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GLASGOW, Scotland — President Biden apologized to the world in a Monday speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference for his predecessor's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.
“I guess I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact the United States, the last administration, pulled out of the Paris accords and put us sort of behind the eight ball a little bit,” Biden said.
The world, the president asserted, had entered a "decisive decade" that will determine how extensive the damage from rising global temperatures will be.
"It's simple," Biden said, "Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us, or will we condemn future generations to suffering?"
Biden, who has made limiting global warming a central focus of his administration, noted that "climate change is already ravaging the world. It's not hypothetical," while alluding to the billions of dollars in damages that extreme weather events and extensive wildfires have cost the U.S. this year alone.
"In the past few months the United States has experienced all of this, and every region of the world can tell a similar story," he said.
Biden spoke with other world leaders at a convention hall in downtown Glasgow where roughly 20,000 delegates — a mix of scientists, activists, governmental employees, heads of state and members of the media — waited in line for hours to pass through security checkpoints.
A goal of the president's speech was to restore the U.S. as a leader on climate change. His address was a marked contrast to the near-total silence from former President Donald Trump on the subject of climate change, and he portrayed the daunting transition away from a fossil fuel economy as an opportunity for America and the world.
"We are standing at an inflection point in world history. We have the ability to invest in ourselves and build an equitable clean energy future," Biden said.
The White House laid the groundwork for Biden's address to have added impact with the release on Monday morning of two frameworks for future American climate action: "President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience" (PREPARE) and "The Long-Term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050."
PREPARE is a guide to how the Biden administration hopes to deploy $3 billion per year in aid to developing nations to help them prepare for and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, heat waves and more frequent and severe hurricanes. Providing that funding is a key inducement to get developing nations such as India and Indonesia to commit at the conference (also known as COP26) to more ambitious actions to limit their future greenhouse gas emissions and address problems such as deforestation.
The Long-Term Strategy is a 60-page overview of how the U.S. could conceivably meet its goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Convincing other nations that America is actually going to fulfill its promised emissions cuts is another crucial element of extracting more ambitious pledges from other large emitters, especially rivals like China. The U.S. is the world's largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases.
The only problem with the Biden administration's approach is that other countries are aware that the U.S. has two political parties and one of them won't necessarily pursue the Democrats' chosen path. The Long-Term Strategy is full of charts showing emissions plummeting, but also full of aspirational sentences such as this: "Investment in clean energy generation must continue through mid-century as overall electricity generation increases to meet demand growth from other sectors."
For any U.S. policy to continue through midcentury, it would have to survive through likely periods of Republican rule. The modest pledge of $3 billion in climate aid also depends on congressional approval, which could be affected by the 2022 midterm elections, in which the Republicans have a strong possibility of taking over at least one of the two chambers of Congress.
The Biden administration is trying to show the world that the U.S. is doing everything it can to limit climate change right now. On Monday afternoon, Vice President Kamala Harris and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm were scheduled to travel to New York City to roll out a $127 million investment in transitioning to clean trucks. Every little bit helps to reduce emissions, but it is another matter whether China and India will be convinced to make significant policy changes on the basis of such limited and potentially temporary programs.
Shortly before Biden spoke, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry and White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy spoke at the opening of the U.S. Center, the American pavilion in the conference hall. All three stressed that the Biden administration is working in lockstep to make good on the president's pledge to make the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2050 and to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Yet Kerry also sounded a note of caution about what the U.S. government would be able to do on its own.
“No government in the world has enough money to fuel this transition" to a clean energy economy, Kerry said while appealing to the private sector to do its part.
Outside the convention venue, Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg arrived at a protest aboard a ship owned by the environmental organization Greenpeace to make her case that that the world’s leaders had failed younger generations.
“'Betrayal.' That's how young people around the world are describing our governments' failure to cut carbon emissions. And it's no surprise," Thunberg and other youth climate activists said in a petition meant to pressure world leaders to action.
In his words at COP26, Biden sounded sympathetic to Thunberg's concerns. Speaking of the lack of leadership on climate change that defined the previous administration, he said, "I know it hasn't been the case, and that's why my administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words."
Pledging to "do more to help countries around the world, especially developing countries," transition to economies that use renewable energy, Biden said the U.S. has "an obligation to help" and vowed to quadruple climate financing in the coming years. Yet he also admitted that the world's wealthiest nations have yet to make good on past pledges to help the poorer ones make the transition to renewables.
"Right now we're still falling short. There's no more time to hang back or sit on the fence or argue amongst ourselves," Biden said.
"This is the challenge of our collective lifetimes, the existential threat to human existence as we know it," he added. "And every day we delay, the cost of inaction increases. So let this be the moment that we answer history's call in Glasgow."
Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades, step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.
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