Kamala Harris might help ‘night and day’ shift for US on global climate diplomacy

If they defeat Trump, Biden and Harris will have to prove they can cut emissions at home to rebuild US global leadership on climate change.

Kamala Harris (Photo: Gage Skidmore /Flickr)


Joe Biden’s pick of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate for the US presidency could reinvigorate stalled world action on climate change in a “night and day” switch if the Democrats defeat Donald Trump, climate policy experts say.

California Senator Harris, 55 and the first black woman chosen to run for vice-president, is an original sponsor of the US Green New Deal and has fought for climate justice, including holding oil and gas companies to account for their carbon emissions.

If Biden and Harris win the US election on 3 November, the Democrats would rejoin the 2015 Paris climate Agreement, abandoned by Trump. That could spur the deal and help rebuild frayed US ties with other nations, perhaps even China, the top greenhouse gas emitter ahead of the US.

“It’s definitely a good forward move for climate diplomacy,” Niklas Höhne, head of the New Climate Institute scientific think-tank, told Climate Home News of Biden’s pick of Harris.

A Biden-Harris administration would be “like day and night in relation to climate policy and the Paris Agreement,” he said.

A revived US commitment to climate action would also undermine laggards such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia or Australia whose voices have become more strident in international negotiations in the shadow of Trump’s scepticism. The coronavirus pandemic has further slowed climate action in recent months.

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Bill Hare, CEO and senior scientist at Climate Analytics, hailed Harris as “a well-known advocate of serious action on climate change.”

“It does mean that we can look forward to renewed US leadership on climate change,” he said. A Biden-Harris victory could revive a former “high ambition coalition” of nations pushing to limit a rise in global temperatures to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial times, the most ambitious goal under the Paris Agreement.

And Claire Healy, the Washington-based director of think-tank E3G’s climate diplomacy programme, said Harris would add “fire-power” behind Biden’s climate plan if he wins in November.

“She is a woman, she’s young and ethnically diverse,” she said, adding her background could be influential on the world stage.

Environmental group Greenpeace said it gave Harris a B+ (77/100) on its climate 2020 scorecard, marginally better than Biden. “She’s an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal as well as co-author of the Climate Equity Act and Environmental Justice for All Act,” it said. Trump rated 0/100 on the scorecard.

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Peter Betts, a former EU and UK lead climate negotiator, told CHN a Biden-Harris administration would have to show it can cut emissions at home to have any credibility on the international stage, particularly with China and developing countries.

“If a Biden administration makes climate change a top priority and all the signs show that he will, it will get the attention of traditional US allies such as Japan, Canada, Australia,” he said.

Biden’s plan is to ensure the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050. Trump, who doubts scientific findings that climate change is man-made, announced in 2017 that the US would pull out of the Paris Agreement to focus instead on bolstering the coal industry.

The US will formally quit the Paris Agreement on 4 November, 2020 – a day after Americans are due to the polls.

Yvo de Boer, former head of UN Climate Change from 2006-10, said the Democrats were “a powerful force for good” on climate action but faulted the party for negotiating ambitious UN deals without ensuring they would be implemented.

Former President Barack Obama, for instance, used an executive order to endorse the 2015 Paris Agreement after failing to win support from Republicans in the Senate. It was undone by Trump at the stroke of a pen. And the administration of former President Bill Clinton signed the UN’s 1997 Kyoto climate deal but failed to put it to a hostile Senate for ratification.

“When I think of the Democrats and climate action I’m always reminded of the couple in the Swiss cuckoo clock: now you see them, now you don’t,” de Boer told CHN, urging a more bipartisan US approach to climate change.

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As vice president to Obama, Biden has often taken credit for shaping the 2015 Paris Agreement, especially a joint approach with China.

Obama’s climate plan, ditched by Trump, foresaw a cut in US greenhouse gas emissions of between 26 and 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. China promised to peak its carbon emissions by 2030, while striving for an earlier date.

But it may be hard to revive that Beijing-Washington axis amid tensions over issues such as trade, intellectual property rights and human rights in Hong Kong.

“The big uncertainty now is how the election is going to play out with China. The bilateral agreement between the US and China was the biggest reason for the Paris Agreement,” said Steinar Andresen, a research professor at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo and an expert in international agreements.

And there were uncertainties about how far Biden would want to reach out to China. “It’s more of a bipartisan agreement that the US should be tougher on China,” Andresen added.

Whether the US and China can cooperate is also a key question for Betts, the former EU and UK negotiator. “It is not naïve to think that it is possible to come to some form of understanding between bigger players even if they relationship is not as good as it was,” he said.

The threat of a carbon adjustment mechanism being considered by both the European Union and the Biden campaign could be a factor in “bringing China to the table,” he added.

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Biden has said the US must work with its allies to take a hard line and “confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”

If elected, Biden and Harris will have to navigate a complex relationship with China and one that is very different compared with five years ago, said Li Shuo, a senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia.

“No one should take for granted that an Obama-Xi honeymoon can be easily replicated in 2021.  If Biden is elected, a reset is needed for the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” he said.

Past climate cooperation between the world’s two largest economies shows their rivalry can be overcome, Shuo added. “Through the Paris climate accord, Washington and Beijing have managed to find a balance point. By doing so, they also led the rest of the world in landing on a solid starting point for tackling climate change.”

The coronavirus has forced a delay until November 2021 for a UN climate summit in Glasgow, which was meant to give new impetus for climate action with nations signing up for tougher ambition at the first five-year milestone of the Paris Agreement.

So far, however, only 11 nations representing 2.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions have issued new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), that are meant to be upgraded by the end of 2020.

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