Even as the California wildfires have charred more than 5 million acres, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and sending smoke as far as New York City, U.S. President Donald Trump has continued to dismiss scientific evidence of climate change, bizarrely claiming “it’ll start getting cooler.” Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has taken up the mantle of scientific reason. Only a day after calling Trump a “climate arsonist,” Biden received Scientific American’s first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history.
Trump’s denial and inaction have stripped the United States of its former role as an international leader on climate change. For Todd Stern, who served as climate change envoy under President Barack Obama and helped negotiate the landmark 2015 Paris climate accords, the only chance of reversing this trend is a Biden victory in November, since Trump’s “every move” is “in the wrong direction.”
Stern, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, spoke to Foreign Policy about Trump’s confusion, COVID-19’s impact on the climate crisis, and the ultimate stakes of a Biden presidency versus a second Trump term.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: Wildfires continue to ravage the West Coast of the United States. When Trump finally addressed the fires on Monday, he once more dismissed climate science. What did you think when you saw the president promise global cooling soon?
Todd Stern: You’re not going to get any satisfaction on climate change from President Trump. Nothing’s going to happen in a constructive way if he wins in November, because there’s no reason whatsoever to think that he will change or has any capacity or desire to change. So there was nothing about what he said in connection with the California fires that I found the least bit surprising, because this has been a constant with him from the very beginning.
FP: You led talks for the Paris accords in 2015. What do Trump’s remarks say about how different the country is now?
TS: I don’t think the United States is so different—the administration is certainly different, because it’s a complete about-face. But there is still very broad support [for climate action] in the United States. There’s a belief in climate change, a belief in the need for action, and support for the Paris agreement. This is not so much a matter of the broad United States as it is a matter of the Trump administration.
FP: Biden has repeatedly said tackling the climate crisis would be a top priority. And this week, Scientific American endorsed him for president. When it comes to addressing climate change, what are the stakes in November?
TS: The stakes couldn’t be any higher. The way to think about this is to start with the recognition of what the temperature goals are, and what the emission goals need to be, and then what that means in terms of policy. The Paris goals were to hold the rise in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees centigrade, with essentially best efforts to hold to a 1.5-degree rise.
You also just have to look around you. We see the apocalyptic fires on the West Coast, and Australia was on fire for a long time. There have been huge disruptive events, whether extreme storms, floods, droughts, extreme heat, and the like. And that’s what we’re seeing with temperature having gone up 1 degree. So the notion that we should try to do everything humanly possible to hold to 1.5 makes complete sense, and nobody ought to read that as, “Oh, there go the environmentalists exaggerating.” It’s just what we’re living right now.
That then translates into something like a net zero carbon world by 2050. And to do that is going to require tremendous mobilization, a transformation to a clean energy economy, at speed and scale. And so when Biden talks about wanting to invest $2 trillion in the first four years for climate, about trying to get to a carbon-free electricity system by 2035, about net zero by 2050—all of those things make it clear that, at this point, he is thinking at the scale of what needs to be done and acted on, in a way that is very encouraging.
Trump is not going to change his spots. He has done everything possible to undo not just the Paris climate agreement, but virtually every [climate] policy that was put in place by the Obama administration. He has done everything he can to increase and support the further use of fossil fuels.
Every move Trump makes is in the wrong direction. What Biden clearly wants to do is going to require partly executive action, partly legislation. And all of that’s going to be challenging, but Biden is on the program and can help lead other countries as well. The first step for the United States, internationally, will be to demonstrate that the United States is back on the program, back in Paris, and committed to the right things, because for the last four years, the world has seen the United States walk away.
FP: Earlier this year, you suggested that in order to fight the climate crisis, the United States would have to show an “unhesitating commitment to leadership abroad.” In practical terms, what would that look like?
TS: Well, I think there are a number of things. To begin with, the United States absolutely has to come back. I think the world is hungry to see U.S. leadership, but the world has also been burned by the United States. So we’re going to need to show that we’re walking the walk at home, right away, right out of the box.
I’m sure that a President Biden would make clear from day one his intention to rejoin the Paris agreement. We will also need to work with allies and other major players to transform the economy consistent with a net zero emissions world by 2050.
We’re also going to need to work with other countries, international financial institutions, and the private sector on ways to stimulate a much larger flow of capital to developing countries. It’s not going to come simply out of government coffers, because there’s not enough there. But by using government policy and government money, we’re going to need to leverage large flows of capital to help developing countries develop in a way that is climate-friendly and that involves both developing low-carbon economies and building the kind of resilience that they need to deal with the impacts of climate change, which are all around us now and will get worse.
FP: How can the United States square its status as an energy powerhouse with the need to lead on climate? What does the United States need to do domestically to show leadership abroad?
TS: We will need to take large-scale action across the different sectors of our economy to reduce emissions. Whether what we do is called a “Green New Deal,” or it’s called something else, it’s got to be a set of policies and actions that bring about fundamental change in power, transport, industry, buildings.
The economic impact of this kind of move would be enormously positive. People think, “Oh, it’s going to cost so much. Oh, it’s going to be so hard.” On any kind of net basis, we will greatly improve the economy if we act aggressively. It’s absolutely going to cost money, but it’s going to cost less money than not acting.
FP: While many countries and multilateral organizations are putting green initiatives at the heart of coronavirus recovery packages, others are prioritizing economic recovery. What kind of impact will COVID-19 have on the climate battle? Is there a silver lining to COVID?
TS: I would never say that. We’re getting close to 200,000 people killed in this country. [NB: The U.S. death toll has now surpassed 200,000.] Our response has been disastrously bad because of the lack of leadership. But the focus on a green recovery is absolutely crucial here, in Europe, China, India—all over the world. The economic impact of COVID has been dramatic in the United States, and the need for not just a kind of short-term rescue plan but a true recovery plan is very real. And it’s imperative for it to be green, and it’s imperative for that to be true around the world.
COVID has taught us three lessons that are relevant to climate change: that science and facts matter, that preparation matters, and that countries can do the most extraordinary things very rapidly, if they actually believe that they have to do it. Who would have ever thought that you could shut down entire countries overnight? This [climate change] transformation that we keep talking about—net zero in 2050—sounds really hard. Sure, it’s hard, but it’s doable. The only thing that needs to change is the mindset of leaders and citizens.
FP: You mentioned China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter. With the United States and China decoupling fast, will that cripple climate cooperation?
TS: The overall bilateral relationship with China has obviously been deteriorating. There’s a lot of appropriate concern in this country about China’s conduct in a wide range of areas, whether it’s Hong Kong, the South China Sea, treatment of Uighur minorities, or any number of other things. It is also true that there is absolutely no way that the world can meet its climate goals without the United States and China both acting aggressively on climate change, and it would be extremely useful for them to revive some version of the climate cooperation that was built up during the Obama years.
That won’t be easy, both because of the backdrop of the broader relationship and because it will only be possible if both countries understand the scale and speed of change that’s necessary. We’re not simply going to go back to where we were before, given where the two countries are at now. But it’s going to be very important to be able to find a modus vivendi, where there are areas of disagreement and competition, but also areas where we can collaborate. Global problems are an area where we should be trying to collaborate, and climate change is certainly one of those.
What is clear is that the world can’t get where we need to without China. China is responsible for 27 percent of global emissions. So you can’t get there without them.