The president is expected to hail the new U.S. climate law on Friday at the COP27 summit in Egypt. Other countries want to talk money.
SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — When President Biden walks into the United Nations climate summit here on Friday, he could fairly boast of returning the United States to the global fight to keep the planet from dangerously overheating, and of turbocharging America’s move away from fossil fuels.
But instead of being hailed as a president who passed a landmark climate law, Mr. Biden will join a gathering where developing nations have spent all week excoriating the United States and other industrialized nations for causing climate change and demanding reparations — a call that some European leaders have begun to answer with monetary pledges, squeezing Mr. Biden to do the same.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said that Europe was already helping poorer countries, and that other Western nations needed to do more. “Europeans are paying,” he said. “We are the only ones paying.”
“Pressure must be put on rich non-European countries, telling them, ‘You have to pay your fair share,’” Mr. Macron said, in a not-too-veiled reference to the Americans.
But with control of Congress still unclear after Tuesday’s midterm elections, there is little Mr. Biden can offer. If Republicans are in charge come January, there will be less money, not more, to help foreign nations cope with climate change, as well as fresh efforts to slow down or block the president’s climate agenda.
And even with Democrats in the majority on Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden has failed to make good on an earlier promise by the United States to contribute to a fund to help poor nations that are struggling from a barrage of floods, fires, drought and heat waves for which they are ill-prepared and have done little to cause.
In 2021, Mr. Biden pledged $11.4 billion annually by 2024; last year, he secured just $1 billion toward that goal from a Congress controlled by Democrats.
While many countries appreciate Mr. Biden’s effort, some view it as inadequate, said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. “You hear the language from developing countries and it’s like a sharp knife,” she said. “I hear African leaders say: ‘We’ve always understood the Congress is difficult. But do the American people not understand what’s happening to the planet?’”
Mr. Biden is the only leader of a major polluting country to attend the climate talks in Egypt — President Xi Jinping of China, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Narendra Modi of India all stayed away.
Our Coverage of the COP27 Climate Summit
- Climate Aid: After decades of resistance, several European countries at COP27 announced funds to help poor nations recover from loss and damage caused by climate change. But the United States was silent.
- ‘A Highway to Climate Hell’: The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, delivered a dire message as world leaders urged faster action on the summit’s first day.
- The Host: The summit will allow debt-wracked Egypt to champion the climate needs of poorer nations. But it also puts the authoritarian country under scrutiny.
- A Nation Dependent on Coal: At last year’s summit, wealthy nations pledged $8.5 billion to help South Africa transition to clean energy. But the country is a prime example of how hard it is to leave coal behind.
Mr. Biden is hoping to connect with Mr. Xi at the G20 meetings next week in Bali; climate talks between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest emitters, have been largely frozen since August over tensions around Taiwan, human rights and other issues. There have been informal meetings this week at the U.N. climate summit between John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, that may soften the ground for substantive talks between their bosses in Bali.
But the absence in Egypt of the leaders of the other major emitting countries makes Mr. Biden even more of a target for developing nations that feel aggrieved.
As the world’s richest nation and the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States has been absent from discussions at the summit this week about a new “loss and damage” fund to compensate developing countries for impacts from which they cannot recover, like a coastal town lost to rising seas caused by melting glaciers.
This fund would be in addition to a 2015 agreement forged by the U.N. in which wealthy nations agreed to provide $100 billion a year from public and private sources to developing countries to help them mitigate climate change and shift away from fossil fuels.
For decades, rich, polluting nations have repelled calls for loss and damage money. As a legal and a practical matter, it has been extraordinarily difficult to define “loss and damage” and determine what it might cost and who should pay how much.
But cracks in that defensive posture are beginning to show. At last year’s climate summit, Scotland, the host country, became the first to commit money for a new loss and damage fund. This week, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, endorsed the idea, followed by cash pledges by Ireland, Denmark and Belgium. On Wednesday, Mr. Xie, the climate negotiator for China, currently the largest emitter on the planet, also backed the idea of a loss and damage fund but was careful to say that China would not contribute to it.
Many of the European countries stepping up to the plate have colonial ties to the developing nations seeking funds, a relationship that bolsters the argument for reparations in the eyes of some.
“The practice of colonialism transferred the rich resources of Asia and Africa to Europe to industrialize their countries, which is also the root cause of climate change — the consequences of which we, the poor countries, are forced to suffer,” President Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka told the gathering this week. “Adding insult to injury, damages caused by extreme weather conditions are increasing and their impact is exceedingly costly.”
But in the United States, the idea of paying climate reparations to distant nations would be “an absolute political domestic disaster,” said Paul Bledsoe, a climate adviser under President Bill Clinton and now a lecturer at American University. He said it would “cripple” Mr. Biden’s 2024 re-election chances.
“America is culturally incapable of meaningful reparations,” Mr. Bledsoe said. “Having not made them to Native Americans or African Americans, there is little to no chance they will be seriously considered regarding climate impacts to foreign nations. It’s a complete non-starter in our domestic politics.”
A little more than half of registered voters believe the United States has at least some responsibility to increase its contributions to developing nations to help protect them against climate change, according to a Morning Consult/Politico survey released this week. But there was a clear partisan split; Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that the United States needs to contribute more.
Squeezed on all sides, Mr. Biden and his advisers have been gingerly tiptoeing around the issue of money. Mr. Kerry has agreed only to discuss the idea of a loss and damage fund.
Instead, White House officials have been trying to refocus attention on Mr. Biden’s signature achievement, the Inflation Reduction Act, and its record $370 billion in investments in clean energy like wind and solar power that promise to significantly cut greenhouse gases generated by the United States.
This week, a phalanx of senior White House advisers dropped in to the Red Sea resort town where climate negotiations are being held to insist that the law, and America’s plan to cut emissions, cannot be reversed. It’s an assurance that many foreign diplomats have sought, given that the United States has twice withdrawn from global climate promises since the 1990s.
“There is no backsliding,” said Ali Zaidi, the White House national climate adviser, who noted that the new law’s investments in wind, solar, battery storage and other clean power are now essentially baked into the U.S. tax code. “We may have setbacks, but we are cruising ahead and meeting our commitments.”
But Andres Mogro, a climate negotiator for a bloc of countries that includes India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, said the new climate law and what it promises for Americans was “honestly of no relevance” to developing nations that need money now to recover from past climate disasters, prepare for future catastrophes and transition their own countries away from fossil fuels.
“To be frank, we are not expecting anything from President Biden,” said Richard Sherman, the lead negotiator for an African bloc of nations. He summed up the way developing countries view the United States as: “They tend to promise a lot, pledge a lot, but deliver very little.”
Nigel Topping, the United Nations’ high-level climate champion, noted that the United States had not delivered what independent organizations estimate is its fair share of climate finance.
In 2020, the United States gave just 5 percent of what it should have contributed, according to one recent report. Mr. Topping argued all countries made commitments that they need to live up to, no matter the election cycle.
“To complain about your difficult politics is insulting to every other country,” he said. “Everybody’s politics is difficult.”