic policy — by Congress, the courts, and his own party.

It is foreign policy where the president has the most power and discretion. How and whether Biden centers climate change in his foreign policy will be an enormous part of his legacy.

Biden has a deep record on foreign policy — his personal connection with world leaders is one of his regular talking points — and in particular he claims considerable credit for securing the Paris climate agreement (though the exact extent of his involvement is somewhat in dispute). But relative to his domestic policies, his climate pledges on foreign policy have come in for less attention and scrutiny from the climate world.

A new report out Friday from the Climate Solutions Lab (CSL), housed at the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, helps address that deficit. It takes a close look at what Biden has pledged to do to advance climate action through foreign policy and suggests 10 further actions he could take — on his own, on day one — without any help from Congress.

One of the overarching lessons from the report is that the president’s foreign-policy powers are extensive and have never been fully pressed in service of climate action. It is a look at how Biden can best use his power where he has the most of it.

The report is divided up based on the three core foreign policy goals Biden has articulated: restoring US leadership on key global challenges, safeguarding America’s economic future, and strengthening US democracy and democratic alliances. In each area, CSL recounts the climate commitments Biden has made so far and explains why and how he should go further. Let’s run through them quickly.

Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Davos, Switzerland, January 17, 2017.
Xinhua/Lan Hongguang via Getty Images

Restoring and advancing US leadership on key global challenges

In service of this goal, Biden has said that he would rejoin the Paris climate agreement and convene a Global Climate Summit. (It’s not clear what yet another summit would do, but what the hell.) He will “lock in enforceable commitments” on global shipping and aviation emissions, lead global moratoria on fossil fuel subsidies and offshore drilling in the Arctic, and ramp up multilateral partnerships on clean energy R&D.

Those are all excellent steps, especially if Biden is able to execute. CSL suggests four more:

1) Create a “climate club”

One of the vexations of international climate politics has always been that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has required unanimity among more than 180 countries for any major treaty. Suffice it to say, no such global unanimity has emerged, and none seems likely to.

One alternative model, made popular by economist Bill Nordhaus, is a “climate club,” a group of like-minded countries that voluntarily agree to take action on climate change.

CSL proposes a club — including as many big emitters as possible, but at least the EU, US, and China — that would agree to a common minimum carbon price and a common set of punitive trade measures (like tariffs) against high-emitting countries that don’t join. The US could plausibly spearhead such an effort, but to do so, it would first need to get its own shit together on domestic policy.

2) Rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO) and orient it toward climate action

Trump has withdrawn the US from the WHO; Biden has pledged to rejoin it on day one of his presidency. In addition to simply rejoining, he should use US influence to improve its governance, direct more of its funding and attention to climate resilience, and help improve transparency around identifying and declaring pandemics.

3) Cut down on natural gas flaring and leakage and press other countries to do the same

Flaring (the burning off of excess natural gas) and methane leakage (natural gas leaking from pipelines and transfer stations) is a substantial and largely unaddressed climate problem across the world, which is on the rise as natural gas use spreads in countries like Russia and China.

Addressing the problem begins by reinstating Obama’s rules on flaring on public lands and on methane emissions from new wells. Biden should also push for common methane leakage standards across the biggest exporters and importers of natural gas (particularly the EU, Canada, and Mexico).

And there are international groups like the UN’s Global Methane Alliance and the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership that would benefit from energetic US participation.

4) Protect the Amazon rainforest

This means mounting a multilateral effort to convince Brazil — through some combination of sticks and carrots — to protect its own rainforest, which Bolsonaro is currently allowing to be mowed down or burned.

Smoke rises from an illegally lit fire in the Amazon rainforest reserve in Brazil on August 15, 2020.
Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

Safeguarding America’s economic future

Part of Biden’s core message is that he wants to revitalize the US middle class by ramping up innovation and making the US more competitive in global trade markets. Part of that means minimizing the country’s exposure to climate risk.

As CSL reports, Biden “has already pledged to prohibit federal financing for domestic fossil-fuel infrastructure, ban federal financing for fossil fuels overseas via institutions like the Export-Import Bank, and require public companies to disclose their climate risks and supply-chain emissions.”

Again, those are all excellent ideas. CSL has three more:

1. Declare climate change a national security emergency

As president, Biden would have the power to invoke the National Emergencies Act to declare climate change a national security emergency. It would not only signal his seriousness, it would unlock 123 otherwise-unavailable “special statutory powers,” CSL reports.

In the name of urgently addressing the emergency, Biden could redirect military funding to infrastructure projects that would help reduce emissions and improve resilience, particularly around US energy grids. He could declare a “shortfall” of key technologies to address the emergency — batteries, EVs, charging stations — and rapidly accelerate their production. And he could extend loan guarantees to industries and businesses key to addressing the emergency, like energy developers and utilities.

2. Tell the Fed to take climate seriously

Biden should appoint Fed chairs that are committed to addressing climate risk in the financial system and pressure existing members of the Fed to get moving.

In particular, Biden could make use of powers granted to him by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act to force financial institutions to better account for climate risk. (I wrote a longer post about how that would work.) Section 165 of the bill says that the Fed can apply “enhanced prudential standards” to “mitigate risks to the financial stability of the United States.” Climate is just such a risk and could be the target of such standards.

Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell testifies to Congress on September 24, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/AFP via Getty Images

3. Mitigate other risks in the US financial system

This means modernizing the insurance industry, protecting federal pensions from climate risk, appointing people to lead the EPA, OMB, and Treasury who understand climate financial risk, and pushing climate risk to the top of the priority list at G-7 and G-20 meetings.

Strengthen US democracy and democratic alliances

Biden has promised to undo Trump’s rollbacks of health and environmental protections, restore the role of science in US policymaking, and work for environmental justice in vulnerable communities. Those would all help restore America’s reputation and credibility on the international stage, but CSL has three ideas for reaching out further:

1. Launch a “D-10” alliance of the world’s 10 largest democracies

Covid-19 demonstrated somewhat brutally that the world’s democracies have difficulty coordinating and sharing good information. A formal organization of democracies that meets yearly could prioritize climate change alongside fighting corruption and authoritarianism.

2. Work with other advanced democracies to decarbonize aviation and shipping

Aviation and shipping are a relatively small slice of global emissions, but they are growing and difficult to decarbonize. A group of democracies — beginning with the US and Europe, where there is strong public will to address the issue — could set a series of phased targets for sustainable fuels in aviation. They could incentivize companies with promising sustainable fuels to produce them at scale. And they could pressure international organizations like the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization and International Maritime Organization to boost their ambitions as well.

3. Address environmental migration

The US, like many other wealthy countries of the global north, is going to face a massive wave of climate migration from the global south in coming decades. Modeling by the New York Times, ProPublica, and the Pulitzer foundation found that “in the most extreme climate scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the US border over the course of the next 30 years.”

CSL recommends creating a special task force at the State Department to study and better anticipate this change. It also recommends working with other democracies (perhaps through the D-10) to agree on a common legal approach. Currently, international law protects political refugees but not environmental refugees. CSL says countries should explore “expanding the legal definition of a refugee or establishing a new institutional framework to provide legal protection and humanitarian support for environmental migrants.”

Honduran migrants heading to the US rest upon arrival in Poptun, Guatemala, on October 2, 2020.
Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

A powerful agenda to restore US leadership on climate is within Biden’s reach

The above list isn’t everything that needs to be done on foreign policy, or even on climate foreign policy. A cooperative Congress would be helpful, even here.

But it amounts to a potent climate agenda that Biden could start moving on day one, based solely on his responsibility and power as president to protect the long-term security of the country — Congress or no Congress. The limits on this agenda will not be drawn by intransigent opponents or timid allies, but only by the frontiers of Biden’s own ambition and chutzpah.

The US is only responsible for about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Its success in the climate fight will ultimately be measured not by how much it reduces its own emissions, but the extent to which it is able to organize and influence other countries to pool their resources and do the same.

If he wins the election and he’s willing to use it, Joe Biden will have extraordinary power to reorient American global leadership around the great challenge of our time.

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