The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden has a big climate win at home. Global success still depends on China.

The White House plans to push partners and reboot talks with Beijing as it mulls replacing a Trump appointee at the World Bank, David Malpass

John F. Kerry, U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, speaks during a media roundtable in Hanoi on Sept. 5. Kerry is “hopeful” that climate talks with China will resume after discussions stalled following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. (Linh Pham/Bloomberg)

President Biden is entering a crucial season of global climate talks boosted by the legislative victory of the Inflation Reduction Act, betting he can undercut China’s arguments that the United States is a less reliable negotiating partner because its policies depend on who is in power in Washington.

The new push comes as a freeze in climate talks between China and the United States, tensions over who should pay for the damage caused by global warming and an energy crisis and war in Europe have weighed on the prospects for the gathering in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. On Friday, Europe’s top climate negotiator said that his fears were diminishing that a United Nations climate conference in Egypt in November would be a “train crash,” given passage of the new climate law and recent moves by other global negotiators.

The plan for talks between the United States and China, unveiled with fanfare during the Glasgow climate summit last year, aimed to tackle a broad range of planet-warming emissions. But the negotiations between Washington and Beijing — the world’s most important climate dialogue — have been frozen since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) infuriated Chinese officials by visiting Taiwan last month.

“There’s zero, there’s no communication. They suspended it. I think it’s a tragic loss. It’s just a sad turn of events,” Biden’s special climate envoy, former secretary of state John F. Kerry, said in an interview. “It’s really a major lost opportunity globally for us to get together.”

Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, surprised climate negotiators last year in Glasgow when they pledged to work together — a commitment both nations framed as a breakthrough. Kerry said the talks were making progress before Beijing suspended them to protest Pelosi’s visit.

The administration is also considering trying to replace the leader of the World Bank, a Trump administration appointee, in a bid to have the international finance institution focus more on climate change. Senior Biden aides have discussed pushing for the ouster of David Malpass, the World Bank president, for more than a year.

Those conversations were reignited this week after Malpass sparked an international uproar by refusing to say at a panel sponsored by the New York Times that climate change was caused by human behavior, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal White House discussions. Raj Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, is widely seen as a likely candidate for the post, these individuals said, as is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who leads the World Trade Organization.

Axios first reported Friday that the White House is considering ousting Malpass.

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White House officials are also weighing whether Biden can attend the U.N. climate conference, known as COP27, to signal his commitment to global efforts to reduce emissions. The two weeks of talks begin on Nov. 6, two days before the U.S. midterm elections, and Biden will attend a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia on Nov. 15 and 16.

I know that it’s very high on the agenda in the White House in terms of their hopes,” Kerry said. “I know he wants to go, and I think it would be helpful if he does go. It’s always helpful to have the president of the United States helping you do your job.”

Biden’s trip could also serve as a fix-it mission to restore Sino-American climate negotiations, which have fallen apart.

The United States and China had spent months working to develop working groups before the negotiations halted, Kerry said, adding that the two sides were discussing Chinese efforts to reduce methane emissions and coal burning, as well as to improve the enforcement of existing Chinese anti-deforestation legislation.

“We had a group of people who were really expert and ready to roll,” Kerry said. He said he had already met with Chinese counterparts this year in Davos, Berlin and Stockholm, and that they had planned to meet for “several days” ahead of the U.N. conference to try to come up with concrete pledges.

All that now appears off the table, Kerry said.

“It’s literally hanging there in limbo. They did suspend it, they didn’t terminate it, but there’s no sign that that suspension will lift,” he said. He said he would not speculate about whether the change reflected a broader, go-it-alone shift in China’s climate strategy or something more short term and less fundamental.

But Europe’s top climate negotiator, Frans Timmermans, said that the nearly $370 billion in U.S. climate investments from the new law would give a push to China even in the absence of a direct dialogue with Washington.

“The fact that the U.S. is now also walking the walk and not just talking the talk has a huge impact on many,” Timmermans said in an interview.

“Whenever we talk to the Chinese it’s the same: ‘Yes, okay, we know we need to do more, but whatever we announce we actually do. [Americans] say the right things but they haven’t really done anything’” Timmermans said. “They can’t do that anymore, and I think that’s probably the most important political element right now.”

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He said that heading into a visit this week to New York and Washington, “my ambition level was what can we do to avoid a train crash in Sharm el-Sheikh.” Now, he said, he was more confident that some of the heaviest global emitters will increase their ambitions rather than stepping back from commitments they made a year ago.

Other top international energy and climate officials said that China’s actions to address its emissions, which the Rhodium Group estimates accounts for more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon output, will play a decisive role in global efforts to fight climate change.

“In the absence of having cooperation with China on the climate change front, we have no chance whatsoever to reach our climate change goals,” said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, in an interview. “I understand there are major political hurdles, but I am still for having, on the climate, an open channel in terms of cooperation between the two largest economies, China and the United States.”

Birol said that Kerry’s personal relationship with China’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, might be crucial in reviving the conversation.

“The personal mutual trust may help to get this though,” Birol said.

For all the international goodwill created by the climate legislation, policymakers still face daunting challenges as they enter the final phase of their discussions ahead of the meeting in Egypt. More than 1,500 people died in floods that Pakistan’s leaders called “apocalyptic.” Europe had the hottest summer in recorded history. Wildfires have covered most of the Lower 48 states with an “expansive area of light smoke,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked an energy crisis in Europe that is forcing many countries there to burn more fossil fuels in the short run to avoid freezing their citizens this winter. Paradoxically, that means Europe is buying oil and gas from the same developing nations they have been urging to reduce their own emissions.

Catherine McKenna, a former Canadian environment minister, told a panel at Columbia University this week that liquefied natural gas and crude oil was going from nations such as Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt to Europe.

“Energy developed in Africa is being diverted to prevent energy poverty in Europe,” she said.

For some Biden administration officials, the fight against climate change is personal.

“I was born the first time we hit 350 parts per million,” said Ali Zaidi, Biden’s national climate adviser, who was born in Karachi. Before his parents moved to the United States, his mother had worked as a doctor in a public hospital that was overloaded in normal periods, Zaidi said. One of his cousins trained at Johns Hopkins University for work in public health in Pakistan.

“Karachi is relatively unperturbed. But areas outside are in dire, dire straits. It’s staggering,” he said. “People hear one third, but people don’t realize that’s tens of millions of people.”

Zaidi said “For me, code red for humanity — it’s here.”

This year’s U.N. climate talks come at a moment of transition within the administration. Zaidi just replaced Biden’s first climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, who stepped down last week. John D. Podesta, a veteran Democratic policymaker, became a senior adviser to oversee how to distribute the new law’s climate funding.

“I intend to work with the teams here at the White House and the cabinet and their people to ensure that the promises that are contained in this bill to create that cycle of innovation actually occurs,” Podesta said in an interview.

White House officials acknowledge that Kerry has been dogged by persistent rumors he plans to resign after the talks in Egypt — raising additional questions about the future of the relationship with China. In an interview, he said he had not yet made plans.

“I’m full speed ahead,” Kerry said. “Honestly, I’ve not made any decisions on where things are going, where I’m going.”

Kerry said that he thought the Inflation Reduction Act would help create a market for renewable and carbon-free technology that was so favorable that big investments in fossil fuels simply would not make much economic sense in the future.

“Politicians aren’t going to turn that around, post this Inflation Reduction Act, which is going to unleash an amazing amount of energy in this transition,” he said.

Jeff Stein in Washington and Allyson Chiu in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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