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When Roopali Phadke attended the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, the American delegation was in an awkward spot.
The United States sent a smaller contingent to the annual summit, known as the Conference of the Parties, during the Trump Administration. Former President Donald Trump backed out of international moves to lower greenhouse gas emissions, most noticeably when he pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement of 2015.
President Joe Biden reversed that decision. His administration has pledged to make the United States a leader in the global push to lower emissions and hold the planet below a 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature that scientists warn will come with catastrophic consequences. But whether the rest of the world trusts American leadership, and whether Biden can go to the conference touting newly passed climate legislation remains to be seen.
“I’m really keen to see how that is now,” said Phadke, a Macalester College professor who chairs the school’s Environmental Studies department. “The world doesn’t want to be held hostage to American politics.”
Phadke studies energy policy and the politics around climate change. She and seven of her Macalester colleagues are heading to the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, in early November. Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has reached a “code red” level after recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and a summer of major wildfires in the United States, Phadke said.
The summits are typically a time of major announcements from nations and large corporations, where pledges are made to cut emissions and invest in green technology.
“There’s a flurry of activity happening now,” Phadke said.
Watching for action
On September 18, the White House announced a new agreement between the United States and European Union to reduce methane emissions. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that experts say is responsible for about half of all warming from pre-industrial levels. The agreement, dubbed the Global Methane Pledge, commits participants to reducing their methane emissions by 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030.
How successful the Glasgow summit will be depends significantly on whether the Biden Administration can come touting newly passed climate legislation, Phadke said. The Senate is in a prolonged standoff over two large bills: a $1 trillion infrastructure package and a robust $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that includes billions of dollars in investments in green technology and climate resilience upgrades.
Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are seen as holdouts to passing the bills. Manchin, who represents a coal-rich state, told the White House he will not support a clean energy transition program in the reconciliation bill, The New York Times reported. That $150 billion program would penalize utilities staying with coal and natural gas while rewarding companies that transition to green energy such as wind, solar, and nuclear power. Experts see it as a key component to the U.S. lowering domestic emissions.
The stalemate is eerily reminiscent of the battle over the United States joining another global climate agreement, The American Prospect points out. In 1997, Democratic West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd sponsored a resolution to prevent the United States from signing on to the Kyoto Protocol, the first major international agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
“What is the US actually going to be able to bring to the table if the Senate doesn’t come through?” Phadke said.
Without major legislation, Phadke said she’ll be watching to see if Biden announces new executive action to lower emissions before the summit.
This summit is hugely important and has major global political implications, Phadke said. The summit is being called a “rulebook meeting,” where nations will vote on set regulations included in the Paris Agreement, most significantly on whether countries can trade what are known as emissions credits. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement creates an opportunity for nations who are behind on their emission reduction goals to purchase credits from nations that are ahead of schedule. But countries haven’t been able to come to an agreement on how that mechanism would work. Experts believe it could significantly cut emissions and help countries save money.
Phadke is part of the research contingent from the United States, a group of academics and experts who hold meetings during the summit about what they are working on and noticing about the geopolitical situation around climate change.
She will be participating in a panel on the Line 3 pipeline, which was recently completed in Northern Minnesota and brings crude oil from Canadian tar sands to shipping routes on Lake Superior. She hopes that Indigienous leaders from Minnesota will be able to attend and participate in the panel.
Typically, Macalester invites students studying political science and international relations along to the summits. This year the group has been limited to faculty to reduce numbers due to the ongoing pandemic. Macalester faculty will be going in shifts of four, Phadke said, and she’ll attend the second week of the conference.
She values the conference as an opportunity to learn from other nations and build a sense of international cooperation. It’s important to understand how people from India, Kenya, and Fiji view the climate crisis, she said.
”We think of ourselves as a global society but we actually have a very limited view,” she said.
In the face of an increasingly warming planet and more extreme weather events due to climate change, Phadke says she remains optimistic, both because there is no other option, and because the global community has come together to solve issues before. Being able to bring together 190 nations as a global pandemic still circulates is a source of hope in itself, she said.