Leaders Summit on Climate Change: The United States Returns to Global Climate Talks. Now What? 

On April 22–23, 2021, President Biden hosted a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate to tackle the climate crisis. The event—which convened 40 world leaders, including 17 of the world’s largest emitters—aimed to catalyze efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Prior to the Summit, the United States announced its new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade. Other countries, including Japan, Canada, and South Africa, also proposed strengthened NDC targets.

The Summit marked the return of the United States to global climate talks. It highlighted the opportunities of climate action to build back better—particularly in the context of COVID-19—by creating high-quality jobs and boosting economic prosperity. But it also helped identify gaps and actions needed to truly address this critical issue. 

Financing Adaptation

During the Summit, President Biden announced his International Climate Finance Plan, wherein the United States committed to doubling climate finance by 2024 based on 2013-2016 levels. It is estimated that would equate to $5.7 billion in annual climate finance by 2024, including $1.5 billion to adaptation efforts. Actions within the Plan include prioritizing adaptation in the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation development strategy and tracking finance for vulnerable populations. 

However, compared to other U.S. financial investments and given the four-year absence of the United States from international climate efforts, the Plan is far from ambitious. Some advocates argue that funds ranging from $8 billion to $800 billion through 2030 would constitute a “fair share.” This would also constitute a practical measure, as only substantive and targeted climate adaptation financing will enable people to adapt in place rather than being forced to migrate in the face of a changing climate. Vice President Harris acknowledged this reality a couple of weeks’ later, as she pledged to increase support for climate change adaptation in Central America as part of the U.S. effort to address “root causes” of migration. “In Honduras, in the wake of hurricanes, we must deliver food, shelter, water and sanitation to the people,” Harris said. “And in Guatemala, as farmers endure continuous droughts, we must work with them to plant drought-resistant crops.” 

Loss and Damage

However, even with increased climate change adaptation financing, there will still be climate changes impacts that will be unavoidable and dramatic in scale. These impacts, which surpass an individual or community’s ability to adapt, is known as “loss and damage.”  And while adaptation financing has seen increasing interest and investment, loss and damage has yet to be seriously introduced within climate financing mechanisms or receive funding in any meaningful way. Following the Summit, vulnerable countries expressed frustration that loss and damage was not a part of the agenda and continues to be overlooked. As Lavetanalagi Seru, the Climate Justice Project Officer for the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, expressed: “Our governments are having to dig deeper into their treasury to fund for climate adaptation and loss and damage, which is something the U.S. and other industrialized nations should be doing.” 

Loss and damage requires a financial commitment by developed nations for compensation and rehabilitation—and while the push for a focus on loss and damage is not new, it’s clear that the growing and compounding effects of climate change require grappling with this reality now. Andy Norton, the President of the International Institute for Environment and Development said it best: “Avoiding these discussions, regardless of how difficult or sensitive they are, is no longer an option.” 

Forced Migration and Displacement

Forced migration and displacement are seen as a core aspect of the loss and damage equation, but the Summit also failed to focus on these issues. Central American nations were not invited to the event—an omission some consider to have been intentional, and in an effort to potentially circumvent conversations on migration. 

Nonetheless, despite pushback, some Summit attendees connected the dots. Mexican-Indigenous climate activist Xiye Bastida spoke on issues of migration and climate justice, stating, “The communities who are most affected, those who have endured displacement because of drought, flooding, wildfires, crop failure and human rights abuse, are not properly represented here.” In addition, Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador called for an expansion of his trademark “Sembrando Vida,” or “Sowing Life,” tree planting program in Central America and suggested that the United States offer temporary work visas and citizenship for those doing the work. 

What Can the United States Do Moving Forward?   

In its early days, the Biden-Harris administration demonstrated a commitment to climate change and migration issues. On February 4, Biden signed an executive order (EO) on “Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration.” For the first time, a U.S. administration acknowledged climate change as a driver of migration and requested a report to be delivered in August 2021 on climate change and migration’s implications for national security, foreign assistance, and resettlement options. 

Refugees International released an issue brief in February 2021, which provided a roadmap for the Biden administration as it considers policy options. Proposals include strengthening the capacity of relevant U.S. agencies, minimizing forced migration, providing pathways for admission, and exploring regional solutions to protect those displaced.

The Summit was a significant start, but now the United States must take these recommendations seriously in order to become a true climate leader in the view of vulnerable nations. A strong U.S. effort at the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow, UK, may be the next test on the international stage for the administration to make a mark.


Photo Caption: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate at the East Room of the White House on April 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images.