President Biden’s first set of climate initiatives, announced today, rightfully focus in part on environmental justice: the disproportionate impacts that Black, Indigenous and other historically oppressed communities face from pollution and environmental degradation. In parallel, the Biden administration formally announced that they would convene a “Leaders’ Climate Summit” on Earth Day to discuss the global effort to fight the climate crisis.
The Biden administration must take the passion and energy they are now bringing to environmental justice issues domestically, and apply them globally as well. The countries and communities around the world that have done the least to cause the climate crisis are also the ones that are already suffering worst from its impacts, and are most vulnerable to further loss and damage.
In his recent comments at a UN conference on climate adaptation, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry repeatedly stressed that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people will be hit hardest if we fail to address the climate crisis with the urgency it requires. What he did not say clearly enough is that the United States bears a massive responsibility for causing, and thus for addressing that crisis.
The Biden administration’s Earth Day climate summit is all well and good, but no country will take the U.S. seriously unless we make concrete commitments before and during the summit. We have historically told other countries what to do, failed to take any meaningful action ourselves, and undermined efforts to strengthen global agreements to fight the climate crisis.
Here’s what the Biden administration must do to reverse that trend.
- Begin a transparent, inclusive process to develop a new U.S. Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) that adequately reflects the U.S. fair share. The NDC previously set by President Obama, which was to reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2025, was many times weaker than it needed to be. An NDC in line with the U.S. fair share should include domestic emissions reductions on the scale of 70% by 2030, plus significantly ramped up international climate finance to meet the remainder of our fair share.
- To begin meeting that need for international finance, make an immediate commitment to fulfill the Obama-era pledge to the Green Climate Fund (so far the U.S. has only contributed $1 billion of the promised $3 billion). Follow this with a commitment to make a substantial new pledge for the GCF’s current replenishment period of at least $6 billion – double the previous pledge, in line with other contributor countries.
Unless and until the U.S. does these things, we have no credibility in pressuring other countries to ramp up their own action. This includes China, which the U.S. likes to point out as the largest current greenhouse gas emitter, but whose historical emissions pale in comparison to those of the U.S.
On the other hand, if the Biden administration were to take immediate action on both climate finance and domestic emissions cuts, the U.S. could then helpfully use its leverage to pressure other developed countries – European countries, Canada, Australia, Japan – to increase their own ambition. It is these rich countries, which have high historic emissions and high national wealth similar to the United States, that should be the priority for U.S. diplomats and negotiators.
Climate justice here at home means the wealthy must pay their fair share and reparations must be made for the disproportionate harms done to oppressed communities. The same is true globally: the wealthy nations of the Global North, which have benefited from hundreds of years of fossil-fuel driven industrialization, not to mention continued exploitation of the Global South, must do their fair share first and foremost. The developing countries that have been subject to colonialism and continued economic extraction must make their own transitions, yes – but they cannot be fairly expected to do so on their own, and must be supported by the rich countries.
This is the environmental justice that the Biden administration must push for, and lead, globally. It will go hand-in-hand with their laudable emphasis on environmental justice for Black and Indigenous communities here at home.