Graphic by Naeva Okasian
Budgets are a statement of values and under President Biden’s administration, the U.S. has requested $14.3 billion to aid Israel in their war against Hamas, while simultaneously pledging a mere $17.5 million for the brand new Loss and Damage Fund intended to support countries made most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The week-long ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war ended while world leaders convened for the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as COP28. Biden has demonstrated steadfast commitment to war efforts and is dramatically faltering in the latter with a decision to no-show entirely at COP28 and as a result is on track to lose a key voting bloc.
The heat is on, literally and figuratively, as the world races to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, temperature increases beyond which scientists predict will lead to catastrophic impacts of human caused climate change. Yet the planet is teetering too close, having already warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1850-1900, while global emissions continue to rise. The warning signs are everywhere. Following a sweltering summer, 2023 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded on the planet. Further, the increasing intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes and torrential rains have wreaked havoc across the globe.
What we need in this moment of climate crisis is the world leadership equivalent of Kelvin Kiptum and Tigist Assefa, who in 2023 shattered the men’s and women’s marathon records respectively; a feat accomplished through persistence, dedication, and an unwavering commitment to achieving goals. However, you can’t win if you don’t stay focused, and especially if you don’t show up to the race at all. I argue that President Biden’s failure to attend COP28, the Olympics of global climate change policy and planning, is a dramatic failure of commitment and leadership in a time of climate crisis.
The reason offered by John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate change, in a November 26 New York Times article that said no top administration officials would attend, does not sit well: “They’ve got the war in the Middle East and a war in Ukraine, a bunch of things going on.” A bunch of things. For a president, who as a candidate described climate change as an existential threat, prioritizing financial support and mediation of wars validates deep unrest both locally and globally over the lack of commitment, and more importantly, action on the world stage for the most significant global challenge of our time. After all, we are just 0.3 degrees Celsius away from shattering a record we do not want to break.
Several concerns loom large. First, global temperature is on track to increase 3 degrees Celcius by the end of the century. Do a couple of degrees really matter? In short, yes. Increased temperatures mean intensifying urban heat island effects, increased extreme weather, flooding, drought, water scarcity, biodiversity and ecosystem devastation, and the loss of land, Indigenous ancestral connection, and lives.
Second, the U.S. is a world leader economically and democratically, but also in the emission of greenhouse gases. At last year’s convening in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, countries questioned why the U.S. easily found money to supply weapons for war efforts while dragging their feet to fund global climate resilience efforts; a critique that emerged before the Israel-Hamas war.
Third, Biden is on track to lose support from Gen Z and Millennials, a critical voting bloc for his re-election, who care deeply about human rights and climate change. Recent polls show Gen Z/Millenial voters are more critical of Biden’s wholesale support of Israel in the Hamas-Israel war than any other voting group with over half feeling the Israeli government’s response to the Oct 7 attack has gone too far. Biden’s decision to no show at COP28 only serves to further alienate the next generation of leaders and climate activists.
To be sure, COP28 is not a panacea. Bold plans to support developing countries are falling short of the billions these vulnerable groups say is needed. In addition, in response to push back from the Nov 26 New York Times article the administration made a last minute decision to send Vice President Kamala Harris, where she pledged $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund, intended to support climate resilience around the world. However, the administration did so only after their meager contribution to the Loss & Damage Fund, days earlier, was criticized as “embarrassing.” What is needed is bold, swift, and decisive action, not haphazard planning and an afterthought of actions in an attempt to stave off criticism.
Leadership in this moment matters. Being present at COP28 would have sent a message of commitment and collaboration, that the wealthiest country in the world is a dedicated partner. In order to overcome this missed opportunity the administration needs to set bold climate change priorities, a decisive and systematic plan, and to follow through with innovative and persistent action to achieve courageous goals. This is the ultimate marathon, and we need the laser focus, persistence, and diligence of athletes who shatter world records. President Biden owed it to the nation and the world to take his powerful seat at the COP28 table and by leaving it empty he has put the world and his re-election at risk.