Can the United States exercise international leadership on climate issues?

Author: Xing Lijuan

Accompanying President Biden’s announcement of Jan. 20, 2021 on rejoining the Paris Agreement is his vow to exercise United States international leadership on climate issues, as is contained in Executive Order 13990 of Jan. 20, 2021 and Executive Order 14008 of Jan. 27, 2021. Those declarations raise two questions: (1) What does “international leadership” mean for climate issues? (2) Can the United States or another individual country exercise such international leadership?

In the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (EO 14008), the Biden Administration formulates its approaches of exercising U.S. international leadership, including mainly: (a) convening or coordinating international forums and events, (b) developing ambitious national mitigation targets and pushing corresponding domestic reforms, and (c) exporting the climate-centered norms, as well as financial and technological resources, to its partners with a view to increasing global climate ambition to meet the climate challenges. I maintain that the prospective implementation and accomplishment of those plans and measures may send the United States back to the global regime as an active and influential participant, but by no means as a leader, on the ground that an international leader on climate issues has to go far beyond a convener, a coordinator, an advocate, or a donor.

The urgency and entirety of climate crisis requires the international legal system to deal with a global complexity at an unprecedented scale, and entails globally concerted actions in the true sense. An international leadership in this regard should feature the power and capabilities of: (i) deciding tangible and unanimous global goals; (ii) guiding all sovereignties to target at ambitious but feasible contributions to the global goals; (iii) enabling a world-wide distribution and movement of financial and technological resources for mitigation and adaption activities; (iv) attending to the needs and interests of all types of stakeholders – governmental and non-governmental , public and private, and collective and individual – in the international decision-making processes; (v) defending and applying the international norms without discrimination, favor, bias, oversight, and capriciousness; (vi) leaving no one outside or behind of the global progress; and (vii) aligning the climate concerns with other global challenges like poverty eradication, food security, agroecology, and ocean protection.

The international leadership on climate issues surpasses the domain of an individual sovereignty and falls into the reign of the global regime, in that the latter would involve a universal and extensive submission of all sovereignties to an international decision-making system which is operated based on the collection and review of globe-wide information, opinions, experiences, and variations. Under the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), various multilateral institutions and mechanisms have been created to lead the courses of actions at the global, regional, national, and local levels through initiating processes of international consultation, analysis, assessment, and review; insisting on transparency regarding actions taken and progress made within individual countries; studying on the positive and negative impacts of the implementation of response measures; assisting the least developed countries that face challenges in devising national adaptations; providing knowledge-to-action services for adaptation and resilience; identifying policy options, practices, and technologies and producing recommendations for ways to move forward with mitigation; etc. Having regards to the far-reaching and unparalleled competency of the global regime to address the climate crisis, I would urge that the international leadership on climate issues should (and can) be possessed and exercised by the global regime only, to which all individual sovereignties should be ready to submit themselves further with an aim of fighting the climate challenges successfully by virtue of globally concerted actions in the true sense.