Vice President Joe Biden gives remarks at the U.S. - China Climate Leaders Summit, held at the JW Marriott hotel, in Los Angeles, California, Sept. 16, 2015. Also in attendance is Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

How the Biden-Harris Administration Can Seize this Moment in Climate Diplomacy

2021 will be a consequential year for climate action.

Several key moments in international climate diplomacy culminates in November in a major United Nations Climate Change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. That conference was supposed to happen in 2020 to mark the five year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, but was postponed due to COVID.

The reason this particular climate change conference is so consequential is because it is to be the venue in which governments around the world present new national climate action plans.  These new climate action plans, called Nationally Determined Contributions, are stipulated under the Paris Agreement as each country’s contribution to the collective effort to curb climate change. In 2021, these plans are supposed to be more ambitious than the initial climate action plans released as part of the initial Paris Agreement in 2015.  If the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming levels well below 2 degrees celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, governments are going to have to ramp up policies to take on climate change.

My guest today, Rachel Kyte is the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a longtime climate diplomacy insider. We kick off discussing how the Paris Agreement fared during the Trump years before having a longer conversation about opportunities for multi-lateral engagement to which the the new US administration may avail itself in the coming months.

This is a great conversation that does a good job explaining some of the complex geo-politics around climate change that the new US administration must skillfully navigate in order to make good on its promise to treat climate change like the priority it is.

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Today’s episode is produced in partnership with the Better World Campaign as part of a series  examining the opportunities for strengthening multilateral engagement by the new Biden-Harris administration and the incoming 117th Congress. To learn more and access additional episodes in this series, please visit


How Did the Paris Agreement Fare During the Trump Years?

Rachel Kyte [00:03:07] I think it’s interesting, looking back over those four years, that the Paris Agreement was battered and bruised. But it wasn’t finished off. And that is, I think obviously, in large part because, there were clauses put into the agreement that meant that countries couldn’t just walk out the door. The signal from the Rose Garden in June 2017, that the U.S. would withdraw, was immediately communicated to the UN, but the process had to last for three -three and a half- four years, and that was put there specifically to insulate the Paris Agreement against the vagaries of the U.S. political system. I think secondly, the actual content of the Paris Agreement, the ratcheting up of ambition, the mainstreaming of climate as an imperative of how we manage our economies- the federal government signaled that it would leave and everybody else stepped up to the plate. And so America’s pledged this remarkable organization of cities and towns and businesses and governors and mayors really has continued to spur the U.S., or keep the U.S. moving in the direction of lower emissions.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:36] I remember around 2018, I had the chance to speak with the mayor of Atlanta at the time, Kasim Reed, and I asked him if the decision by the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris Agreement gave him more political impetus to want to invest in climate and sustainable solutions in a city and he said that his constituents had urged him, as a reaction to Trump’s pull-out, to want to invest more in climate. So it seemed to have had that kind of equal and opposite reaction, at least domestically in some cases.

Rachel Kyte [00:05:07] Yeah, absolutely. So it was a perversity almost from Trump’s withdrawal. Of course, you need the federal government to be engaged because there are things that the federal government needs to do which are sending signals to the private sector- sending signals to local governments. And as we now see with the Biden administration’s early signaling around how it’s going to approach this, bringing a total government approach to the table, the role of federal government is removing regulatory barriers from things happening more quickly, sending signals to every department of government that they should be engaging in this. And so hopefully having a much greater impact on the speed and scale of the transition that all economies have got to go under.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:58] Internationally, at least to me, it seemed that Trump’s decision to seek the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, in a way, also demonstrated the durability of it, internationally. I mean, we didn’t see that cascade of countries following his lead, which I think was a concern at the time and that just  didn’t happen.

Rachel Kyte [00:06:21] There was no mass exodus. I think there was a real fear at the time that there would be. I think that what did happen, is it inevitably slowed things down. It’s as if every bad actor out there on the issue of climate change, could hide behind the petticoats of the Trump administration. So even though they didn’t withdraw, they had plausible deniability in terms of their assertiveness and their need for ambition. And, of course, you saw the U.S. act as a thorn in the side of the climate dialog in every other space. So not just the Paris Agreement, but then at the G20, at the G7, at the WTO, at the General Assembly, at the Security Council, the U.S. was either just not present or was actually actively voicing its views against climate change. And so that space that it gave for the Saudi Arabias, the Australians, the Brazils under Balsanaro, even the Mexicos under AMLO and then, obviously Russia under Putin. You know, that was a drag. And obviously now with a new administration, in all of those early phone calls that President Biden made in the first few days in office, climate was there as one of the top one, two, or three things that he was talking to every leader about.

Multilateral Climate Diplomacy Change and the Glasgow Summit

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:42] So how do you suspect that multilateral diplomacy around climate may change in the coming years and actually even months as we lead up to the Glasgow Summit in 2021? What do you expect to see from the Biden administration? What are you already seeing and what sort of impact will that have on what goes down in Glasgow in 2021?

Rachel Kyte [00:08:08] So it’s going to be a packed year. As I speak to you now, there are going to be seven heads of state summits at least this year on different issues of the global economy and nature and climate. And running through all of that is climate. So a very, very busy year. The U.S. Administration has come in. Day one, we’re back into Paris. One week, two weeks into the administration, they come out with an executive order that says that this is a total government approach and gives strict marching orders to everybody from the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Treasury, to the EPA. I mean, there’s no misunderstanding about the strategic importance of climate to the domestic agenda and the international agenda.

[00:08:54] Big things to look for -April 22nd, Earth Day in the United States- 51 years of Earth Day. The U.S. administration has said that it will bring forward its next-generation climate plan. This will have in it an emissions reduction target for 2030. So this is the ratcheting up that we put in place in the Paris agreement. And now we start to see the jockeying for what is that emissions reduction. I think it’s clear that it should be above 50 percent if it’s truly going to be putting the U.S. on track for the net-zero mid-century goal for a world with warming limited to well below 2 degrees -1.5 degrees. But exactly what that looks like, we don’t know. Gina McCarthy is the domestic climate czar. It’ll be her job to pull it together and make sure it makes sense and John Kerry’s job to sell it to the world. John Kerry and President Biden have been very clear that they know it wasn’t enough to just say that they’re back, but that their plan has to be commensurate. Now, it doesn’t stop there. There’s some early signals that the U.S. is going to come in and aggressively pursue the agenda around methane reduction and the other issues within the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:13] Can you explain the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol? The Montreal Protocol is the late 1980s agreement that successfully eliminated or reduced the hole in the ozone layer that was such a problem at the time.

Rachel Kyte [00:10:26] Yes. So the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol addresses short-lived climate pollutants, in particular, hydrofluorocarbons, which are refrigerants. And they obviously have had an impact on ozone issues, which is why it’s an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. But they are an accelerant of climate warming. And so black carbon, HCFCs, HFCs, and methane go up into the atmosphere. They’re short-lived in the atmosphere, unlike carbon dioxide, and they speed up and accelerate warming. So, this is a story of air conditioning in particular. It’s how do we keep ourselves cool so that we’re economically productive? How do we keep food cool? How do we keep medicines cool in a warming world with more and more people going and living in cities where they aspire to and will need access to cooling for comfort? And we need to keep these cold chains and we can’t do that with super energy inefficient and polluting substances. This is something that the U.S. was very engaged in under the Obama administration and it would be very important. The U.S. is far behind in reducing methane, in particular, because there are no effective at-scale regulations around gas flaring from shale gas and methane within the gas infrastructure in the United States. And in fact, that’s one of the things that Trump had rolled back. So that’s potentially important- I wouldn’t say it’s a low-hanging fruit, but it’s not one of the most difficult things to do.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:12] Is there a global agreement on methane?

Rachel Kyte [00:12:15] So there is no global agreement. There’s no global treaty on methane. Methane is treated and examined under the IPCC and the scientific reports that feed into the UNFCCC and is understood in the climate context. And obviously, methane is is is one of the short-lived climate pollutants that gets discussed also within the Montreal Protocol. But we’ve seen lots of activity within industry, in terms of what it would take to reduce methane. And this is one of the issues where the U.S. had gone backward under Trump and it could spring forward quite importantly. There is something called the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Facility, which is housed in the World Bank Group and has more than 80 countries and many, many more private companies involved in that, and that is where you get the sort of Angolan government to commit to a target reducing flaring of gas. And you get then the state-owned oil company in the equivalent country to do the same. And the U.S. has not been a player in that for some time.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:28] So it does seem beyond Paris, there is lots of opportunity for multilateral engagement by the incoming Biden administration. Aside from the entities that you’ve already mentioned, like this World Bank platform, the Kigali amendment, what else sort of springs to mind as perhaps low-hanging fruit or something a little more ambitious that the United States might want to engage on?

Rachel Kyte [00:13:55] Well, there’s going to be no deal in Glasgow in November 2021 without a deal on finance. And there are a number of different facets to this. The first is the pre-Paris Agreement that there should be a 100 billion dollars a year of financial assistance from the countries that caused the problem in the first place to the rest of the world. And that 100 billion a year has never been achieved. There’s been a massive argument about how we count that 100 billion, etc., but in reality, it’s not there. And the UK’s got a bit of a problem at the moment because the quantification by independent experts, is that we’re about 79 billion. So where is the other 21 going to come from? The U.K. itself, remember, cut its aid earlier this year and diplomatically, one of the greatest examples of cutting off your nose to spite your face. So the real challenge is, can the U.S. come in with a big sort of reentry into climate finance? They have outstanding arrears to the Green Climate Fund, and they have lots of tools at their disposal to really up their bilateral climate finance.

Why Sustainable Development Financing is Key to Reaching Ambitious Climate Targets

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:12] Can you just explain for listeners the international, diplomatic, and political importance of reaching that 100 billion dollar target on climate finance for the viability of the Paris Agreement and international diplomacy around climate more generally? Like, what’s the logic behind that?

Rachel Kyte [00:15:32] So the 100 billion is a political talisman because it was a promise. It was a promise which was offered. And in return for which, developing countries agreed to a pathway of progress within climate negotiations. And the promise hasn’t been kept. And it is an open sore. It’s a constant reminder for developing countries, for low-income countries, in particular, for landlocked countries, and small island states, that there’s a lot of talk. But then when it really comes down to it, there’s not a lot of assistance on offer to these countries who did not cause the problems that they are now having to deal with, in terms of climate impacts. But fast forward to today, and put yourself in the shoes of some of these low-income countries. The 100 billion is not there, aid is constrained because of the global economic crisis, the global economic crisis has hit them, too. They are borrowing in order to stay afloat and they are up against their debt limits. They want to have debt relief but the only thing that’s been an offer in 2020, is some potential small-scale rescheduling of debt, which was important, but which isn’t enough. And maybe they can’t get access to global vaccines as well. And so there is a real sense that if they are expected to come to Glasgow and play nice, then it’s high time that the developed world put something on the table that really is commensurate to the size of the problem.

[00:17:10] And the other thing is that where there has been an enormous concentration on really clamping down on emissions and there’s been a global campaign to really stop the financing of coal-fired power, for example, in energy infrastructure. So we’re telling countries you should not and you will not be able to get access to financing for coal-fired power or any fossil fuel power, which is where the campaign is going now. There is no commensurate offer on the table to help countries at scale build the green energy infrastructure that they need. And this is a big opportunity for the United States.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:49] What would be the platform that the Biden administration could use to summon some sort of international momentum around building this climate fund? I mean, is this something we might expect at the General Assembly, which happens a few months or six weeks or so before Glasgow? When and where is the venue for this diplomacy to take place?

Rachel Kyte [00:18:13] Well, I think there’s a big finance package, which is part of an even bigger climate package. And it involves China, it involves the European Union, and involves the United States. China why? Because they have an extraordinary amount of debt owed to them by low-income countries and they have been the biggest infrastructure investor for many years. European Union? Because they’re the other big power at the table and the U.S. So, I think you’re going to start to see pieces of this emerge over the course of the year.

[00:18:45] First of all, the IMF last year asked for a new issue of special drawing rights to allow it to respond to a number of countries -more than 90 countries- who are suffering from high levels of debt as a result of the economic crisis related to Covid. They were unable to get an agreement on that with the Trump administration. The Biden administration has to grease the wheels and allow the IMF to have the capacity to respond. But there is a conversation that the capacity to respond should actually be- What countries do with the response, is that they move down a greener path of growth and development. So you’re beginning to see some kind of green conditionality.

[00:19:25] Second, there’s a conversation about actually relieving countries of their debt. And there are a number of conversations going on about, well, if we’re going to relieve debt, first of all, we don’t want all that money to then go to China to pay off China’s bilateral debt with these countries. But more importantly, what we want to do is make sure that in the debt relief, the quid pro quo is green and sustainable, investment in green infrastructure, resilient agriculture, etc… So, again, people don’t want to talk about conditionality, but it’s like we relieve the debt and we help countries get onto a greener pathway. Those kinds of things you’ll start, hopefully, seeing before the G7 in the U.K. in June.

[00:20:07] And then I think the third part of it then is when does the U.S. announce that it’s going to put money into the Green Climate Fund? When does the U.S. come out with a bilateral climate resilience package? Because I think for many low-income countries, what they desperately need is assistance in terms of their own adaptation and resilience to climate impacts, which are happening now. And I think that has to go beyond some of the interest and the investment in parametric insurance. You know, if you get bad weather, if you have terrible storms, there’s an insurance package for that. I think we need to be investing much, much more in actual adaptation, resilience and both the Secretary General and others have called for an equal treatment of adaptation and resilience in terms of funding as mitigation.

The Geo-Politics of Climate Diplomacy

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:00] It’s just interesting to me hearing you describe the geopolitics of what would make for a successful summit in Glasgow in 2021, involving the United States, principally, and the rest of the developed world -doing more to relieve the debt burdens of the developing world, debt burdens brought on by Covid.

Rachel Kyte [00:21:20] This is the deepest and broadest economic slowdown we’ve seen in modern economic history. And it comes at a time when we know that we need to restore nature. We know that we need to cut emissions. We know that the world is deeply unequal. And so if we’re going to bail ourselves out of this problem, then we need to put ourselves on a track that deals with all of these issues. And it’s also, you know- Glasgow is very, very important- but this is a 2-3 year agenda. Right?

[00:21:52] So, you know, the United Nations environment program is saying, look, we’re living through 3 planetary crises at the moment, a crisis of climate change, a crisis of biodiversity in nature, and a crisis of pollution and waste. And so, we’ve got 2-3 years to sort out the bits of the system that meant that we arrived at this point in time. And so I think that for the US, they’re back. They are a global economic power. Their relationship with China is important. But they could come forward, potentially.

[00:22:26] China has a Belt and Road Initiative. They need to green their Belt and Road Initiatives so that they are not funding polluting technologies in developing countries. And the U.S. can come alongside and say, okay, here’s our green infrastructure investment package for other countries. Now, Biden would then have to sell that to the American public and explain why helping other countries grow greener is good for America. But that’s where the jobs are and that is where you prevent other conflicts from happening and to which the U.S. may get drawn in. And that’s going to be challenging because there’s this is much -maybe not isolationism- but inward-looking on the left of the Democratic Party as there is on the right of the Republican Party.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:09] So, much of the agenda that you stake out for the Biden administration, it will be on the shoulders of John Kerry to put this into motion. Have you spoken with him since he accepted this new role?

Rachel Kyte [00:23:23] At the time that I was talking to him, it had not yet been announced, although we were expecting the announcement at any time that he was going to take this role and he was laying down and sending signals about how central this is going to be to the president’s agenda, how sweeping their ambition was going to be. Also, sending a very clear signal that they knew that, having walked away, it wasn’t just enough to walk back. You know, they have to walk back and be back and stay back and be a good partner and that they understood that for the rest of the world, there would be some question mark over the U.S.’s ability to come back and stay back. I mean, everybody’s become an expert in American politics, right? Everybody sat up and watched the election. And so, everybody knows that there are midterms in 2 year’s time and the Senate is a 50/50 Senate. So, I think that he was clear. He wanted to send a clear signal of ambition, but also realizing that, you know, there might be some eyebrows still raised because of the past history of walking away.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:39] Lastly, what will you be looking out towards in the next weeks or months that will suggest to you whether the rhetoric of the Biden administration when it comes to climate and calling this an emergency and making climate a priority throughout the government, matches actual action? What are some key inflection points that we should be looking out for to suggest to us, one way or another, how seriously the Biden administration is taking this?

Rachel Kyte [00:25:15] So I think the big one is April 22nd. The announcement of the U.S. plan and within that, will be the emissions reduction target for 2030, but they’ll be- What else is in there as well? I think domestically, it will be very important to see what kind of recovery packages emerge. I think it will be interesting to see the ambition in Pete Buttigieg’s agenda as the transportation secretary. I think it’s also going to be important to see how the U.S. turns up at the World Trade Organization. Obviously, they sent a signal that allowed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to become the Director General. The Director General of the WTO is not the most powerful person, its a very strong member state-led entity. But again, we’re going to have some very important issues around border tax adjustment. How does carbon get trade treated when it is exported from one country to another? Either embedded in a commodity or embedded in a product? And so the for the last few years, the trade agenda and the climate agenda have been far too distant. We’re getting to the point now where we really need to make sure that the trade regime supports the transfer and the trade in green technologies and green products and processes. So it’ll be interesting to see how the U.S. turns up in Geneva. Also, because that was a place where the America First and the Trump Regime was really quite destructive.

[00:26:58] So I think that there are a number of places where you’ll get a signal of the reality of this total government’s approach. But really, if the U.S. comes forward with a plan which is not sufficient in its ambition on April the 22nd, then it’s going to be quite hard for them to maintain the kind of leadership that I think the whole world wants them to have this year.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:27] Well, Dean, thank you so much for your time. This was very helpful.

Rachel Kyte [00:27:31] No, thank you.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:35] All right, thank you all for listening. Thank you to Dean Rachel Kyte. That was excellent and I really appreciated, in particular, the explanation of the geopolitics around getting the developing world on board with the global climate change agenda. It was a great conversation. I am glad to have Dean Kyte back on the show to discuss this. All right, thank you all for listening and thank you to the Better World Campaign for partnering with the podcast around a series on opportunities for multilateral engagement in the coming years and months of the new administration and the new Congress. All right. We’ll see you next time. Bye.