Biden Climate COP26 Summit
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When the Terminator is at the end of his rope, leaders of the world, you should listen up. In recent days, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lashed out at the succession of global summits on climate change, like the one unfolding in Glasgow, arguing that they are futile when nations fail to keep their commitments. He has a point.

The planet is overheating, and time is running out. Halfhearted measures and unkept promises while we’re struggling to reach net-zero carbon emissions are like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Fortunately, two measures announced Tuesday at the COP26 climate summit offered fresh hope: More than 100 countries, including the U.S., pledged to curb global emissions of methane by 30 percent by 2030, and 110 nations promised to end and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade. Those both could be gamechangers in the fight against global warming, but we have been here before. Previous rules on curbing methane leaks from oil and gas wells built since 2015 were overturned by the Trump administration. An earlier deal on deforestation in 2014 failed to slow it down much. The question now, then, is whether these large promises will result in any material change

The credibility of American leadership abroad on climate is at a low ebb. President Joe Biden sought to address this problem directly on Monday at the Glasgow summit by apologizing for former President Donald Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. Biden rejoined the agreement right after taking office, but the damage was already done. The world no longer trusts that when one U.S. president signs an international agreement the next one won’t rip it up.

Failure isn’t an option. In January, a group of prominent scientists warned that, due to inaction and ignorance, Earth faces a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals” that threaten human survival.

In short, Biden had his work cut out for him to rally leaders of nearly 200 nations to take measures that meet the moment. Clearly, he’s determined. His administration now intends to use the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time to regulate methane from existing oil and gas industry sources nationwide to sharply reduce greenhouse pollution.

Much has been made of the importance of restoring U.S. credibility in the world on this and other issues. Can the world trust America to lead—and sustain that leadership—after the debacle of Trump’s tenure? It’s no wonder Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and so many others are frustrated by the failure of America and the international community to make a more urgent, serious effort to cut back carbon emissions.

“What does a promise and a pledge mean in the end?” Schwarzenegger asked last week at an environmental justice conference. “Nothing. Over and over, year after year, they make these pledges and they come out to declare victory, but then nothing is getting done.”

To be fair, that’s not completely true. Decades of work by governments, NGOs, and private citizens have gone into countering global warming. Leaders at the G20 summit in Rome this weekend promised to stop funding coal-fired power plants in poorer countries and to try to achieve carbon neutrality “by or around mid-century.” Biden has proposed the most far-reaching climate agenda of any U.S. president, including reaching net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050. But the former Mr. Olympia is right that the international community’s response to this crisis has been woefully inadequate. Schwarzenegger has some street cred to back up his views. As “Governator” of the nation’s largest state, he signed into law the first statewide mandate to limit man-made greenhouse gases in 2006.

As we’ve seen, though, Biden is crippled by a dysfunctional Congress, largely because of two Democratic senators who wield outsized power because of the party’s slim majority in the upper chamber. It’s imperative that Biden get Congress to pass his Build Back Better bill on human infrastructure and climate mitigation, which includes $555 billion in investments in clean energy. It would send a signal to the world that the U.S. isn’t just talking about fighting climate change­­—it’s taking meaningful governmental action, too.

In turn, that might inspire more countries to follow our lead. Despite more than a quarter century of UN-led climate conferences—including notable ones in Kyoto in 1997, Paris in 2015, and now Glasgow—the world is still going in the wrong direction, pumping more greenhouse gases into the air than nations are removing. Meanwhile, most people recognize the dire consequences of inaction. Six in ten American adults believe that climate change is man-made and its effects are being felt now. One only needs to remember images of California’s raging wildfires this summer or Brooklyn’s streets looking like the site of a biblical flood earlier this year after a storm. A 2021 global survey found that 64 percent of respondents in a total of 50 countries said climate change was an emergency, “presenting a clear and convincing call for decision-makers to step up on ambition.”

The latest UN report on compliance rates noted that G20 members of industrialized nations are not, as a group, on track to meet their individual targets of limiting global emissions. Nations in Glasgow are expected to announce new targets. The scientific consensus has shifted since the Paris Agreement and now argues that to avoid the worst impacts, the world must meet a tougher standard of holding the rise in global warming to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial averages.

According to the Climate Action Tracker, an organization that monitors countries’ adherence to the Paris Agreement, the top five carbon polluters are doing an “insufficient” amount to meet their individual goals to mitigate global emissions. China is the worst culprit, accounting for 28 percent of the world’s output of dangerous carbon emissions. Rounding out the top five biggest polluters are the United States (15 percent of global emissions), followed by India (7 percent), Russia (5 percent), and Japan (3 percent). Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin did not even show up in person at the summit in Scotland.

Biden hopes to pass his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill through Congress this week. While the legislation would mark the largest investment in clean energy in U.S. history, it is still not enough. And thanks to Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia’s coal country, the bill will likely be stripped of the most powerful piece of the Biden climate plan, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, designed to pay utilities that move to cleaner energy and penalize those that don’t.

Still, it’s not nothing. Legislation to curb climate change eluded former President Barack Obama, who was left with the limits of executive action. At the same time, Biden has most major federal agencies factoring climate into their policy decisions. “The whole-of-government approach is real and new and important,” Samantha Gross, who directs the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told me. “You can’t do anything on carbon without Congress.”

Yet there is much America can do to encourage work by the G20 and the G7, as well as regional action by smaller developing nations, who have borne the brunt of climate change wrought largely by the big industrial powers. That includes working with other countries on nation-to-nation progress, helping them set goals, and offering assistance with financing and technology. Biden acknowledged that the bigger powers have “overwhelming obligations” to the smaller ones and pledged on Monday that the U.S. would work with Congress to provide $3 billion annually to poorer nations hard hit by the effects of a hotter planet. The new commitments on methane and deforestation Tuesday offer a fresh start for U.S. climate leadership.

In her powerful book on climate change, The Story of More, the author and scientist Hope Jahren discussed a need for “a transformative approach to energy use, rather than the incremental changes supplicated within the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.” That means if catastrophe is to be avoided, individuals across the globe must do their part, too, reexamining their energy use and transforming their habits and attitudes. “It’s not time to panic, it’s not time to give up—but it is time to get serious,” Jahren wrote.

This will mean doing two things at once: enacting the most aggressive policies now to thwart global warming, and making them stick, while also fixing our damaged democracy and political system to make sure a calamity like the Trump years never happens again—lest we move inexorably backward. That’s a tall order for Joe Biden. But he has no other choice. Otherwise, we’re just going to pass this crisis on to the next generation—and by then, it may be too late.

Storer H. Rowley

Follow Storer H. on Twitter @BobSHRowley. Storer H. Rowley, a Washington Monthly contributing writer, is a former national editor, editorial board member, and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.