Energy & Environment

Biden’s Unserious Climate Summit

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on climate change prior to signing executive actions as White House climate envoy John Kerry and Vice President Kamala Harris listen in the State Dining Room at the White House, January 27, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

President Joe Biden is convening a “virtual climate summit” — which is a very fancy thing to call a conference call — to be addressed by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, among others. It comes as Biden announces a fuzzy plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by more than half by the end of the decade (details to come . . . eventually) while congressional Democrats led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and Senator Ed Markey (D., Mass.) offer up a plan to put 1.5 million Democratic activists on the federal payroll by creating a “Civilian Climate Corps.”

It would be difficult to organize all of this by order of seriousness, though the character of the Civilian Climate Corps proposal is suggested by Senator Markey’s infomercial-style salesmanship, promising that the program would “combat the interlocking crises of the moment — climate change, racial injustice, a global pandemic, and income inequality.” One expects him to promise that it doubles as a salad spinner and makes fresh-pressed juice, too. This is the classic Democrat approach to complex problems: “Give us money to give to the people who support us politically.” On the issue of climate, we can expect this approach to produce the same great results it has achieved with the public schools in St. Louis.

Senator Markey is an unserious man. Xi Jinping is a serious one. (Vladimir Putin is serious, as two-bit gangsters go, but one gets the feeling the Russians are included in this sort of thing mainly for old times’ sake.) Xi’s regime is, among other things, an operator of concentration camps, but China’s maximum leader would like the world to believe that he and his country stand for global cooperation — and, further, that his government should be entrusted with a more prominent role in global leadership. Speaking at the Boao Forum for Asia this week, Xi (without directly mentioning the United States) put the Biden administration on notice that his government will oppose American-led efforts “to arrogantly instruct others and interfere in internal affairs.” He warned about “unilateralism” and against a “new cold war and ideological confrontation.”

The climate-change debate creates an opportunity for Xi, because on the issue there is a real divide between the United States and our allies in Europe and Japan, and — even more useful to Xi — a deep divide on the issue within the United States, where climate change is, like practically every other issue, wrapped up in a broader culture-war contest. Hence, Senator Markey’s rhetorical linkage of the climate question to racial and economic issues. By turning up the heat, so to speak, on the climate debate, Biden may be fortifying his left flank, but he is putting the country in a worse position by making it even easier for Xi et al. to exploit our internal and international cleavages.

The climate radicalism of Ocasio-Cortez and of the Biden administration itself is mostly a radicalism of rhetoric and posture. If the goal is to radically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in a way that mitigates climate change some decades down the road, then creating a jobs program for Democratic activists is not a meaningful proposal. It is simply a way to raid the treasury while linking the political priorities of the moment of New Deal nostalgia. The fact that it is unserious does not mean that it cannot do both political and economic damage in the real world, if it is pursued with sufficient vengeance. One suspects that Chairman Xi understands that even if President Biden doesn’t quite.

If we could set aside the culture war for a half a minute, we might discover some points of cooperation. For example, the U.S. electricity-generating sector has significantly improved its greenhouse-gas profile in recent years, not because it was visited by bright young things employed by a Civilian Climate Corps but thanks to — prepare to clutch your pearls — fracking. Natural gas is a much cleaner fuel than coal from a carbon-emissions point of view, and an abundance of inexpensive natural gas enabled normal economic forces to act in the green interest. We could be exporting enormous quantities of the stuff to the rest of the world, helping to displace coal power with cleaner gas power while doing precisely what it is Senator Markey and his congressional allies say they want to do at home: creating good jobs. But that would require, among other things, infrastructure, from pipelines and storage facilities to new export terminals on the West Coast. Private investors are ready to build these at their own expense, but the Biden administration and its allies stand in the way of this and other practical measures that have a chance at producing both consensus and results. Neither “Green New Deal” radicalism nor puffed-up summitry credibly promises as much.

Biden can sign a piece of paper and say the United States is back in the Paris Agreement, but this will amount to nothing until and unless we can come up with a set of policies rooted in a broad and bipartisan internal consensus. Unlike Xi, Biden has to take into account domestic disagreement, both about the content of climate policy and the priority that should be given to the issue. New Deal nostalgia and the quasi-religious approach to climate change cultivated by progressive activists is not going to get the job done — in fact, it is going to make things worse.

Which is to say, if Joe Biden wants to be a world leader on climate, then he has to begin by being a leader at home, taking an intellectually and politically serious approach to building consensus on climate policy. There is very little reason to believe that he is inclined to do so or even capable of doing so. Instead, he is committed to governing by talking point and symbolism. It is unlikely that he will ever do as much practical good on climate change as Elon Musk or George Mitchell.

Xi genuinely wants to be seen as a leader on climate — not out of any gauzy green sentimentality but because it suits his own interests. At the top of his to-do list is supplanting the United States as a world leader by exploiting discord in Washington and between the United States and its allies. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks often about “the need to engage China from a position of strength,” which is truistic, but — where’s the strength?

About that, and much else, Biden is a bit vague.

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