The international community is not quite ready to embrace the US with open arms as the Biden administration attempts to regain a leading role in the global fight against climate change, as concerns remain that the country could dramatically reverse course in four years if the electorate sends a new face to the White House.
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"It's a real risk, and it's a question we know that in particular our European partners are asking right now," Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat-Connecticut, acknowledged, speaking at the Foreign Policy Magazine Virtual Climate Summit.
"It has been harder than we had hoped to sort of just drop ourselves back into the transatlantic alliance because many of our best friends in Europe are asking" if the US is serious about pursuing ambitious emissions reduction goals for the long haul or just the moment, Murphy said. Those allies are saying "we'd love to put together a common climate architecture with the United States," but also calling for "guarantees ... that there isn't going to be a dramatic shift back to climate denial in four years," he said.
For that reason, Murphy argued it was incumbent on Congress "to make down payments on bipartisan climate policy over the next four years so that even if a Republican is in the White House four years from now, that it's just much harder for them to go back to a position of climate denial, that there is just much more warmth inside the Republican Party for a Republican president that wants to stay in Paris and wants to lead [on climate] even if it's in a different way than President [Joe] Biden."
Murphy is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has been a leading advocate for a progressive foreign policy approach that calls for strong American leadership on human rights, good government and combatting climate change.
In his view, the Biden administration is, so far, taking the right steps to reclaim leadership in the fight against climate change.
"They have telegraphed in a clear way to the world that if you want to be in business with the United States, if you want to be a friend and an ally, then you have to be meeting your climate goals," Murphy said.
But the US must lead not just with words, but with actions as well, positioning the American Jobs Plan as an important domestic tool to meet the US' new commitment under the Paris Agreement and also a foreign policy mechanism to "push other countries to the table," Murphy contended.
As such, Murphy said it was important for Congress to do its part by passing the $2 trillion infrastructure and clean energy plan. He said he was encouraged by conversations with Republican senators "who want to come to the table on climate," and asserted that in the last year there has been an "increasing tendency for climate to be approached on a bipartisan basis."
"That kind of bipartisan consensus allows us to have more consistency in our policy which allows countries to be more willing to do business with us on issues connected to climate," he said.
Prospects for legislation
As for prospects for getting climate and infrastructure legislation to Biden's desk, Murphy said there was more consensus on how to address non-carbon sources of emissions, such as methane, and thus greater likelihood of bipartisan cooperation in those areas.
"But I think that the ground is shifting very quickly here, and I do think that the lens through which we view this is increasingly competition with countries like China," Murphy said. "There's going to be a country in the world that's going to dominate the future advanced battery market. Why shouldn't it be the United States?"
Framed that way, Republicans are coming onboard because they see the tremendous lost opportunity for jobs if they, for example, cede leadership on the production of photovoltaics and wind turbines, Murphy asserted.
A bill on the American Jobs Plan itself "has good prospects for passage," he said. "I don't know whether we'll get Republicans to support it in the end. That doesn't necessarily mean that I'm contradicting myself on Republicans being more willing to work with us on climate. I just think when it comes to these big legislative packages proposed by Democratic presidents, Republicans' instinct is to generally sit on the outside rather than be on the inside."
Looking for specificity
Speaking later at the summit, Representative Garret Graves, Republican-Louisiana, commended the Biden administration's work to push the global dialogue on climate, but said he remained concerned about the lack of specificity in how the US would meet the bold pledge to slash economywide greenhouse gas emissions 50%-52% from 2005 levels by 2030.
"I think it's important that we provide details to the American people, to the Congress on how we're going to hit those commitments," he said, adding that it was also key to ensure that other countries were making the right commitments to achieve net reductions in global emissions.
Graves, the ranking member of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, also cautioned against kneejerk commitments to stop using certain energy technologies.
"The most important thing I think we have to stay focused on, the real goal here, is the emissions," he said. "And if we can find ways to use conventional energy sources that our infrastructure is built for today, but do it in a way that rivals or even beats some renewable energy technologies in regard to emissions, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater."