Yes, President Bill Clinton faced a hard choice in 1997, about how the U.S. should handle the then-upcoming United Nations talks on climate change.
Four administrations later, President Joe Biden, too, is weighing the relative power of climate diplomacy and unilateral U.S. action. This past weekend, negotiators from the U.S. and China—including John Kerry, America’s special climate envoy and former secretary of state—hammered out a brief statement committing to further climate action. And later this week, the Biden administration will announce the country’s new emissions-reduction commitment under the Paris Agreement. Activists and environmental groups are pressuring Biden to commit to cutting U.S. climate pollution 50 percent by 2030, as compared with its historic peak. This might be one of the most important weeks in U.S. climate policy this year.
But note that I say “might be.” I’m not convinced. In a prior administration, these announcements would have been major victories. This week, Biden will be lucky if they merely whelm. They feel not just unsurprising, but out of step with the rest of his climate policy. Why is that?
A significant part, I would argue, is that the ideas underpinning this week’s ceremony are simply outdated. Reading news of the China talks, I thought of a recent paper by the political scientists Michaël Aklin and Matto Mildenberger. They argue that, since the 1990s, policy makers and academics have conceived of climate change in a mostly useless way. Officials have taken their cues from economists and imagined climate change as a free-rider problem, in which the goal is to prevent nations from taking advantage of one another.
In fact, Aklin and Mildenberger say, climate change is a distributive-conflict problem—a term that was new to me and that I will now explain. In essence, climate policy restructures the economy, creating new economic winners and losers. This is familiar enough: Coal mines suffer; electric utilities prosper. Because political leaders want, above all, to maintain the support of key constituencies, climate policy flows from a societal negotiation between potential winners and potential losers, a fight between climate reformers and climate obstructionists. The challenge of global climate action isn’t that other people will benefit from your emissions cuts; it’s that many interests actively oppose decarbonization. The key to passing climate policy is stitching together a coalition that will support and sustain decarbonization.
Surveying the past few decades, they find that countries almost never care about free riding. “Governments implement climate policies regardless of what other countries do,” they write, “and they do so whether a climate treaty dealing with free-riding has been in place or not.”
The Trump presidency showed this effect at large, Mildenberger told me in an interview yesterday. When Donald Trump took the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, other nations did not react by withdrawing as well. Instead, revulsion at Trump himself—and his climate views by proxy—strengthened political support in those countries for continuing climate action.