WASHINGTON — World leaders will gather in Egypt next week to confront climate change at a moment of colliding crises: a war in Europe that has upended energy markets, rising global inflation, deep political divisions in many countries and tension between the world’s two greatest polluters, China and the United States.
The conditions don’t bode well for a mission that demands cooperation among nations to bring down the pollution from burning oil, gas and coal that is warming the planet.
The United States, which for the first time will be attending United Nations negotiations with a climate plan that is backed by the force of law, will try to reassert itself as a leader in the fight to keep temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels.
The new law, which provides a record $370 billion to speed up the country’s transition away from fossil fuels, “absolutely” strengthens the standing of the United States and its ability to urge other countries to follow suit, said John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate change. “We were at a crucible with respect to our credibility, and if we hadn’t delivered there I think we would have had serious challenges.”
But while the legislation may mend America’s tattered reputation after President Donald J. Trump halted climate action for years, more is needed to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris agreement to constrain global warming.
And the law barely squeaked through a bitterly divided Congress. If Republicans retake control of at least one chamber in midterm elections on Tuesday, they are expected to try to slow down efforts to cut emissions. And, not far beyond looms the 2024 presidential election, with Mr. Trump considering another run.
“It’s understandable that people will raise questions, given that the United States has taken a step forward and taken a step back in the past,” said Manish Bapna, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “People would like to feel confident that this time, with this step forward, there won’t be a retreat.”
As the climate summit known as COP27 convenes in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el Sheikh, the consequences of climate change are painfully obvious.
In Pakistan, more than 1,500 people died in catastrophic floods this summer, and another five million people now face a severe food shortage there. The worst drought in 40 years has left 22 million people in the Horn of Africa on the brink of famine. In the United States, Hurricane Ian is estimated to have caused more than $60 billion in insured losses when it slammed into Florida last month, making it one of the most expensive storms on record. Scientists have linked climate change to each of these devastating events.
At last year’s climate summit in Glasgow, when world leaders were arguably less distracted by other crises, countries pledged to strengthen the Paris Agreement and to keep global temperatures from rising no more than 1.5 degrees, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic climate impacts significantly increases. Nearly 200 countries agreed to intensify their efforts before the start of COP27 next week.
But only a handful of major polluters have stepped up and promised more ambitious action, with China, Russia and Saudi Arabia among the major holdouts. The planet has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius and is on a trajectory to heat up by 2.5 degrees Celsius, or 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of this century, according to a new United Nations report.
At the same time, the war in Ukraine and the subsequent boycott of Russian gas has complicated immediate transitions away from fossil fuels. Demand for coal is increasing in many countries, with some reopening dormant coal-fired plants. The British government has issued new licenses for oil drilling in the North Sea, while China and India continue to burn coal. In the United States, where high gas prices have caused a political problem for Democrats, President Biden unsuccessfully tried to get Saudi Arabia to increase oil production in order to ease pain at the pump.
“It’s a very challenging year,” said Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate envoy. “The impacts are hitting so hard and so fast, and it’s clear that emissions are not going in the right direction and no one is ready for the impacts.”
The International Energy Agency offered a glimmer of hope recently when it predicted for the first time that worldwide demand for every type of fossil fuel would peak in the near future. One key reason is that many countries have responded to soaring prices for fossil fuels this year by embracing wind, solar and nuclear energy, the agency said.
Still, much of climate progress hinges on China, which now pumps the most greenhouse gases of any country into the atmosphere — an output that is not expected to peak for several more years.
Mr. Kerry emerged from the Glasgow summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, to announce the two countries would work together to cut fossil fuel pollution this decade. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Xie have known each other more than 20 years, and in Glasgow prefaced talks on methane and coal by catching up about their gardens and grandchildren.
A year later, there’s distance between the two men as relations between the United States and China have sunk to their lowest point in decades amid economic competition, tensions over Taiwan and differences over Russia’s war in Ukraine. China suspended climate talks with the Biden administration after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan in early August, over the objections of China.
“We’ve sent each other a few messages trying to figure out how to resume,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to Mr. Xie. But the decision to do so will be made by one person, President Xi Jinping, he said.
Mr. Kerry said he was hoping to restart discussions once he and Mr. Xie reconnect in person in Sharm el Sheikh, noting that the stakes are enormous. “We can’t solve this problem unless all of the major economies align with Paris, particularly the largest emitters,” he said.
But domestic politics in the United States may hamper Mr. Biden’s climate leadership abroad. If Republicans win control of one or both chambers of Congress, they are unlikely to overturn the new climate law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act. But there already are efforts underway, backed by fossil fuel industry associations, to undercut the legislation. And Republicans are promising to block new environmental regulations and investigate the administration’s climate policies.
President Biden has promised to cut United States emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade, and that the country will stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050. The new climate law is projected to help cut U.S. emissions by 40 percent, according to several analyses.
“It’s all pretty important to acknowledge that we have an enormous amount of work left to do, so countries that are already bedeviled by climate change don’t see us running around giving ourselves an undeserved pat on the back,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who plans to attend COP27.
Another area where the U.S. is lagging is financial aid to the developing nations suffering the effects of climate change.
Wealthy nations have failed to deliver on a decade-old promise to give $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing nations transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change. Nations also have not fulfilled a promise made in Glasgow to “at least double” finance for adaptation by 2025.
Congress this year appropriated $1 billion in climate aid. That’s less than half of what the White House had requested and far short of the $11.4 billion that Mr. Biden promised to deliver each year by 2024.
“The message sent was that we were not very serious about the commitments we made,” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, said of the reduced congressional appropriation.
A related issue, known in the climate talks as loss and damage, will also be a top focus this year.
Developing countries, led by Pakistan, are expected to make a dramatic stand and demand an agreement for a new fund to help compensate for the climate disasters in the countries that have done the least to cause global warming.
“Climate change has really gate-crashed into countries like Pakistan and we don’t have the luxury of time right now,” said Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan’s former environment minister, said in an interview. As he spoke in early October, 13 million people in his country were still in temporary shelters displaced by deadly flooding.
The United States and other wealthy, long-polluting nations have resisted efforts to pay for the extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and devastating.
In Glasgow, the U.S. delegation thwarted any discussion of creating a loss and damage fund. But recently, the United States has shifted ever so slightly. Mr. Kerry said in a recent interview that he was open to the creation of a new fund and nations have agreed to discuss it at COP27, a move that could head off a fight over the agenda at the start of the summit.
Whatever happens at the talks in Egypt, there is no denying that segments of the world economy are moving toward renewable energy. Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said money was “flying” for clean energy thanks to the new law in the United States, and he predicted that would ultimately override any tensions in the negotiating halls.
“Nobody’s waiting to see whether the announcements at COP come out exactly as the diplomats hope,” Mr. Schatz said. “Everybody is starting to understand that there is an extraordinary amount of money to be made saving the planet, and it’s not a smart bet for the future to bet against what the markets are saying and what the United States has committed to.”
Companies in the United States have announced $28 billion in clean energy manufacturing investments since Mr. Biden signed the climate legislation into law.
At an appearance this month at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Kerry insisted that markets were shifting away from fossil fuels. But he said he remained worried.
“We are going to get to a low carbon, no-carbon economy,” Mr. Kerry said. “That’s a decision that even the marketplace has made,” Mr. Kerry said. “What I’m not convinced of is that we will meet the challenge of the scientists in time.”