In search of climate action: The Western Hemisphere and President-elect Biden

Given Latin America and the Caribbean's vulnerability to climate change, its leaders are closely watching how the incoming Biden administration will recalibrate the United States’ environmental policy to see whether the Western Hemisphere will make diplomacy and multilateralism great again.


One year since its leadership of the U.N. Climate Summit (COP 25) and in the midst of a global pandemic, Chile continues to urge ambitious action on climate change. As of this writing, fifty-one countries, with many others still pending, have submitted updates to their commitments. Out of the 97 countries that have stated their intention to strengthen commitments by the end of this year, twenty are located in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given the region’s vulnerability to climate change, its leaders are closely watching how the incoming Biden administration will recalibrate the United States’ approach in 2021 and beyond.

U.S. climate leadership in the hemisphere is critical not only because of the region’s immense natural resources and fragile ecosystems, but because several countries are pursuing mitigation and adaptation policies at an increasingly rapid pace. The growing economic influence of China, particularly in areas related to energy and raw materials, has also put pressure on the U.S. to be a more active partner in the region. Not wanting to leave the economic opportunities of a clean energy transition on the table, we can expect that the new administration will push for action early on.

President-elect Biden’s significant experience in Latin America means that the U.S. will be well-positioned to engage with regional leaders and usher in further commitments, as well as partner with those countries that share common interests with the United States. Doing so can create win-win solutions that enhance economic relations within the region, by pushing for greater investment and green technology transfer at the same time. One area where this could be consequential is in the development of green hydrogen.

On the day of the U.S. election, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and Minister of Energy Juan Carlos Jobet, launched Chile’s National Green Hydrogen Strategy. It is perhaps Chile’s most ambitious national policy to date, aiming to not only harness numerous renewable resources, but to make the country a powerhouse in future exports of green hydrogen to international markets. Chile has the potential to become one of the cheapest producers of green hydrogen worldwide and hopes to become a top global exporter by 2040. Designed under the guidance of an advisory board composed of former presidents and ministers from previous governments, the strategy shows the nonpartisan nature of the country’s climate policies and its desire to be an important global actor.

Climate Action and the United States: An Opportunity for Latin America

If the first term of President Obama can be characterized as mired in healthcare reform, President-elect Biden’s may be characterized by rebuilding U.S. climate policy. A policy blueprint has already circulated among likely transition officials for the incoming administration. It proposes the creation of a White House National Climate Council led by an Assistant to the President for Climate, which would work across existing federal agencies and executive offices, including those tasked with economic policy and national security. Recent announcements have also confirmed former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will serve as senior adviser to the president.

The creation of a standalone council could be a game changer for U.S. domestic and foreign policy. However, much will also depend on the outcome of two runoff races in Georgia, which will decide the control of the Senate, as well as the fate of environmental legislation and the overall trajectory of the U.S. response to climate change.

While debate continues over how quickly and to what degree the U.S. will pursue a clean energy transition at home, a series of diplomatic tools abroad could quickly advance the case for greater climate action and international cooperation. The designation of former Secretary of State, John Kerry, as the administration’s special envoy on climate sends an important signal to the world and highlights the U.S. intention to rejoin the Paris Agreement. However, supporting allies in a meaningful way will require going beyond the 2015 climate agreement.

While rejoining is a symbolically important first step, it will need to be followed by concrete actions as the U.S. returns to the negotiating table. Even so, transformational leadership on the world stage is far from a given outcome. This is important to highlight, as the stakes could not be higher for the fate of our planet. All nations must come together.

With each year of delayed action becoming significantly more costly, it is vital that a truly bipartisan approach emerge in the U.S. that connects the domestic goals of a less carbon intense economy, with a broader and more ambitious global environmental framework. The tragic alternative is a less stable and less prosperous future for all. To garner greater support and quickly find common ground, the Western Hemisphere can serve as a strategic backdrop for the incoming U.S. administration to engage the region, along with European allies, in addressing climate change more effectively.

Making Diplomacy and Multilateralism Great Again

Addressing deficiencies in the policies of Mexico and Brazil will require delicate diplomatic negotiations, however the hemisphere can still continue to progress forward with a strong U.S. presence that scales up investment and technical support. Without it, the pathway to sustainable development will be unnecessarily slow and could fall short—as the science dictates that a rapid transition is required this decade.

Despite potential roadblocks in the Senate, the Biden administration is well-poised to take an all-of-government approach by tasking the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Development Finance Corporation with a clear mandate to tackle climate change. Greater U.S. support and leadership within multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank can also yield positive outcomes, as their current climate policies will soon expire.

Latin America is responsible for a relatively small percentage of global emissions, but faces an extremely volatile future if the international community cannot foster greater action on climate change. Large actors, such as the United States and China therefore, are incredibly important. That’s why climate legislation in Canada is being watched closely—as it would bring the world’s tenth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in line with the 2050 net-zero target. Canada’s announcement follows closely behind China’s pledge in September to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

Equally important is the ability to foster strategic alliances and show that, through multilateral engagement, public-private partnerships, and working with civil society and local communities, climate change can be a unifying factor for global cooperation—as opposed to an oversimplified zero-sum game of free ridership and industrial competition. As COVID-19 weighs heavily on the economies of the region, and erases decades of gains in lowering poverty and income inequality, a clean energy transition that is just and rapidly executed could provide hope during these dire times.  

It is no coincidence that the hemisphere, with the exception of perhaps Canada and Uruguay, has had a comparatively poor response to the pandemic. Massive inequality has made the response weaker and more difficult, with the quarantine effects hitting the poor and marginalized the hardest. However, it is not only the social costs of a polluting energy sector that must be addressed in the hemisphere, but also the role of agriculture and land use, deforestation, and the protection of coastal and marine environments. These environmental issues must also be linked to the precariousness of vulnerable people that are and will continue to suffer tremendously from the effects of climate change.

By 2030, Latin America and Caribbean countries are projected to lose two and a half million jobs, and under more pessimistic scenarios, could send 5.8 million people into extreme poverty, all due to climate change. Some estimates project that climate migrants in Latin America could exceed 10 million people by 2050. This is why a new paradigm for global development is sorely needed and represents a significant opportunity for greater U.S. leadership and cooperation in the countries of the Western Hemisphere seeking to address the climate crisis alongside growing inequality. The future global economy will no longer look nor depend on the resources of the past, but will increasingly become connected to new technology, the welfare of people, and the protection of the natural environment on which we all depend.

Action on climate change can bring about positive development opportunities and lead a new economic and technological revolution, but it requires all of us to demand it more forcefully. As we search for what lies ahead in a post-pandemic world, let us remember where we are today in order to avoid a less stable, hotter planet tomorrow.

Marcelo Mena is director of the Climate Action Center at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso and a former minister of the environment in Chile. Anders Beal is an associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are those of the authors.

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