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Climate Change and American Foreign Policy


So often, we frame the fight against climate change as a series of consumer decisions. That’s not completely inaccurate; certainly consumer decisions are part of the problem. But it goes much deeper than that. This is a good op-ed by Kate Aronoff noting that if Biden is really serious about fighting climate change, resetting American foreign policy is an absolute must.

Whatever Mr. Biden decides, he must confront some brutal truths.Following the Trump presidency and decades of U.S. officials’ helping sabotage climate ambition, America suffers from a sizable trust deficit with the rest of the world. This week’s summit offers a decent summary of recent history: Globe-trotting officials talking up U.S. leadership and pressuring other countries to do more, with little to show for themselves at home. Rebuilding trust and reckoning with the climate crisis demands a sea change in U.S. foreign policy — tweaks around the edges will not do.

This, in turn, requires a wholesale reorientation of U.S. trade policy and institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Established at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference of allied nations to guide the global economy in the wake of World War II and the Depression, these institutions meet the needs of a world that no longer exists. Multilateralism must be radically reimagined for a hotter, ideally more democratic 21st century. The United States can help lead that process, but must forfeit the dream of steering Spaceship Earth on its own.

Domestically, the Biden administration has proposed a more sweeping climate agenda than many expected, focused on job-creating investments in clean energy and electric vehicles, andsupport for communities on the front lines of the crisis. Yet so long as these commitments fail to adequately stem flows of carbon at home and abroad, the United States will continue gobbling up an inordinate amount of the world’s carbon budget — the amount of carbon that can be released into the atmosphere before warming tips beyond 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. That leaves poorer countries to shoulder an unbearable burden for both decarbonization and climate chaos.

This isn’t surprising. U.S. foreign policy has generally fueled, not constrained, emissions. (A study from two universities in England found that if our military were a country, its emissions from fuel usage alone would make it the planet’s 47th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.) Billions of dollars’ worth of wide-ranging subsidies for fossil fuels merged with cheap credit after the Great Recession to increase oil and gas production. Reaching the limits of domestic refining capacity, executives lobbied to repeal longstanding restrictions on crude oil exports, which increased 750 percent between 2015 and 2019 according to a report from Greenpeace USA and Oil Change International. President Barack Obama’s State Department enthusiastically promoted fracking abroad through its Global Shale Gas Initiative, making it key to what the department’s director of policy planning, Jake Sullivan, referred to as “economic statecraft.”

Bipartisan policies have similarly safeguarded fossil fuel profits. Provisions across bilateral and multilateral trade deals the United States routinely negotiates, like the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, allow companies to sue governments should their public policy be considered discriminatory. The Investor-State Dispute Settlement system enforces these rules in arbitration proceedings that let investors recoup payouts from states for government policies like labor and environmental protections they object to.

The real power to constrain carbon, then, is found not at feel-good summits or buried in the fine print of the Paris Agreement: It’s in trade agreements, international law and bodies like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.The United States has veto power over certain decisions these bodies make. To make good on its Paris goals, it should use it.

As I discussed in depth when I wrote Out of Sight, the same institutions that create labor inequities on a global scale create environmental inequities. Simply put, this is not acceptable if we want to keep a habitable world that is nice to live in. We have to hold corporations accountable for their decisions–including in their supply chains–if we want to fight climate change. That is going to require government action. And yet, except for a few environmentalists, this is not really part of our climate change conversation. It very much needs to be.

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