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Assessing the Biden administration's progress on climate change

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When President Biden took office, a veteran diplomat with experience leading the fight on climate change agreed to return to Washington. Jonathan Pershing has served under four presidents. He was a key negotiator at the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow last fall. In the Obama administration, he helped lead negotiations on the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Now he's returning to the private sector. When I asked Pershing to assess the Biden administration's progress on climate change so far, he compared it to the record of the Trump administration.

JONATHAN PERSHING: Before we came in, the analyses suggested that the temperature increase by the year 2100 was perhaps as much as three degrees, twice where we should be. The most recent analyses done by the International Energy Agency suggest that with the current actions and commitments in place through 2050, we are at about 1.8 degrees.

SHAPIRO: Can I pause you on that phrase - actions and commitments - because there have been a lot of commitments that are not backed up by actions. When I was at the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow back in November, I asked your boss, Climate Envoy Secretary John Kerry, what he would do if the president's Build Back Better package of climate measures did not pass. And he told me, I'll bet it does in the next two weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KERRY: Key to Glasgow is not the words here. It's the promises and goals that have been made and the implementation. And we're going to become an implementation force in the aftermath of this meeting.

SHAPIRO: That was three months ago. How damaging is it to American leadership and the momentum it can give to global climate action that this package has not passed and likely won't?

PERSHING: I would say that there is a consequence, but I'd also say that we have begun to make strides in things we have passed and have indications with the politics may unlock, in particular for the climate elements of Build Back Better. And I think the world itself is grappling, not just the United States, with the implementation of their own policies. They see the political hurdles. And we are, in some cases, trying to work on that and trying to help other countries work on theirs.

SHAPIRO: It seemed like the summit in Scotland punted a lot of commitments to this year, when countries will gather in Egypt for the next climate conference in November. Can you give us a specific benchmark, something that you're looking for in the next nine months that will make you feel like Glasgow really did create momentum and not just rhetoric?

PERSHING: I think a few things. The first one is that I think the continued investment by private companies is the most telling component of change. I look at Mary Barra's commitment to make electric vehicles. She is not, at GM, going to reverse that and start remaking internal combustion engines. She's made a pivot. I look at the discussions from a company like Maersk, the world's largest shipping container company in the world, and they have already put on contract a series of zero-emitting boats - major ships.

I look at significant big investments from a country like China in renewables. Last year, they put in about 16 gigawatts of offshore wind, more than the rest of the world combined. And it looks like this year they're on trajectory to do the same again. That's the kind of thing that I want to see.

SHAPIRO: I think for every one of those real data points you name, somebody could point to the construction of new coal-fired power plants or the failure to provide funding to poorer countries for the loss and damage that they're going to experience as a result of climate change. Part of the nature of climate negotiations is that you have to keep pushing no matter what because as catastrophic as 1.5 degrees is, two degrees is way worse, and three degrees profoundly worse than that and so on. Do you think 1.5 degrees is still realistic, within reach?

PERSHING: I think that 1.5 is remarkably difficult. It is doable. It is technically possible, but it requires an enormous and concerted effort. It requires some things we know how to do, like moving into renewables aggressively, like capturing carbon. It requires some things we do not know how to do, like taking carbon directly out of the atmosphere. It requires some things we haven't done, like transitioning massive parts of our economy into alternatives that have zero carbon emissions. So it's doable, but it is a tough, tough road.

SHAPIRO: So what do you see as the goal right now?

PERSHING: The goal is to do as much as we can reasonably do to reduce emissions as fast as we can. Every incremental tenth of a degree is worse than the last tenth. Every incremental degree is catastrophically worse. The wildfires in California are killing people, and those are directly attributed in their severity and extent to climate change. The drought that we are seeing parch parts of the world - directly connected. The flooding - also connected. These are today's damages. They get worse with every tenth.

So I see the objective - keep it as low as you can possibly keep it. Shoot for the moon. Work for those big changes, and hopefully you can keep it within bounds into which societies can adapt.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan Pershing is outgoing deputy climate envoy for the Biden administration. Thank you very much.

PERSHING: Thanks so much - a pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.