President Biden wrapped up his virtual climate change summit on Friday, focusing on technological innovation, jobs and international cooperation.
The event, which gathered together 40 world leaders, along with business executives, labor union heads and academics, underscored what appears to be the Biden administration’s strategy: Try to convince the political middle that Biden can deliver economic benefits with an agenda of creating jobs tied to combating climate change, and hope the rest of the world will go along with him.
On Friday, Biden repeatedly sought to persuade participants from organized labor, the business world, heads of state and anyone else who was listening that “We can do this,” despite the heavy lift ahead.
And a heavy lift it is: Even with new pledges by the United States and other countries announced this week, experts calculate that the world is still far off track for closing the “emissions gap” and putting the planet on track to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2050, fending off the worst effects of climate change.
“I hope we don’t lose focus here, lose a sense of how much we can do together, by helping ourselves,” Biden said in his concluding remarks. “We’re helping ourselves, we are helping others.”
Friday’s theme, “the economic opportunities of climate action” was built around other recent Biden initiatives, including his $2 trillion “American Jobs Plan.” If Congress goes along, the proposal would start to remake the nation’s power grid, modernize and weatherize affordable housing and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, among other climate efforts.
The program on Friday was in part a political sales pitch to lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin, the pro-fossil fuel West Virginia Democrat in a Senate divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Biden could also appeal to Republicans in states with burgeoning solar and wind industries; lawmakers with a desire for big infrastructure investments back home; and the other countries that will gather in November at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry called that conference, where participating nations will be expected to make deeper commitments on climate action, pivotal to getting the world on track to solving the climate crisis.
A Stress On ‘Tomorrow’s Technologies’
The White House launched the morning’s sessions with a slick, corporate-style promotional video about the need to invest in “tomorrow’s technologies,” including renewable energy, so-called “climate smart agriculture” and carbon capture and storage. It was set to an epic-sounding, soaring cinematic soundtrack.
Technology is perhaps the sole good-news-story of climate change, if there is any at all, because of the economic opportunities it presents, and the Biden administration was eager to highlight the issue. Leaders from Poland, the United Arab Emirates, Norway, Israel and other countries spoke about the benefits they are already reaping from developing clean energy technologies.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said clean energy development represents a $23 trillion market through 2030, and that her department was spurring critical research to fill the need. She announced new U.S. goals to slash the cost of “clean renewable hydrogen” by 80 percent by 2030, an amount she said would make it competitive with natural gas. She also said the department is aiming to halve the cost of batteries, bringing down the price of electric vehicles in the process.
Technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions or to pull the gas straight from the air could prove critical to meeting climate goals, particularly for eliminating emissions from heavy industry like cement manufacturing.
The technology also represents one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in Washington—innovation has been the focus of Republican climate proposals—and that is particularly true for capturing carbon emissions. It is also a priority of Manchin’s: The West Virginia senator holds considerable sway over any energy policy as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
His coal-dependent constituents and major labor unions represented at the summit have pressed hard for investments in carbon capture and storage, which could extend the life of some coal power plants if costs are brought down.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said nearly half the world’s emissions reductions will need to come from technologies that are not yet commercial. And Granholm made clear that her department was ready to push those technologies to market.
“We need fearless innovation,” she said. “And perhaps most of all, we need a mindset that overcomes resistance to change.”
‘A Welcome Signal of U.S. Leadership’
At home, Biden is walking a political tightrope, with a majority in the Senate only by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any tie votes, and an opposition party that has been unable or unwilling to develop its own comprehensive climate action plan.
Even as the summit was underway, Biden was facing pushback in Congress from Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, for example, characterized the president’s summit as making “toothless requests of our foreign adversaries,” while attempting to inflict “maximum pain for American citizens”
Republicans again made clear their skepticism about the notion American workers would benefit from Biden’s climate agenda.
At a House hearing on the repeal of government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, a measure the White House wants to include in an infrastructure bill, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) raised concerns about what he called “treating the oil and gas industry differently under the U.S. tax code.” Norman also blasted Biden for reentering the Paris climate agreement, which he said would not hold China accountable for pollution that would far offset any emissions cuts here.
“This does not sound like a good deal for American workers or American energy independence, and puts us at a distinct disadvantage with our global competitors,” Norman said.
Still, world leader after world leader who participated in the summit thanked the United States for reclaiming a leadership role in addressing climate change, one that had been abrogated by former President Donald Trump.
“I would like to thank President Joe Biden for convening this summit,” said Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his presentation Friday. “It is a welcome signal of U.S. leadership and commitment to a multilateral climate solution, underlined by the U.S rejoining the Paris Agreement.”
‘There are No Jobs on a Dead Planet’
Reflecting Biden’s long relationship with unions, organized labor was—as Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate advisor put it—not only at the table at this week’s summit, but was being listened to.
Biden’s Commerce Secretary, Gina Raimondo, told participants that the new energy economy will be a “once in a generation opportunity to develop and produce advanced technologies, export them around the world, and speed global netzero transitions, which will ultimately … lead to the creation of millions of jobs, millions of good, high paying union jobs.”
“Workers are key allies in shaping and moving policies and should not be an afterthought,” said Roxanne Brown, international vice president at large of the United Steelworkers. They need to be “at the center” of discussions about climate solutions, she added.
Unions helped elect Biden, and union jobs were also a key part of the Green New Deal, the resolution from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing that calls for a massive shift in federal spending to create union jobs, build economic justice and hasten a transition to clean energy by 2050.
“We have the technology,” said Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation with 200 million members in 163 countries. “We have the finances to get the job done.”
She added, “There are no jobs on a dead planet. We will work with anybody to build good jobs on a living planet.”
Friday, the Biden administration also released its first report of its Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, with recommendations for creating “good-paying, union jobs” for workers in “hard-hit coal, oil and gas, and power plant communities across the country.” The government group identified nearly $38 billion in existing federal funding that could support energy communities’ infrastructure, environmental remediation, union job creation, and community revitalization efforts.
On Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Biden was right to focus on jobs.
“It is vital for all of us to show that this is not all about some expensive politically correct green act of bunny hugging,” Johnson said. “This is about growth and jobs.”
‘This is a Different Moment’
In summing up his conversations with world leaders at the summit, Kerry said that many countries had emphasized the critical role that the United Nations meetings in Glasgow in November, known as COP26, would play in keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal set in Paris.
“Because we know that we are already at 1.2 degrees, we have a very small margin to play with,” Kerry said.
At COP 26, climate policy experts say they’ll be looking for more specifics from the attending countries, including the United States, as they head into the event.
“I think what we want to see is more countries stepping up with more ambitious targets for 2030,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an interview. “We need more countries to provide details on how they’re going to meet those targets. By the time we get to COP26, everyone is hoping and expecting that the world is doing what it needs to to get back on track to the Paris agreement.”
Ministers and environmental advocates alike said United States leadership would be critical heading into the November meetings.
“It’s clear that the U.S. has some digging out of a pretty big hole to do after four years,” said Brendan Guy, a strategist specializing in international climate policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview. But, he added, the climate commitment made by the United States “shows its credibility and is a powerful signal to the international community.”
He added, “It just amplifies the overall ambition, especially for countries that did not bring much to the table at this summit. There’s a lot more pressure in the system now.”
A key piece of the United States’ ability to create momentum going into the event will be persuading other countries that American policy won’t flip-flop with every change in administration. Some experts say, however, that the urgency of the crisis has shifted political and economic momentum.
“The Biden-Harris administration has an unprecedented mandate from voters to act with ambition on climate,” said Matthew Davis, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters. “This is not the same mandate that the Obama-Biden administration had 12 or 8 years ago. This is a different moment and there’s a different level of support now.”
Cleetus, echoing many other experts, applauded the administration’s commitment to cut US emissions in half by 2030 especially for the signal it sends to other countries. “It was really important to hear the administration announce a goal of that magnitude and to show the world they’re back with ambition,” Cleetus said.
Kerry said conversations held at the summit would continue over the next six months.
“Glasgow is the last best hope we have to galvanize the world to move in this direction and get the job done,” Kerry said.