Missing COP28 Summit Complicates Biden’s Climate Credentials

Missing COP28 Summit Complicates Biden’s Climate Credentials
Missing COP28 Summit Complicates Biden’s Climate Credentials

President Biden signed the country’s first major climate law and is overseeing record federal investment in clean energy. In each of the past two years, he attended the annual United Nations climate summit, asserting American leadership in the fight against global warming.

But this year, likely to be the hottest in recorded history, Mr. Biden is staying home.

According to a White House official who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the president’s schedule, Mr. Biden will not travel to the summit in Dubai. Aides say he is consumed by other global crises, namely trying to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas in its war with Israel and working to persuade Congress to approve aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

At home, Mr. Biden’s climate and energy policies are crashing against competing political pressures. Concerned about Republican attacks that Mr. Biden is pursuing a “radical green agenda,” centrists in his party want him to talk more about the fact that the United States has produced record amounts of crude oil this year. At the same time, climate activists, particularly the young voters who helped elect Mr. Biden, want the president to shut down drilling altogether.

Internationally, developing countries are pushing Mr. Biden to deliver on past promises for billions of dollars to help cope with climate change. But Republicans in Congress who control spending scoff at the idea and have been unable to reach agreement among themselves on issues like aid to Israel and Ukraine.

In bypassing the climate summit known as COP28, Mr. Biden is missing an opportunity to strengthen his climate credentials, said Michele Weindling, the political director at the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group.

“If Biden wants to be taken seriously on climate by young people at home and by the rest of the world, he needs to use every tool at his disposal to mobilize the U.S. government to save lives,” she said.

David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California San Diego, was more blunt. “He’s really got to worry about holding the left together and his re-election,” Mr. Victor said.

Mr. Biden has angered environmental groups by permitting new oil leases, including the Willow oil project in the North Slope of Alaska. He also expedited liquid gas exports to Europe as it faced an energy crisis from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, helping to make the United States the world’s largest gas exporter in the world.

The United States has produced a record amount of crude oil on Mr. Biden’s watch, and the president has urged fossil fuel companies to produce enough to prevent gas prices from spiking. At the pump, gasoline prices averaged $3.25 a gallon nationwide on Monday, which is above prepandemic levels but down 30 cents from a year ago.

But he also signed the largest climate law in American history, the Inflation Reduction Act, which is pouring at least $370 billion in government subsidies into technologies, like solar panels and electric cars, meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. His administration also has proposed tough new limits on emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks.

Republicans have accused the president of waging a war on American energy, and candidates running to try to unseat Mr. Biden have promised to open federal lands to far more oil and gas drilling.

That’s led some within the Democratic Party to urge Mr. Biden to talk up oil production. Earlier this month, a new polling group called Blueprint, which is dedicated to helping Democrats craft winning messages for the 2024 elections, said Mr. Biden was failing to make voters aware of what the group called “moderate” policy achievements — including “issuing historic numbers of oil and gas drilling permits.”

At the same time, some conservation groups are calling on Mr. Biden to stop any new drilling. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental action group, released a report on Monday calculating that the greenhouse gas emissions from new oil and gas projects that Mr. Biden has approved will exceed the emissions reductions from all his climate policies put together.

Administration officials say privately that their hopes of Mr. Biden attending a third consecutive summit — which would have set an attendance record for an American president — were complicated by the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. Mr. Biden has devoted significant time and energy to that conflict, including a surprise trip to Israel.

He almost certainly would have needed to add another trip to Israel, and likely to other countries in the region, if he had chosen to attend the climate conference, aides said.

On Monday, some senior aides were mounting a last-ditch effort to convince Mr. Biden to reconsider his plans and make a trip to the summit, which runs through mid-December, though they appeared unlikely to succeed.

More than 100 other world leaders are scheduled to appear in Dubai, including King Charles III, Pope Francis, President Emmanuel Macron of France, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

But like Mr. Biden, President Xi Jinping of China will also skip the event. Instead, China, which is the largest current emitter of greenhouse gases, will be represented by Ding Xuexiang, a senior aide to Mr. Xi.

Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden met in California earlier this month and agreed to work toward a ramp-up of renewable energy that could displace fossil fuels.

If the two men were to reconsider and appear in Dubai, it would “give a moral boost to everyone” at the summit, said Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington.

“It’s a very fraught moment for the world,” he said.

In Dubai, leaders are expected to discuss their progress, or lack thereof, in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say that humans will have trouble adapting to intensifying wildfires, heat waves, drought and storms. In 2015 at the summit in Paris, countries agreed to cut emissions from burning coal, oil and gas to keep global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The planet has already warmed an average of 1.2 degrees Celsius.

“A lot of the conversation is going to be ‘Is 1.5 still alive’?” said Joseph Majkut, the director of the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center. “The reality is that it’s going to be incredibly hard to achieve.”

One of the major issues at the summit will be whether nations agree to phase out fossil fuels, the burning of which is the primary driver of climate change.

“What we’re pushing for here is sensible policy that everybody can buy into and actually do,” said John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s special envoy for climate change, who will be in Dubai. “There are 199 countries at the COP with wide ranging views on that issue. So we’re going to be working to achieve the best possible language.”

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.