Biden and climate change


President Joe Biden is seen on the screen as European Council President Charles Michel attends a virtual U.S. global climate summit, in Brussels, Belgium, April 22, 2021. - Reuters

ON APRIL 29, the United States will celebrate the first 100 days of 46th president Joseph Biden. After four years of the chaotic Donald Trump governance, the world is relieved how quickly Biden was able to deliver calm and competent professionalism in tackling the pandemic, economy and setting the tone on foreign affairs.

President Biden used April 22, Earth Day, to call a Global Summit on climate change. The theme this year is to restore the Earth, as 2020 was both a year marked by the pandemic, unprecedented natural disasters and one of the hottest years on record. Ironically, it witnessed simultaneously record stock market prices as well as growing poverty.

The 40 global leaders invited included not only G-20 leaders but also small countries like Bhutan, Gabon, Antigua and Barbuda and Marshall Islands. Within the Asian region, non-G20 members like Vietnam, Singapore and Bangladesh joined heavyweights like Chinese president Xi Jinping, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian president Jokowi, Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Significantly, this was German chancellor Angela Merkel’s last global summit appearance, whilst Pope Francis was also invited to add a moral tone.

President Biden’s opening remarks showed clearly that he was speaking not just about climate change as an existential threat but more about jobs and getting the economy going through clean investments. He urged global leaders to take concrete action to keep the Earth’s temperature to an increase of not more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. To demonstrate American leadership, he committed the US to two significant steps. The first is a formal commitment to cut US emissions at least in half from 2005 levels by 2030. The second is to double her annual public climate financing development to developing countries by 2024.

How significant is this Global Climate Summit? Optically, this could be the Green New Deal of the Century. Practically, it’s all about delivery – whether the US can lead the world out of the climate warming collective trap in action and not just words. If America is not able to fix its own house in order in terms of social inequality, economy and climate change, she will cede leadership elsewhere.

So far, Biden has gotten most of his nominated officials approved so that tested professionals are now busy cleaning up Trump’s legacies. This is a calmer and more effective White House in sharp contrast to the constant barrage of angry and wild Twitters coming out of the Trump White House.

Under Biden, the US has been leading the vaccination rollout, allowing the economy to re-open, and committing US$5.1 trillion (RM20.95 trillion) in stimulus and infrastructure spending plans, equivalent to nearly a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). Economically, in the medium term, the US is set to have the fastest recovery ahead of Europe and Japan, with the exception of China.

Given the bipartisan support on US foreign and national security policies, Biden has retained many of Trump’s hardline actions on China. If anything, the tone has sharpened in maintaining China tariffs, sanctions and the decoupling of technology and reshoring of manufacturing.

The second leg of Biden’s foreign policy is the decision to pull out of Afghanistan and make overtures to Iran. The Afghanistan war is the longest in American history and has ended exactly as the Korean and Vietnam wars, a defeat disguised as a withdrawal. History was right. Afghanistan is a graveyard for all invaders from Alexander the Great’s army, the British Empire, Russians to today the American military might.

What the Afghanistan war proved is that intervening with good intentions to deal with human rights may end up creating worse human right abuses by destroying families, communities and even nations. This tragedy has been repeated time and again in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, with neighbours tottering on the brink of failure due to refugees, overwhelmed infrastructure and today the pandemic catastrophe.

Simply put, the strategy behind the Global Climate Summit is clearly to regain the moral high ground that Trump ceded by signaling a global race to the top on climate action, rather than a race to the bottom through another arms race. However, it is likely that both will be pursued.

For me, three points stand out from Biden’s maiden 100 days. First, the funding commitment to help the rest of the world on climate change is minimal. Doubling US current climate finance aid of US$2.5bil to US$5.7bil by 2024 is a mere 0.03% of 2020 GDP, hardly generous compared with the 1948 Marshall Plan of US$12bil or 4.3% of the 1948 GDP. Furthermore, this aid amounts to 0.3% of US$175bil in US weapons exports in fiscal 2020, or 0.19% of the US$3 trillion of the QE funding created by the Fed last year.

Second, on what moral or rule of law grounds can the US justify condoning Japan promising to dump millions of gallons of Fukushima nuclear waste water into the Pacific Ocean and without getting approval from all those affected? Does transparency in doing bad things make them right?

Third, fixing the domestic economic relying mainly on foreign funding with a US net liability to the rest of the world of US$14 trillion or 67% of GDP is highly risky. As former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has warned, the large stimulus package will in the short-run lift the economy, but at the cost of growing inflation risks. Any interest rate hikes will kill the asset bubbles and may trigger the next financial crisis.

In essence, Biden is trying to steer what American futurologist Buckminster Fuller called in 1978 the Critical Path of Spaceship Earth between two existential threats of nuclear destruction or climate burning. In the TV series Star Trek, the USS Enterprise ventured into deep space where no man has gone before, fully armed to the teeth, but with the Prime Directive of Non-Interference in alien society’s development.

President Biden has boldly and rightly staked his reputation on saving the planet through climate action.

As planetary citizens, we salute him. We will watch the next episode with great anticipation.

Andrew Sheng comments on global affairs from an Asian perspective. The views expressed here are his own.

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