Among Joe Biden’s first decisions after assuming office as the 46th President of the US was to recommit his country to the Paris Climate Change Pact and affirm Washington’s ties with the World Health Organisation (WHO). His predecessor, Donald Trump, had withdrawn the US from the landmark pact, calling it a “disaster” for America. And, amidst the raging COVID pandemic, he had halted US funding to the global health organisation, accusing it of being “under the total control of China”. In a welcome departure from his predecessor’s “America First” approach, Biden said on his inauguration that on “climate and a range of other issues, the US will engage with the world once again”.
The US’s withdrawal from the WHO, scheduled to take effect in July, would have drastically affected the finances of the global health body — nearly 16 per cent of its budget is financed by Washington. Likewise, the secession of the world’s second-largest GHG emitter would have jeopardised the Paris Pact’s objective to keep temperature rise in this century under 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Biden has not yet revealed the details of his administration’s climate ambitions, but if his campaign is any indication, America is likely to recommit itself to the voluntary emission reduction targets that constitute the Paris Pact’s bedrock. His $2 trillion clean-energy proposal envisages an emissions-free electric grid by 2035 and aims to make the US a net zero carbon economy by 2050. After his election, Biden renewed this pledge and assured that his plan to “Build Back Greener” will have special focus on communities of colour, “who have suffered disproportionately from fossil fuel pollution”.
The new President’s decisions on health and environment are first steps towards plugging the rift between the top global power and the rest of the world. They are also a recognition that national silos are ill-equipped to deal with almost all the crises confronting the planet today, whether they be melting glaciers, warming temperatures or notoriously infectious pathogens. Even as several global leaders, including the former US president, pandered to insular tendencies, the pandemic underlined that there is no escape from the global village. Borders did have to be sealed as an emergency response to the virus. Shortages in vital medical provisions, drugs, personal protection equipment and ventilators — now vaccines — however, meant that no country could deal with the crisis on its own. At the same, the questions raised of globalisation — including those by Trumpism and its variants — cannot be put off by the change in the White House. It’s too early to say if Biden’s presidency augurs a course correction. But the emphasis on “humility” in the early statements of his newly appointed climate diplomat, former secretary of state John Kerry, does send positive signals — as do the President’s initial decisions on climate and health.