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U.S. Demands Something for Nothing at Glasgow

The top constraint on global climate talks is still parochial American politics.

A view of the SSE Hydro, located on the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, Scotland, one of the host venues for the upcoming COP26 climate summit, EWAN BOOTMAN/NURPHOTO VIA AP

A Democratic senator from West Virginia spoiled the most ambitious climate policy proposal of the decade over worries about costs to the domestic energy and manufacturing sectors.

Sound familiar?

A quarter-century ago, Robert Byrd, champion of coal country and engineer of the “Byrd Rule,” a limit on the reconciliation process that Democrats are currently wrestling with in passing the Biden agenda, led a resolution blocking the U.S. from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized nations. After feverish corporate lobbying, and citing concerns that the treaty would make Americans less competitive with China, Byrd ensured that the U.S. would never leash itself to curbing its emissions without developing countries doing the same.

The Byrd resolution, authored with future Obama defense secretary Chuck Hagel (R-NE), killed ratification of Kyoto by the world’s richest and biggest polluter, and helped doom later talks. At the Copenhagen summit of 2009, participants again wrangled over how to divvy up a maximum carbon budget, and developing countries chafed at being asked to cut emissions in energy-intensive sectors. Observers saw the failure of Copenhagen as final proof against “top-down” climate talks: Negotiating how to distribute a top line of carbon emissions sets off a bitter zero-sum struggle.

Instead of horse trading within a set pollution cap, the 2015 Paris summit asked countries to make their own nonbinding commitments to emissions reduction. Participants can opt out and then rejoin “nationally determined contributions,” which they set for themselves. By 2019, only one country in the world (Morocco) was on track to hit its self-created Paris target. But being more accommodating—that is, weak, vague, and voluntary—has also made Paris more lasting.

For the first two weeks of November, diplomats will weigh progress on those targets and announce more commitments at the U.N. COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The key axis of this summit will again be the U.S.-China dynamic, and the parochial politics of what representatives from fossil fuel–producing regions in each country are willing to give up.

This time, China attends as the world’s biggest polluter, pumping out more emissions than the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the member club of rich countries, combined. Since emissions are mostly a problem of the world’s upper and middle classes, though, U.S. per-person pollution still dwarfs China’s.

Countries where the public agrees on the need for immediate action include small island states where seas are rising. In industrialized countries, too, severe storms, heat, and flooding have arrived. But since impacts are felt unequally, the populations already battered by the climate emergency still have little political voice. And diplomats mostly play to domestic audiences.

However you slice it, China and the U.S. are prime engines of global energy consumption and their cooperation could have powerful knock-on effects. Currently, though, the United States’ negotiating power is at a nadir, and its ability to cooperate with China crosscut by competing economic and human rights priorities. And once again, a senator from West Virginia who speaks for a shrinking but entrenched coalition of fossil fuel interests could foil the talks.

AMERICA IS POISED to blow past its Paris commitments, which it only just rejoined. Rather than restock its political capital—and credibility is the only tool that counts at a conference that threw out hard enforcement mechanisms up front—Biden’s negotiators will fly to Glasgow after months of ratcheting up hawkish rhetoric toward China, amid simmering political discontent at home.

John Kerry, now serving as special presidential envoy on climate for the National Security Council, has held numerous talks with his Chinese counterparts. But he has not been authorized to negotiate in good faith with the Chinese.

Instead, he argues that he can “compartmentalize” the climate emergency, keeping it on a separate track from competition with China in other spheres. The Biden administration has stressed that it will not soft-pedal human rights criticism, geostrategic priorities, or trade.

Ryan Hass, who was China director at the National Security Council during the Paris Agreement and acted as a counterpart to Obama’s negotiators, said this follows existing precedent. Climate negotiators have never been authorized to trade away any other priorities. Kerry is responding to an “imagined anxiety,” Hass said, “that American climate negotiators will be so desperate for cooperation with China they will mortgage other elements of the relationship.”

“Oh my God, we can’t possibly be trying to work with the Chinese on climate issues, because they will hoodwink us, nickel-and-dime us into softening our posture on other issues.” That’s the sentiment you’ll hear these days, Hass told the Prospect, if you “spend a few minutes walking around the hallways of the National Security Council.”

To pull off the negotiations, the U.S. would have to come armed with some climate commitments of its own, which it currently isn’t in any position to guarantee. America’s unstable internal politics and high inequality make other countries worry that any promises made at the conference could evaporate with a Trump restoration in just a few years.

“The United States has no authority to press China harder, because it doesn’t have its own house in order,” Kelly Sims Gallagher, an energy policy scholar who was a senior adviser to the special envoy for climate change at Obama’s State Department, told the Prospect.

Biden could have an argument to make if he arrives at the conference having successfully passed his budget agenda, which contains an unprecedented outlay of green spending. The new soft deadline for budget reconciliation is October 31, one day before COP26 opens. The investments in the infrastructure and reconciliation bills “would unlock the full potential of the economic and climate benefits, and strengthen U.S. leadership going into COP26,” a senior administration official tells the Prospect.

But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has resisted significant climate measures in the bill. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources chair opposes the $3.5 trillion compromise price tag, has insisted on continuing fossil fuel subsidies, and is pushing to gut the clean-energy standard, which incentivizes power companies to stop using fossil fuels, by adding naturThe fate of the U.S. climate bill has a global impact. The U.S. kept its multiyear streak as the world’s top producer of oil and gas through the pandemic. Still, future decisions by oil-producing states and middle-income giants like India and Brazil will determine how much global heating can still be avoided. Bathed in the comfortable glow of American inaction, petrostates and other culprits have long escaped criticism.

The fate of the U.S. climate bill has a global impact. The U.S. kept its multiyear streak as the world’s top producer of oil and gas through the pandemic. Still, future decisions by oil-producing states and middle-income giants like India and Brazil will determine how much global heating can still be avoided. Bathed in the comfortable glow of American inaction, petrostates and other culprits have long escaped criticism.

“The U.S. is a fig leaf that’s made it so that no petro power has ever derailed climate negotiation, really—because they didn’t need to,” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, a Berkeley sociologist who studies climate politics. “If the U.S. passed a credible climate bill, that would open the door to finding out how far Russia and Saudi Arabia would go.”

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION’S POSTURE on China, which shares much with the previous administration, reflects hawkish viewpoints from both parties. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has said that increased reliance on batteries for electric vehicles “will enslave America to China.” Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution has made the same argument more admissible in polite company.

Kerry is irresponsibly single-minded about climate, Wright argues, and has gone rogue before: In linking Egypt policy to the Middle East peace process as secretary of state, Kerry acted unilaterally in ways that “contradicted the Obama administration’s position on the importance of democracy and human rights.”

Although the administration nominally recognizes climate-related security risks, Georgetown Ph.D.s like Wright still see the environment as basically the domain of effete tree huggers, not a centerpiece of a grand strategy.

Given that criticism, Kerry has stressed cordoning off climate talks. On a recent press call, the envoy told reporters that Chinese officials have raised political concerns in their preliminary talks.

“My response,” Kerry said, “was, ‘Hey look, climate is not ideological. It’s not partisan, it’s not a geostrategic weapon or tool, and it’s certainly not day-to-day politics. It’s a global, not bilateral, challenge.’”

That is not just naïve political cant—it’s inaccurate. Energy security is a first-order geostrategic concern. This is evident in how China has accelerated its pursuit of energy security.

Communist Party leaders are acutely aware of the “Malacca Dilemma,” China’s heavy reliance on oil and natural gas shipments that flow through choke points like the high-traffic Malacca Strait. Fears of a U.S. blockade, and anxieties about isolation, have prompted China to speed its development of pipeline infrastructure and land-based routes for oil. And while Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an end to Chinese financing for coal plants abroad in a speech at the U.N. last month, he has retained the fuel as a major share of the country’s power mix.

Part of this involves China contending with its own regional carbon-emitting cadres. But if American belligerence is keeping China’s share of coal use high, a good analogy is mutually assured destruction, the defensive stockpiling of fatal weapons. In the short term, the energy strategy mirrors America’s all-of-the-above approach: China is the world’s top producer of renewables and also its leading consumer of coal.

At China’s scale, it is a suicidal growth path, explaining why decarbonization is not only an ideological power move, but a matter of self-interest.

That does not make Chinese decarbonization inevitable without international pressure. The military historian Adam Tooze has argued for a “green detente” with China, in which the U.S. could begin by collaborating with China on a greener Belt and Road Initiative. Lu Xiang, an expert on Sino-U.S. relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has said the U.S. should be more willing to cooperate on trade of green technology. He cited U.S. restrictions on solar products from Xinjiang, which have been linked to forced labor.

The American posture has instead doubled down on critiquing Chinese human rights abuses. And it is attempting to outcompete Belt and Road through development banks like the newly minted U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and the vague “Build Back Better World” initiative.

Some hope Biden will extend the language of economic competition with China to climate, setting off a green race to the top. Absent domestic spending—not only direct green investment, but also social programs to avert more carbon retrenchment under right-wing leadership—that race could look pretty lopsided, with Chinese commitments far outpacing American ones. The lack of a climate portfolio in the reconciliation bill will make this even worse.

Meanwhile, realists in Washington doubt it will be possible to make progress on bracketed environmental goals. Chinese diplomats have argued that the U.S. can’t become increasingly confrontational with China with one hand while demanding climate compliance with the other.

“The U.S. side hopes that climate cooperation can be an ‘oasis’ in China-U.S. relations, but if that ‘oasis’ is surrounded by desert, it will also become desertified sooner or later,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last month.

Few are willing to argue that, for example, Xinjiang should be de-emphasized. Pressed on what bargaining chips, specifically, the U.S. should be prepared to put on the table, critics of Cold War rhetoric can be diffident.

“I do really think that U.S. leadership can matter and can inspire other people to follow. And the fact that the U.S. was able to do it [at Paris] standing shoulder to shoulder with China was pretty inspirational to a lot of developing countries,” Sims Gallagher said.

The outcome this month in Congress isn’t Biden’s exclusive opportunity to demonstrate seriousness. Executive actions to reduce tailpipe emissions and phase out “super-pollutants” like hydrofluorocarbons will have an impact, the senior administration official stated. But those could be reversed under a future right-wing administration, which is more likely if Biden fails to spend now. Like it or not, then, spats in the U.S. Senate are once again the key constraint on global climate action. And with the climate envoy’s negotiating resources neutered, the U.S. is poised to go into Glasgow demanding something for nothing.

Lee Harris is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.