Climate change: Biden’s first act sets tone for ambitious approach

Make no mistake, returning to the Paris climate agreement is not mere symbolism – it is an act cloaked in powerful, political significance. While re-joining the pact involves the simple signing of a letter and a 30-day wait, there could be no more profound signal of intention from this incoming administration. Coming back to Paris means the US will have once again have to follow the rules.

Those rules mean that sometime this year the US will have to improve on their previous commitment to cut carbon made in the French capital in 2015. 

This new target, possibly for 2030, and President Biden’s commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, will be the guide rails for the US economy and society for decades to come.

Coming back to Paris really means it is no longer “America First”. 

It signals that the spirit of that awkward word, “multilateralism”, is alive and well and living once again in the White House. 

But the US also needs to tread carefully and remember that the world’s perspective on climate change has moved on since the Obama days.

“I think the United States needs to recognise that the world is very different than it was four years ago and enter in, in partnership and humility, not coming back in telling everybody what they should be doing, because the world’s gone on,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.

“I think the expectation’s there, if you look at global climate politics, that climate will now play a role in security policy.

“Fossil fuels are like weapons of mass destruction, they need to be kept in the ground.”

That sentiment will find an echo in President Biden’s other executive action on his first day. 

His cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline permit is a carefully calculated message to the oil industry.

“This new executive order on the Keystone pipeline is a very tangible, visible decision,” said Rémy Rioux, the head of the French development agency, and a negotiator for the French government during the Paris climate talks. 

“The US is saying ‘we’re back’ – and ‘not only are we back on track, but we’re back with a fuller commitment and momentum’.”