Biden’s star trek on climate change

MONDAY, APRIL 26, 2021

Joe Biden reaches a milestone on Thursday, marking his first 100 days as the 46th president of the United States. After four years of chaotic Trump governance, the world was relieved at how quickly Biden shifted to calm and competent professionalism in tackling the pandemic, economy and foreign affairs.

Biden used April 22, Earth Day, to call a Global Summit on climate change. The theme this year was to “Restore our Earth” after last year was marked by the pandemic, unprecedented natural disasters and the second-hottest year on record. It also witnessed record stock market prices coupled with rising poverty, indicating a growing wealth gap.

The 40 global leaders invited to the global summit included not only heads of G-20 countries but also of small nations like Bhutan, Gabon, Antigua and Barbuda and Marshall Islands. Within the Asian region, leaders of non-G20 members like Vietnam, Singapore and Bangladesh joined heavyweights like China’s President Xi, Indian Prime Minister Modi, Indonesian President Jokowi, Japan’s Prime Minister Suga and South Korean President Moon. Significantly, this was German Chancellor Merkel’s last global summit appearance, while Pope Francis was also invited to add a moral tone.

President Biden’s opening remarks tackled not just the existential threat of climate change but also jobs and getting the economy moving through clean investments. He urged global leaders to take concrete action to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.5C. To show American leadership, he committed the US to two significant steps. The first is a formal commitment to cut US emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030. The second is to double his country’s annual public climate financing for developing countries by 2024.

How significant was this Global Climate Summit? Optically, it could be the Green New Deal of the Century. Practically, it’s all about delivery – whether the US can lead the world out of the climate warming trap with action and not just words. If America is not able to put its own house in order in terms of social inequality, economy and climate change, it will cede leadership elsewhere.

So far, Biden has had most of his nominated officials approved, so that tested professionals are now busy cleaning up Trump’s legacies. This is a calmer and more effective White House, in sharp contrast to the constant barrage of angry and wild tweets emerging from the Trump White House.

Under Biden, the US has led the vaccination rollout, allowing the economy to reopen, and committing $5.1 trillion – $0.9 trillion under Trump, $1.9 trillion in February and $2.3 trillion for infrastructure – in stimulus and infrastructure spending plans, equivalent to nearly a quarter of GDP. Economically, in the medium term, the US is set to have the fastest recovery ahead of Europe and Japan, though not China.

Given bipartisan support for US foreign and national security policies, Biden has retained many of Trump’s hard-line actions on China. If anything, the tone has sharpened in maintaining China tariffs, sanctions and the decoupling of technology and reshoring of manufacturing.

The second phase of Biden’s foreign policy is his decisions to pull out of Afghanistan and make overtures to Iran. The Afghanistan war is the longest in American history and has ended exactly as the Korean and Vietnam wars – in defeat disguised as withdrawal. The history books have been proved right: Afghanistan is a graveyard for empires, from Alexander the Great’s army to the British to the Russians to American military might today.

What the latest Afghanistan war proved is that intervening with “humanitarian” intentions can end in worse human right abuses by destroying families, communities and even nations. This tragedy has been repeated time and again – in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria – with neighbouring countries teetering on the brink of failure amid refugee influxes, overwhelmed infrastructure and, today, the pandemic catastrophe.

Simply put, the strategy behind the Climate Summit was to regain the moral high ground that Trump ceded by signalling a global race to the top on climate action, rather than a race to the bottom through another arms race. However, both will likely be pursued.

Three points stand out from Biden’s maiden 100 days. First, the funding commitment to help the rest of the world tackle climate change is minimal. Doubling current US climate financing of $2.5 billion to $5.7 billion by 2024 is a mere 0.03 per cent of 2020 GDP – hardly generous compared to the 1948 Marshall Plan of $12 billion or 4.3 per cent of GDP. Furthermore, this aid amounts to 0.3 per cent of the $175 billion in US weapons exported last year, or 0.19 per cent of the $3 trillion in quantitative easing created by the Fed last year.

Second, on what moral or legal grounds can the US justify condoning Japan’s move to dump millions of gallons of Fukushima nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean without the approval of those affected? Does transparency in doing bad things make them right?

Third, fixing the domestic economy by relying mainly on foreign funding with a US net liability to the rest of the world of $14 trillion, or 67 per cent of GDP, is highly risky. As former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has warned, the large stimulus package will in the short run lift the economy, but at the cost of growing inflation risks. Any interest rate hikes will kill the asset bubbles and may trigger the next financial crisis.

In essence, Biden is trying to steer what American futurologist Buckminster Fuller called in 1978 the Critical Path of Spaceship Earth between two existential threats of nuclear destruction or climate burning. In the TV series Star Trek, the USS Enterprise ventured into deep space where no man has gone before, fully armed to the teeth, but with the Prime Directive of Non-Interference in alien societies’ development.

President Biden has boldly and rightly staked his reputation on saving the planet through climate action.

As planetary citizens, we salute him. We will watch the next episode with great anticipation.

Andrew Sheng comments on global affairs from an Asian perspective. The views expressed are his own.