The Paris Climate Accord and Biden’s Inevitable Struggle in 2021

The U.S. Rejoins, Then What?

Author: John W. Head, KU School of Law

A Washington Post article discussed the anticipated US return to the Paris Climate accord. It noted that that in mid-December, President-elect Joe Biden blasted out a statement, vowing to rejoin the Paris agreement “on day one” and to restore the United States as a world leader in climate action. The WP article quotes Biden as saying this: “I’ll immediately start working with my counterparts around the world to do all that we possibly can, including by convening the leaders of major economies for a climate summit within my first 100 days in office.” The WP article explains that Biden promised to put the nation on a path to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, to ensure that the shift toward cleaner energy brings new U.S. jobs, and to “listen to and engage closely with the activists, including young people, who have continued to sound the alarm and demand change from those in power.” (See the WP article at U.S. will soon rejoin the Paris climate accord, but challenges remain ahead - The Washington Post.)

But Biden will need to back the promises with performance, and this presents two big challenges. One is historical, the other political.

Although many world leaders surely welcome Biden’s promises, they also recall the history of US involvement in climate talks and treaties. After participating in the talks that led to the agreements forged five years ago in Paris, the USA abruptly left the stage when President Trump took office. And even before that, the USA had first supported, then rejected, the Kyoto Protocol of the late 1990s, when the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change got some real teeth added to it. As the WP article put it, “Many in the international community have harbored resentment about the United States’ seeming inability, or unwillingness, to live up to its lofty promises to the rest of the world when it comes to climate change.”

And now for the political challenge: Depending on how the Georgia races for the US Senate turn out, the chances of getting actual treaty commitments out of the USA (requiring 2/3 support in the US Senate) range from slim to none. Other steps could be taken by the USA on the global stage, of course – that is, short of formal treaty commitments – but those probably can’t pack the punch that treaty commitments would carry.

Ditto at the national level. That is, it’s not just global leadership that the USA will be hard-pressed to show on climate-chaos matters. At the domestic level, dramatic increases in discipline and commitment are required before this country moves beyond merely token signals of support for addressing climate issues. The WP article quotes Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and key architect of the Paris agreement, in saying recently that the best thing Biden can do to prove that he is serious about global climate action is to make progress domestically: “The U.S. will have to do its homework at home first in order to regain credibility. … Yes, the Biden administration has put out their plans. But we’re going to have to see the plans being enacted. We’re going to have to see the rollbacks of the rollbacks.”

These efforts, if they are undertaken at all by the Biden-Harris administration, will be hard-fought. True, the administration might use executive orders and policy initiatives to bring change. But, as the WP article expressed it, “any far-reaching national climate blueprint, or any major stimulus spending on green energy, will need the blessing of a deeply divided Congress.” Again, Georgia matters a lot in this respect.

At the Global RESTORATION Project, we believe (1) that climate disruption poses an existential threat to our own species and most others and (2) that addressing that threat requires a strong and enduring commitment to profoundly different policies and agreements at the global level. For more details, see our website,