by Joel Battle (he/him)
This post considers the question of leadership in international climate policy. It challenges the assumption that powerful nations like the US and China should automatically be assigned the title of “leader” in climate policy. This post’s goal is to demonstrate COP26 has the potential to reveal and shape the future in climate change policy as nations compete and negotiate to see who will lead the fight against climate change.
Introduction: Head of the Table
Imagine international climate policy negotiations as a dinner party. Usually negotiating tables are round; their circular shape implies a world devoid of hierarchy and maybe even encourages conversation. But instead of a round table, imagine a large rectangular table. It has plenty of seats on each of its two long edges, but only one at the head – and for the sake of this metaphor, the UN Secretary-General sits at the base of the table. Who sits at the head? In other words, who leads international climate affairs?
You could say the United States, of course, sits at the head of the table. The US has been a powerful force in climate change politics for the last thirty years. Though its past action on international policy has been somewhat recalcitrant, the "Green Vortex" of US technical, business, and policy innovation has propelled its success in decarbonization. The US has also been present for international climate policy’s greatest failures like Copenhagen in 2009 and its more recent successes such as Paris in 2015. Conversely, what about China? China is a powerful economic force and often a rival of the US for positions of power. The Chinese government worked with the United Sates to announce emissions reductions and has become a leader in climate policy. Does China’s economic might and political participation mean it leads climate policy?
This post will explore the assumptions of climate policy leadership. I will start by evaluating US action on climate change, then Chinese action, and will finally turn to other influential actors. This post aims to preface the struggle for leadership at COP26, and what each potential policy leader desires from the negotiations.
The United States: Unipolar Leader
First, is the United States a possible candidate for a leader in climate change policy? When the first major climate summit was held in 1992 in Rio, Brazil, the United States was not a strong force of leadership. More recently however, the US has taken a more active role in pushing international climate policy. The US presence in the 2009 Copenhagen Conference to the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State provided a strong impression of American leadership.[i] Kerry now serves as the Presidential envoy for climate for the Biden Administration. Does this then signify the US will take charge of COP26 in November? There are a few issues with this “default” view.
First, the assumption of American hegemony in climate policy. This conception follows the transitive logic that since the United States is an international superpower and has recently commanded substantial influence in global arenas since the end of the Cold War, that the US is the de facto leader of climate policy. This sentiment is reflected in Holland and Rossetti’s report for the American Security Project.[ii] However, this assumption suffers from the Trump Administration’s lack of climate leadership. In an interview for The New Yorker, John Kerry stated: “The damage that President Trump wreaked worldwide is not limited to climate. But on climate he did a whopper of a job putting America’s credibility in a terrible place, destroying it fundamentally.” America’s power means little if it refuses to engage with international policymaking. Second, this view assumes the US has been an importance force for good in climate policy. The US failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 resulted in the treaty’s lack of impact.[iii] Moreover, in 2007 at the Bali conference the US resisted the inclusion of specific emissions targets required of developed nations. The US also repeatedly requested softening the language regarding the threat of climate change.[iv] Therefore the US has been both ineffectual and influential, an obstacle towards and a proponent for climate policy. This complicates their bid to lead future policy efforts
The rebuttal to this view, is that the US does not have to be pro-climate policy to lead. However, since the goal of the Biden Administration is to act on climate change, it seems appropriate to judge US action on the positive side of the scale. Kerry in regards to COP26 states the “best outcome” would be “the twenty major economies are all in agreement that they’re going to make the best cuts they can, according to the science, between 2020 and 2030.” Therefore, the US requires the help of other powerful nations to make meaningful inroads, complicating what constitutes a leader in climate policy. One of these nations required to forge an agreement is China.
China: Rising Power in Climate Policy
China appears to be a promising answer to the question of climate leadership. Do growing economies like China occupy a powerful enough bargaining position to challenge historical US global leadership?
China, like the US, has a historical aversion to climate change agreements. Responsibility for global emissions output is often a sticking point in negotiations – particularly between the developed and underdeveloped world.[v] This is tricky when China is currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but historically Western nations like the US and the United Kingdom have significantly contributed to emissions.[vi] China was originally predicted to surpass US emissions by 2030, but in 2007 after a previous forecast update, China was expected to eclipse US emissions that year.[vii] US diplomats like Kerry call this a contradiction: where China uses a great deal of both renewable and fossil fuel energy sources, but justifies their emissions by stating they are still developing. While these contradictions and a large emissions output does not discount China’s potential for leadership, economic prowess is not enough.
While China may be a “rising power”, it is still unclear exactly what this means. On the one hand, China is participating more in regional and international efforts to fight climate change. For instance, China’s agreement to the elimination of hydrochlorofluorocarbons in 2007 and its participation in providing emissions reductions to the Bali action plan suggests promising involvement. Wiener in his article calls this a realist move: China works with other nations to boost its place of importance and secure its self-interest.[viii] If this much is true, combined with China’s economic power, this puts them in similar contention for leadership with the US. However, China lacks a defined place in the international hierarchy. While China has gained a regional presence in Asia, international relations writers struggle to define the reasoning for and exact nature of its rise. For example, if China is a rising power, why are other Southeast Asian states not supporting its challenge to US power?[ix] More interestingly, Goh in her article elucidates there has not been enough time to determine how socialization is functioning in Southeast Asia and which states are producing norms which are accepted by other states.[x] Therefore, since China is not definitively a regional leader in neither power nor normative influence, it is challenging to assert it functions as an outright leader in international climate policy.
Since neither the US nor China is a satisfying answer to the question of climate leadership, maybe the question needs to change. If there is no outright leader, who are the important competing players not already considered?
Rising economic powers such as the BRICS or BASIC countries (which can include Brazil, India, Russia, China, South Africa) have an important role to play in international climate action. China, India, Russia, and Brazil have a combined population of 3 billion people making their actions representative of a global response. Future climate agreements will need support from such nations to be effective. Moreover, the BRICS nations in the past proposed their own development bank to express their displeasure with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). These challenges to the traditional Western balance of power raise questions of how one should judge leadership on climate. Is climate change going to be confronted by Western, traditionally political powerful states, or new non-Western rising economic powers? As climate change is a multi-faceted issue it is prudent to weigh these economic and political factors equally.
Conclusions: What can we expect at COP26
The central message of this post is the uncertainty and variability in climate negotiations. Viewing the United States as the single principal player, while not unfounded, is misleading. The United States has a patchy history with supporting climate change agreements even if it has recently developed a more positive position. The oscillation of support between Republican and Democrat administrations makes the US a potent but unreliable ally in supporting agreements. China on the other hand is a powerful economic force, but the demarcations of its power are unclear. China’s support is essential to effectively combat climate change but how much influence China commands over other nations to follow its lead is unclear. Therefore, no single nation sits at the head of the table, which is a big problem for COP26.
To achieve the positive outcome John Kerry suggested, someone must fill this policy vacuum. Following past policy failures, without strong leadership there is little hope for decisive action in Glasgow. Nations like the US, China, and the UK, as the host of COP26, have a challenging task set ahead for them as they attempt to convince underdeveloped nations to de-carbonize their economies. The question for COP will be, how much will that take to happen, and which nations will pay for it? It will be the negotiators’ jobs to decide, and by extension, determine who will take their place at the head of the table.
[i] Andrew Holland and Philip Rossetti, Climate Diplomacy: A Strategy for American Leadership, American Security Project (2015), 3.
[ii] Holland and Rossetti, Climate Diplomacy, 2.
[iii] Ibid, 3.
[iv] “U.S. Positions in International Climate Change Negotiations”, The American Journal of International Law 102, no. 1 (January 2008): 164-168 (165).
[v] Holland and Rossetti, Climate Diplomacy, 3.
[vi] Ibid, 3.
[vii] Jonathan B. Wiener, “Climate Change Policy and Policy Change in China”, UCLA Law Review (2008): 1805-1826 (1808).
[viii] Wiener, “Climate Change Policy and Policy Change in China”, 1822-1823.
[ix] Evelyn Goh, “Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia: Analyzing Regional Security Strategies”, International Security 32, no. 3 (Winter 2007/2008): 113-157 (115).
[x] Goh, “Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia”, 117.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference. It is scheduled to be held in the city of Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021 under the presidency of the United Kingdom.