Joe Biden, who had promised to come to the Glasgow climate summit with “bells on,” appeared to snooze for a moment as he sat listening to speeches at Monday’s session. It was a very relatable interlude. It was a very relatable interlude.
The world arrived at Paris’ climate meeting six years ago ready to take action. recovering countries was a tangible beginning to a drop of the price of renewable energies, and there was a surge in activism around the world that meant negotiators couldn’t leave without a landmark agreement. Now is the time to strengthen the pact. The whole purpose of the Glasgow conference was to get countries to significantly increase their Paris commitments. We have seen the hottest year since Paris. But the pandemic has driven the climate and other crises from the headlines and has left out (or rather, Zoom-lined!) movements calling for change. The world is also going through a cycle illiberalism. Although its grip has been lessened in the United States it still has figures like Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro from Brazil in power. Modi is in Glasgow, and he announced on Monday that India would get to net zero by 2070–a half century from now. (Granted, even achieving that mark would mean that India will have produced far less carbon over the course of history than the United States. Bolsonaro is not attending, but, even as the Amazon region is being destroyed at an ever faster rate, Brazil’s representatives announced that the nation is “a longtime champion of the environmental agenda.” Xi Jinping, of China, and Vladimir Putin, of Russia, are also skipping the summit; on Monday, China submitted a written statement that basically just repeated its Paris pledges.
And the United States. This should have been a day full of American triumph, marking the United States’ emergence from the Trump years. However, nothing the former President did caused international anger like withdrawing from Paris accords. Biden did apologize for this act. Biden arrived in Glasgow, however, without the series of dramatic legislative victories that were supposed unlock this conference. This was largely due to Manchin. Manchin is currently the Senate’s leading recipient of donations from the fossil-fuel industry, and it is proving a sound investment. Biden’s Build back Better plan was stripped of any guarantees of carbon reduction and Manchin left in its place five hundred billion dollars to support green energy construction. As Daniel Aldana Cohen, a professor of sociology at Berkeley who focusses on the climate, tweeted on Monday, the basic “economic theory is that half a percent of GDP will be enough of a thirst trap for green capital that private investors will overhaul the economy, guided by invisible hands.” And even that is no guarantee–Manchin, having promised “clarity” on his stance Monday morning, said a few hours later that he was “open to supporting a final bill that helps move our country forward. But I’m equally open for voting against a bill which hurts our country.” One imagines that this statement made it through the huge negotiating hall in Glasgow.
Manchin’s muddling is why Biden’s summit speech sounded fairly flat–it was full of talk about how his stripped-down plan would create jobs, but, in the middle of a labor shortage, that’s not the most compelling selling point. A large cast of American advisers accompanied the President to Glasgow, and they did their best to sell the plan–Gina McCarthy, the Administration’s domestic climate czar, said that America was “kicking butt” on offshore wind, for instance. John Kerry, America’s chief climate envoy was perhaps even more accurate. A month ago, he called the Glasgow conference the planet’s “last, best hope“; now he said that “Glasgow was never going to be, you know, the definitive one meeting.”
And, of course, he’s right. This is a massive war that has been fought on many fronts. Some of the leaders are leading the charge. The price of renewable energy has fallen so much that it is clear how the future energy will play out. What is less clear is how quickly it will happen. Activists are back out on the streets, perhaps too late to change the outcome of the session but with a passion that should concern the big banks and asset managers, who are becoming increasingly the targets of their efforts. It is possible that a new, innovative development could be made to revive this conference. However, the power of Big Oil is not broken. This means that the 30-year-old struggle to implement a rational climate policy will continue.
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