April 25, 2021
On Thursday and Friday of last week, April 22 and 23, President Biden convened a virtual meeting of 40 world leaders to discuss addressing climate change. It is no longer possible to ignore changes in the world’s climate: the last decade was the hottest in recorded history, and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached record levels. Arctic ice is melting; last summer’s fires in Australia, California, and Colorado were catastrophic.
In 2015, representatives of more than 190 countries, including the U.S., gathered in Paris and hammered out an agreement on mitigating climate change, adapting to it, and financing those changes. Former president Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. On his first day in office, Biden took the U.S. back into the international agreement.
But Biden seems not simply to be trying to adjust the nation’s energy production. With the Leaders Summit on Climate, Biden is taking what his Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm called “our generation’s moonshot,” a reference to the American determination to reach the moon in the 1960s, a goal that spurred previously unimaginable developments in technology, computers, and science.
In the past, refusal to address the issue of climate change has centered around the idea that cutting back on fossil fuels would take jobs from coal miners and those in related fossil fuel industries. That focus was always about more than jobs: the hardworking white man in a hardhat was a cultural symbol for a certain political stance more than it was about reality. Walmart, for example, employs about 28 times the number of people as does coal, even including executives, office workers, and so on. Still, it’s a trope that worked in 2016: Trump won West Virginia by 42 points.
But a lot has changed in the last four years.
For one thing, the market for coal has slid, illustrating that old blue-collar jobs are not coming back. Trump promised to make coal great again and seemed to think that slashing environmental regulations would do the trick, but even combined with an infusion of up to $1 billion, slashing regulations could not stop Trump’s administration from overseeing the fastest decline of coal-fuel capacity in U.S. history. The U.S. lost 10% of coal-mining jobs—5300 of them—between 2016 and 2020. Low natural gas prices and the rise of wind and solar alternatives pushed coal aside. At the same time, mechanization across blue collar industries means the recovery of old manufacturing jobs is not in the cards.
On April 19, the United Mine Workers of America, the largest coal miners’ union, backed Biden’s plan to move away from coal, so long as miners get government support to transition into similar jobs. In a plan endorsed by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (who is well known for delivering for his constituents), the union asked for funding to plug abandoned oil and gas wells, clean up mining sites, and train workers for new jobs in new energy technologies.
The sentiments of business leaders have shifted, too, as they recognize that climate change is a financial disruptor. Earlier this month, leaders of more than 400 businesses that collectively employ more than 7 million Americans signed a letter asking Biden to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. “To restore the standing of the U.S. as a global leader, we need to address the climate crisis at the pace and scale it demands,” they wrote. “New investment in clean energy, energy efficiency, and clean transportation can build a strong, more equitable, and more inclusive American economy.” Signatories included Etsy, Facebook, Nike, Microsoft, Verizon, and Walmart.
Biden has already embraced the idea that addressing climate change is not a loss but an opportunity. It will, he insists, bring good jobs to ordinary Americans. “When people talk about climate, I think jobs,” Biden said on Thursday. “Within our climate response lies an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity ready to be fired up.”
Indeed, Biden’s American Jobs Plan already calls for $16 billion to clean up abandoned mining sites and more for the training in new infrastructure jobs coal miners want. It also addresses job losses in rural areas in an obvious but novel way: by supporting the caregiver economy. Caregiving jobs cannot ever be mechanized, and there are caregivers—and people who need care— in every single community in this country. Supporting those positions will bring money into towns left behind by the loss of jobs like mining.
Biden’s emphasis on new energy jobs is part domestic politics, but it is also a major play for redefining future world power. It was no accident that the overarching political theme of last week’s conference was “America is back.”
As the White House fact sheet on the conference stated: “Over the course of two days and eight sessions, President Biden convened heads of state and government, as well as leaders and representatives from international organizations, businesses, subnational governments, and indigenous communities, to rally the world in tackling the climate crisis, demonstrate the economic opportunities of the future, and affirm the need for unprecedented global cooperation and ambition to meet the moment.”
America is back, indeed.
But what does that mean, in this context? At the summit, Biden announced that by 2030 the U.S. would reduce emissions by 50–52% from the levels of 2005, more than doubling our commitment under the Paris Agreement. He called for other countries, which make up 85% of emissions, to “step up” to “tackle the climate crisis and support the most vulnerable.” (The U.S., which has 4% of the world’s population, emits 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases). This is all pretty standard for U.S. climate statements. Biden went farther, though, calling for changing the American economy over to renewables, including wind, solar, nuclear, and so on, to make the country carbon-free by 2035.
Still, what jumps out from the rest of the Biden proposal is what sure looks like a major reworking of the world economy and thus its political tensions.
While the U.S. focused on fossil fuels and refused to jump wholeheartedly into research and development of alternative energies, China did. That nation is still dependent on fossil fuels and expects not to reach its highest pollution levels until sometime before 2030, but it has heavily subsidized solar power and now has 8 of the top 10 solar companies in the world. America has one; Europe has none. Chinese dominance of the technology and supply chains for the solar industry threatens to sideline American technology and national security, as even American solar manufacturers depend on Chinese materials.
Dominating the world of alternative energy would give China a powerful geopolitical tool. Remember how hard the supply chain failures in China during the early days of the coronavirus hit the U.S.? Now, think energy. A recent piece by Emerging Markets journalist Kenneth Rapoza in Forbes is titled: “How China’s Solar Industry Is Set Up To Be The New Green OPEC,” a reference to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, whose oil embargo to the U.S. in 1973 slammed the U.S. economy.
Countries, especially weaker countries, would need to turn toward China if that’s where they get their energy technology. And even stronger countries would be dependent on China for one of their most vital needs. To forestall that scenario, Biden has stepped in to reclaim leadership on new energy technologies for the United States, enabling other countries to work toward an energy future that is not dominated by China. On April 22, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg signed onto the idea of NATO cooperation on climate change and other security challenges.
After four years in which our leaders saw the height of American strength as standing alone, our leadership is now focusing on the idea of international teamwork. Biden’s climate plan is about saving the planet, but it also seems to be about saving global alliances, binding countries together with a new climate agreement to retain their power over their own energy in the future.