Kamala Harris at climate summit: World must ‘fight’ those stalling action

DUBAI — The vast, global efforts to arrest rising temperatures are imperiled and must accelerate, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told the world climate summit on Saturday. 

“We must do more,” she implored an audience of world leaders at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai. And the headwinds are only growing, she warned.

“Continued progress will not be possible without a fight,” she told the gathering, which has drawn more than 100,000 people to this Gulf oil metropolis. “Around the world, there are those who seek to slow or stop our progress. Leaders who deny climate science, delay climate action and spread misinformation. Corporations that greenwash their climate inaction and lobby for billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies.” 

Her remarks — less than a year before an election that could return Donald Trump to the White House — challenged leaders to cooperate and spend more to keep the goal of containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach. So far, the planet has warmed about 1.3 degrees since preindustrial times.

“Our action collectively, or worse, our inaction will impact billions of people for decades to come,” Harris said.

The vice president, who frequently warns about climate change threats in speeches and interviews, is the highest-ranking face of the Biden White House at the Dubai negotiations.

She used her conference platform to push that image, announcing several new U.S. climate initiatives, including a record-setting $3 billion pledge for the so-called Green Climate Fund, which aims to help countries adapt to climate change and reduce emissions. The commitment echoes an identical pledge Barack Obama made in 2014 — of which only $1 billion was delivered. The U.S. Treasury Department later specified that the updated commitment was “subject to the availability of funds.”

Meanwhile, back in D.C., the Biden administration strategically timed the release of new rules to crack down on planet-warming methane emissions from the oil and gas sector — a significant milestone in its plan to prevent climate catastrophe.

The trip allows Harris to bolster her credentials on a policy issue critical to the young voters key to President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign — and potentially to a future Harris White House run. 

“Given her knowledge base with the issue, her passion for the issue, it strikes me as a smart move for her to broaden that message out to the international audience,” said Roger Salazar, a California political strategist and former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore, a lifetime climate campaigner. 

Yet sending Harris also presents political peril. 

Biden has taken flak from critics for not attending the talks himself after representing the United States at the last two U.N. climate summits since taking office. And climate advocates have questioned the Biden administration’s embrace of the summit’s leader, Sultan al-Jaber, given he also runs the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil giant. John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, has argued the partnership can help bring fossil fuel megaliths to the table.

Harris has been on a climate policy roadshow in recent months, discussing the issue during a series of interviews at universities and other venues packed with young people and environmental advocates. The administration said it views Harris — a former California senator and attorney general — as an effective spokesperson on climate. 

“The vice president’s leadership on climate goes back to when she was the district attorney of San Francisco, as she established one of the first environmental justice units in the nation,” a senior administration official told reporters on a call previewing her trip. 

Joining Harris in Dubai are Kerry, White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi and John Podesta, who’s leading the White House effort to implement Biden’s signature climate law. 

Biden officials are leaning on that climate law — dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act — to prove the U.S. is doing its part to slash global emissions. Yet climate activists remain skeptical, chiding Biden for separately approving a series of fossil fuel projects, including an oil drilling initiative in Alaska and an Appalachian natural gas pipeline.

Similarly, the Biden administration’s opening COP28 pledge of $17.5 million for a new international climate aid fund frustrated advocates for developing nations combating climate threats. The figure lagged well behind other allies, several of whom committed $100 million or more.

Nonetheless, Harris called for aggressive action in her speech, which was followed by a session with other officials on renewable energy. The vice president committed the U.S. to doubling its energy efficiency and tripling its renewable energy capacity by 2030, joining a growing list of countries. The U.S. also said Saturday it was joining a global alliance dedicated to divorcing the world from coal-based energy. 

Like other world leaders, Harris also used her trip to conduct a whirlwind of diplomacy over the war between Israel and Hamas, which has flared back up after a brief truce.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Harris would be meeting with “regional leaders” to discuss “our desire to see this pause restored, our desire to see aid getting back in, our desire to see hostages get out.”

The war has intruded into the proceedings at the climate summit, with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas both skipping their scheduled speaking slots on Friday. Iran’s delegation also walked out of the summit, objecting to Israel’s presence.

Kirby said Harris will convey “that we believe the Palestinian people need a vote and a voice in their future, and then they need governance in Gaza that will look after their aspirations and their needs.”

Although Biden won’t be going to Dubai, the administration said these climate talks are “especially” vital, given countries will decide how to respond to a U.N. assessment that found the world’s climate efforts are falling short. 

“This is why the president has made climate a keystone of his administration’s foreign policy agenda,” the senior administration official said.

Robin Bravender reported from Washington, D.C. Zia Weise and Charlie Cooper reported from Dubai. 

Sara Schonhardt contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

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No United States President can walk back on climate change commitments now: John Kerry

United States Special presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry gestures during an interview to The Hindu in New Delhi on July 26, 2023.
| Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

 According to United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, no future American President can walk back from climate change commitments now. Mr. Kerry has blamed former U.S. President Donald Trump for walking out on the Paris agreement and rescinding climate financing offers. In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Kerry, who is in India for a G20 meeting on climate change issues, said he was still hopeful about a consensus statement, but wouldn’t commit to the U.S. compromising over language on the Ukraine war in order to reach such a consensus.

How far along are talks on climate change ahead of the G20 summit, and particularly since we’re a couple of months away from the CoP28 meeting in Dubai?

On the CoP28, I think that the parties are working hard, meeting pretty regularly and a considerable amount of progress has been made. There are three outcomes that are already predetermined: we have to have a stocktaking; we have to have an adaptation report. And in addition, we have a loss and damage fund that’s been created that has to now take shape. So, those are three already in the pipeline. Because of what’s happening in the planet — and the science and evidence, we have an imperative to try to raise ambition, speed and quantity. And we have an imperative to try to establish a better finance track in order for emerging economies and less developed countries to be able to make the transition. So it’s a big agenda.

We had an excellent meeting between Prime Minister [Modi] and President [Biden] in June that really set the stage for a level of cooperation that will make a difference. I think that India and the United States really have a synergy right now. Recognising that we need to push technologies, we need to reduce greenhouse gas pollution as rapidly as we can. We need to improve our supply chains, particularly, so that we’re not being held hostage by any place in the world. And I think that there was a real understanding between Prime Minister Modi and President Biden, about the commonality of the agenda and the way they see the world. 

What does that mean in climate terms? India, for example, has not accepted a mid-Century Net Zero target. Prime Minister Modi himself has only spoken about 2070 so far…

Well, I think India is showing a great deal of ambition. India has of its own volition set a very ambitious goal of deploying 500 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030. That’s a big goal. And we’re very supportive of that. We’ve invested very heavily in a new solar plant that’s here in India. I think our leaders agreed that it would be really good for us to be able to come to agreement on a national fund that we’re both contributing to in order to accelerate the transition. I think that there are great skill sets in India with respect to technology, science, research and development. And we see some really, very positive ways in which we’re able to cooperate to bring new technologies to scale, whether it’s hydrogen or battery storage, turbines, solar panels. This transition does not have to be frightening to people. It is an exciting moment where there’s more economic opportunity globally than there has been since the industrial revolution in the 1800s. 

That’s on a bilateral scale. But when it comes to the multilateral, India is part of the developing world, the U.S. is part of the developed world. What is the U.S. willing to pay to the Loss and Damage Fund? I ask this because, earlier, there was a U.S. commitment to help raise $100 billion every year, between 2020 and 2025. We haven’t seen that come through yet.

The reason we haven’t seen it yet is that we had a President [Trump] who pulled out of the Paris agreement a number of years ago, and who didn’t put any money into the Climate Fund. So, when President Biden [took charge], he began the first year of his presidency with Donald Trump’s budget, not his own. He didn’t get to do his own budget until last year, and now this is his second budget. And we do have money in there to be able to try to reach the $100 billion. That’s a real obligation that the United States obviously will make good on. And the President has been very clear about that.

What about the future? If Mr. Trump or the Republicans return to power in next year’s U.S. election and decide to walk out of whatever deal your government signs? Have any guardrails been put in place to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t walk out as it did once from the Paris Agreement?

Well, there’s no way to pre-handicap the ability of any President to prohibit some particular action. But look. I predicted that Joe Biden would be elected President last time, and I’m quite confident that he’s going to be re-elected again, because of the outstanding legislative record that he has. I’m not allowed to get into the politics of all of this. But I will say this. No President, whatever party, whenever, could come in now and stop what is happening. It’s too big. 

CEOs of major companies of the world, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Salesforce, Boeing, financial institutions, have all made the decision that people need to take climate seriously. So, I don’t see Ford Motor Company or General Motors, which have now retooled their factories to make electric cars, going backwards. The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered, and people are going to transition because it’s clean. India will produce many of those vehicles and so will the United States and other countries. I think it’s a great moment. And the world is just waking up to all of these possibilities.

At the G20, we have seen other differences between the developed world and the developing world — for example, on why developed countries only speak of cutting coal, when all fossil fuels are non-renewable? India also wants the term “phase down” for coal rather than “phase out”. Will there be a common text on climate change at the G20?

I can’t tell you what the common language will be…. [But] I don’t believe that we can’t find some common language that respects the reality that we must reduce emissions: either capture them and do something constructive with them, or not to make them in the first place. It’s one or the other. And, and what we need to do is find the way as fast as possible to empower people to transition out of unabated fossil-fuel-burning, because that’s what’s killing people and creating fires, and massive storms, and unbelievable floods. And, the quality of air that kills about 8 million people a year on the planet. This is not rocket science. I think it should be fairly easy for responsible nations to come to the table and say, “This is what we have got to do”. Now, some people feel that fossil fuel has had its day, but I think the marketplace is going to decide what happens in that regard.

The G20 joint communiqué, or leaders’ declaration, is stuck over the language on Ukraine. Some G20 countries suggest that G7 countries should realise that the real priority right now are climate change, energy transitions, and development, and take a step back from its position on including Ukraine, so that a joint communiqué can be issued

The climate crisis is a global crisis, even as Ukraine has its global components, because it’s a reflection of international law. And that international law says that you don’t invade nations simply to expand territory and kill people in ways that remind you of the worst of World War Two. So, I think that there’s a reason people are concerned about expressing something about the inappropriateness of an unprovoked invasion of another country…

China, for example, says geopolitical issues should not be put on this forum, which is geared towards development. Russia says, well, if you’re going to discuss this war, why not all the other wars that have taken place in the last 20 years? Would you recommend pulling back on some of the Ukraine language, in order to bring a joint statement?

I need to see the latest iteration of the language and where we are and make recommendations based on it. It’s important for global meetings, and countries that they adhere to international standards, the UN charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And I think that in great democracies, particularly, we should not shy away from speaking out. But I don’t want to prejudge the outcome.

On the subject of democracies, over the last few years, we’ve seen the Indian government shut down funding for NGOs — Greenpeace, Sequoia, European Climate Fund, etc. Have you discussed this with Indian authorities?

Sure. Well, we in the United States believe in free speech and the ability of people to be able to voice their concerns. I know in India, you have a very, very active democracy, and you have a very hearty, ongoing, regular debate. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen its vitality. I’m not going to comment on some individual situation that I’m really not directly familiar with. But I’m quite confident that India is going to continue to make its contribution to the democratic process and I’m sure that activists here in India will continue to work through thatas we do in the United States on a regular basis.

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