Will Kamala Harris follow Al Gore’s lead on climate change commitment?

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On Dec. 8 1997, Air Force Two touched down in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, for a frenetic visit by then-Vice President Al Gore that is widely credited as having rescued talks on a new global climate treaty from collapse.

If it were not for Al Gore’s decision to deviate from his agreed speech to pressure his own negotiating team to offer greater flexibility in the final dealmaking hours that followed, there may never have been a Kyoto Protocol (even though the Congress continued to then stand in the way of any hope of U.S. participation).

Kamala Harris now has the potential to become the most consequential U.S. vice president since Al Gore in the global fight against climate change. 

Much has already been made of Harris’s own domestic climate record and promises. But during her own presidential tilt, Harris also vowed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, put in place a 50 percent emissions reduction target by 2030, restore and double American contributions to the Green Climate Fund, negotiate a global commitment to finance the energy transformation required and use American voting at the World Bank and other development banks to stop fossil fuel financing. 

Structurally, the vice presidency is often peripheral to America’s international climate diplomacy, but this does not mean that its incumbents have not gone on to historically leave a big mark in office — especially when given critical assignments by the president. 

Take for example former Vice President Dick Cheney’s wrangling of control of the National Energy Policy Development Group setup by President George W. Bush in just his second week in the job. That group’s conclusions arguably set the trajectory for the administration’s energy policy from the get-go, betting — wrongly — on a global spike in oil demand that only increased instability in the Middle East and drove a feverish obsession with U.S. energy security.

Similarly, as Biden himself has highlighted on the campaign trail, after initial legwork by John Kerry and with the blessing of President Obama, he first proposed the idea to Chinese President Xi Jinping in December 2013 of the U.S. and China jointly announcing their emissions reduction targets in the lead-up to the 2015 Paris Agreement. This was a game changing moment that was the strongest catalyst for the final deal being done.  

But with the Oval Office likely consumed by the ongoing economic and health catastrophe at home, and an administration eager to demonstrate it has mainstreamed climate change as a priority across government, there is a strong possibility that much more of the climate diplomacy effort could fall directly in the in-tray at Observatory Circle at the behest of the president, as well as at Foggy Bottom. This will especially be the case if a new climate body akin to the National Security Council is established within the White House as former Chief of Staff John Podesta and former climate envoy Todd Stern have suggested.

And like Biden’s experience of 2013, one particular area that is likely to demand the president and vice president’s personal stewardship will be the effort to rebuild a cooperative effort with China, even amongst a likely still difficult bilateral relationship. As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, additional Chinese action is not only in U.S. interests, but it would also help strengthen additional action by the U.S. itself. Like Biden, Harris specifically identified the need for China (and India) to also do more in her campaign platform, noting this should be “commensurate” with U.S. action and in line with the 1.5 degree celsius warming limit identified by the Paris Agreement.  

Like Biden’s own impressive platform, Harris has also proposed hosting a headline summit of major emitters early in 2021, in which she may end up playing a key role in. Harris, in fact, suggested such a gathering could be used to secure the first-ever global deal on the cooperative managed decline of fossil fuel production. Either way, the idea of such a diplomatic summit — commonly cited by Biden — is likely to be a major international stepping stone in efforts to encourage countries to increase their Paris targets ahead of the next round of U.N. climate talks in Glasgow now due at the end of 2021. 

With less than three months to go until the U.S. presidential election, much of the international climate community’s eyes are now on what a new administration could deliver. And if they are elected in November, Biden’s choice this week of Harris has only deepened the Democrats’ resolve to be the strongest climate administration to date, both at home and abroad.

Thom Woodroofe is senior advisor on multilateral affairs to the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former climate diplomat. He is the co-author of a recent report on Climate Diplomacy under a New US Administration. Follow him on Twitter @thomwoodroofe.

Tags Al Gore climate action Climate change Environment environmental policy Joe Biden John Kerry Kyoto Protocol vice presidential pick VP Pick

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