The April climate summit

During his campaign for the United States presidency, Joseph Biden promised to reverse his predecessor’s indifference towards the problem of global warming and palpable climate change. As the head of the American state for four years — from 2017 to 2021 — Donald Trump took a number of decisions that ignored climate science about global warming. He called the worry about global warming a hoax that had originated with China. He was of the view that Beijing was making the world focus on global warming in order to drain dynamism out of the US economy. Beijing and Obama’s Washington had worked hard to develop a global consensus that would have governments give attention to reduce the emission of gases that result in warming the globe. Their joint effort resulted in the Paris climate accord of 2015. However, Trump pulled the US out of the accord as among the first actions he took after being sworn in as president. Trump took a number of other decisions as well that hurt America’s effort to contribute to the efforts aimed at preventing serious global warming. These included continued support provided to fossil fuel industry and the removal of the obligations on the part of the automobile industry to improve gas mileage standards.

There was support from some surprising quarters for tougher government action on global warming. According to one account, automakers are coming to accept much higher fuel economy standards; large oil and gas companies have said some curbs on greenhouse pollution lifted by former president Trump should be reimposed; shareholders are demanding that corporations acknowledge and prepare for a warmer, more volatile future; and youth movement is driving the Democratic Party to go big to confront the issue. But without any doubt, signals from the planet itself are lending urgency to the cause. Last year was the hottest year on record. Already scientists say the irreversible effects of climate change have started to sweep across the globe, including record fires in California and Australia, rising sea levels, widespread draughts and stronger storms.

Under President Biden several important parts of the administrative structure including the state, treasury and transportation departments, the National Security Council and the Office of the Vice-President will have dedicated climate policy staff. President Biden issued a series of executive orders that started the process of rolling back some of the Trump administration’s most debated environmental decisions such as restricting the science that can be used to create new air and water protections. As with other policy areas, Biden relied heavily on old hands from the Obama administration. He selected Gina McCarthy, who led the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama government, to start up a new White House office on climate policy. Ali Zaidi, a former top energy official in the Obama administration’s White House Office of Management and Budget, will be Ms McCarthy’s deputy. Former secretary of state John Kerry will serve as the president’s international climate envoy. Those who were involved in drafting and administering climate policies said that the Biden appointments mean that the White House would become the “domestic nerve center” for climate change in the Biden administration.

The Biden team also drafted plans to reinstate Obama-era rules on methane, a planet warming gas more than 50 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In 2020, the Trump administration rolled back those rules, although oil giants BP and Exxon called instead to tighten them.

One of the more effective change in the approach to global warming on which the Biden government-initiated work is referred to as the social cost of carbon. “This is the way the government calculates the real cost of climate change. The administration plans to boost the figure from $7 per ton of carbon emission used by the Trump government to at least $51 per ton. The number could reach as high as $125 per ton once the administration has conducted a more thorough analysis. The ultimate figure would be incorporated into decisions across the federal government, including the cost of purchases it makes, the kind of pollution controls it imposes on industry and which highways and pipelines are permitted in the years to come. Just as important, the move sends a powerful signal to the private sector and ordinary Americans that the choices the country makes now could lock in disastrous consequences on both current and future generations — or help to avert the worst impacts.

President Biden promised to convene a global summit of world leaders to agree on a number of new initiatives they could take to arrest global warming which was occurring at a rate faster than assumed during the Paris 2015 deliberations. The US State Department issued invitations to 40 heads of state to attend the “virtual summit”. Pakistan was a surprising omission from the list of the invitees although as discussed later it was likely to be seriously affected by global warming. The countries invited included Australia and 10 from the Asian continent, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Turkey and Vietnam. Ignoring Pakistan appeared to be part of the Biden government’s approach to world affairs. John Kerry, former of secretary of state in the Obama administration and now given the responsibility for climate policies and their implementation in the Biden White House, passed over Pakistan while visiting South Asia. He went to Bangladesh and India.

A day before the summit was held on April 22, President Xi Jinping announced that he would participate. Of those invited to attend the summit, 17 produce roughly 80% of all planet-warming emissions and account for the lion’s share of the global domestic product. The summit’s focus was on global-warming emissions with not much attention was paid to other aspects of global warming such as the melting of glaciers. That said, the inclusion of Bhutan in the list may be related to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

The first well-informed assessment of how South Asia may be affected by global warming was made by the World Bank. Included in the analysis was the increased possibility of floods that might result from the melting of the Himalayan glaciers that feed water to the rivers that flow into not only into South Asia but also into China and Afghanistan. That that might indeed happen was shown by the flood resulting from the “break of a glacier in the Himalayas causing a deadly flash flood that smashed through a hydroelectric power plant and destroyed homes in India,” wrote Niha Masih in a report published in The Washington Post. “More than 125 people were reported missing. India rushed disaster response teams to Uttarakhand, a mountainous northern state.” A second power plant was damaged. “This looks very much like a climate change,” said Anjal Prakash, a professor at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. “The glaciers are melting due to global warming.” These developments did not receive much attention at the April 22 summit.

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