In hosting this virtual summit, Biden will be trying to bring 40 world leaders together for a new agreement without the ability to step into an ante chamber for a little one on one time, and with limited ability to suggest the sort of side deals that might prop up support. And there’s a far bigger obstacle to overcome than just getting past the details of what each national leader may be willing to surrender in order to contribute. That obstacle is this: After four years of Donald Trump, why should anyone, anywhere, believe the United States when they promise to do anything?
As the summit kicked off on Thursday morning, Biden opened on a note that was both hopeful and forceful. “The signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable and the cost of inaction keeps mounting,” said the president. Biden also promised that it would be the nations that move now to make commitments against climate change and move their economies toward clean energy, who will be the ones to “reap the clean energy benefits of the boom that’s coming.”
But convincing the world that the U.S. is serious remains a challenge. Trump didn’t just walk away from the Paris agreement, he did everything within his power to spurn U.S. attempts to reduce emissions, spread lies about both the nature and details of the agreement, and salt the earth behind him.
That was far from the only example of Trump’s disdain for international agreements. Not only did he spread disdain on the U.N. and NATO, Trump ended the six-member Iran Nuclear Agreement in the most direct way possible—he simply broke the treaty. Trump turned away from the deal in defiance of a signed agreement, and deliberately thwarted efforts by the remaining treaty members when they attempted to uphold the agreement in the absence of U.S. involvement.
In a post-Trump era, the world will have to be convinced that the United States can make an agreement that is more than lip service. Biden will have to sell that idea to a world that not only just saw how a change in U.S. leadership could result in shredding of existing commitments, but also with the ongoing evidence that Republicans in the House and Senate stand ready to block any agreement serious enough to address the world’s need.
There are some reasons to be hopeful. As the Associated Press reports, the European Union has reached a tentative deal in advance of the Biden summit that puts that entire 27-nation union on the way to being climate neutral by 2050. That agreement includes not just soft commitments, but binding agreements on carbon emissions. This new agreement is likely to put the E.U. nations—well represented at Biden’s summit—on the side of pushing for harder commitments among all members.
As The Guardian reports, first attempts at diplomacy between Biden’s team and China ended last month with some bitter disagreements and no real progress. However, Xi promised an “important” speech and there are signs China could bring something massive to the table. After years of being heavily dependent on coal. The South China Morning Post reports that Chinese leaders are phasing out building new coal plants with an aim at seeing “peak emissions” in 2030 and reducing China’s carbon footprint from that point forward. In his first appearance at the summit on Thursday morning, Xi promised “massive” changes and “extraordinary efforts” with a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also spoke, promising that his nation will install 450 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity before 2030. Modi pointed out that, on a per capita basis, India is far behind the emissions of the U.S., Europe, or China, and he pledged that it would remain that way. But in general, this appeared to be a rather modest talk, promising the same level of commitment and the exact same numbers of clean energy, as in the last round of talks.
As for Putin … that’s another story. Russia has been building up troops both inside and near Ukraine. This week it conducted its largest military maneuvers in two decades in the occupied region of Crimea and on the Black Sea. This week, Russia continued signaling its preparations for war as it captured Ukrainian fishing vessels gathered heavy weapons within miles of the border. The buildup of forces is now larger than previous to the invasion of Crimea.
This comes as Biden has called out Putin for interference in the last two U.S. election cycles, sanctioned Russia for the treatment of now desperately ill dissident leader Alexei Navalny, and is considering action against a new gas pipeline that would give Russia a more dominate position in the European energy market. In short, relations between the U.S. and Russia are bad, are likely to become worse, and there’s no reason to think that Putin will use his time to do anything except undercut the United States, demean Biden, and laugh at the inconsistencies of American policy.
The summit is ongoing, with live coverage from several sources. Updates will appear to note significant developments.