Imperial College London

Global experts debate Biden climate outlook

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President Biden's 2018 visit to Imperial to deliver an inaugural lecture on cancer research

An expert panel discussed what to expect from the Biden administration’s climate policies over the next four years.

The Forum at Imperial, with The Policy Institute at King's College London, brought together a panel of international experts to debate President Biden's climate policies, geopolitical pressures and the importance of science, technology and research for net zero.

Professor Mary Ryan, who leads Imperial’s Transition to Zero Pollution initiative, chaired the event, and was joined by Professor Tim Benton from Chatham House, Professor Frans Berkhout from King’s College London, Alyssa Gilbert from Imperial’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, and Professor David G. Victor from the Brookings Institution.

In front of an audience of the research community, policymakers, students, industry and the general public, Professor Tim Benton, Research Director, Emerging Risks and Director of the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme at the foreign policy think tank Chatham House, began the proceedings by stating that the US has to lead by example in being a good global citizen.

For Professor Benton, over the last four years there has been a lack of US voice to support the rhetoric and actions of the UK and EU. The US has an essential part to play in driving climate ambition, he argued, and there is scope for the US to drive China and India towards greater commitments and actions to tackle climate change through competition.

Professor Frans Berkhout, Professor of Environment, Society and Climate at King’s College London, suggested that the US has historically been a very unreliable international partner on climate change and that while the Biden administration has made some steps to improve its credibility, the idea that the US has now become a reliable partner that is able to drive long term change should be treated with a degree of scepticism by other countries.

Watch the full event:

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“The US has always been an entirely unreliable partner in international climate politics.” Professor Frans Berkhout Professor of Environment, Society and Climate, King’s College London

Professor Berkhout argued that Biden’s climate change policies will be shaped by his domestic political vulnerability, which explains why Biden’s climate change rhetoric has so far been focused mainly on jobs and investment.

US climate change policy will also to a great extent be dictated by China’s climate policy and competition. Professor Berkhout pointed out that that US/China relationship will likely continue to be difficult and fractious.

Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Policy and Translation at Imperial’s Grantham Institute, argued that the change of messaging from the Biden administration compared to the previous administration will play a very important role, even if it is primarily focused on the US domestic agenda. A ‘just transition’ for communities in the US will also help drive the development of a global just transition programme.

The global driven by the domestic

This change in rhetoric from the US may help the UK achieve its ambitions at COP26 on green finance and more focus on technologies that assist with the adaption and mitigation from the effects of climate change.

Professor David G. Victor, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution, stated that purely from its economic standing, the involvement of the US will substantially increase momentum towards more action and commitments from other nations on climate change.

Professor David Victor
Professor David Victor joined the panel event. He is Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Professor of International Relations at the University of California, San Diego.
“The US should work with other leading nations to create a community of ambition.” Professor Tim Benton Research Director, Emerging Risks; Director, Energy, Environment and Resources Programme, Chatham House

However, on the issue of US domestic politics, Professor Victor agreed that other countries should continue to be sceptical. He argued that it will be domestic politics that will determine the scale and pace of the green agenda and what the Biden administration is able to accomplish.

Professor Victor, who is Professor of International Relations at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, pointed to how the world has moved on in the course of the last four years, with the US largely inactive on the issue of climate change at the federal level. Going forward, Professor Victor believes a key indicator of progress on the issue will not just come from the central government, but from the actions of local state governments and the financial markets.

A successful COP26 and reasons to be optimistic

Ms Gilbert noted that the US’s change of leadership comes at a pivotal moment for the UK. As President of COP26 in November 2021, and amid the UK’s exit from the European Union, Biden’s election will have a critical impact on the UK at a time when it is developing its next stage of climate change policies and commitments.

In response to a question on what would constitute a success for COP26 later this year, Ms Gilbert said it would promote global co-operation and feelings of solidarity among the countries involved, while meeting the pledges on climate finance and emissions reduction from the Paris Agreement which have not been achieved so far. Read more about Imperial's plans for COP26.

The event concluded with the panel agreeing that they are optimistic that this year will see significant global progress towards tackling climate change, arguing that there is increasing awareness and demands from communities, groups and organisations across the globe.

The Forum: Connecting our researchers with policymakers

The Forum folderThe Forum is Imperial College London’s policy engagement programme, connecting Imperial researchers with policymakers to discover new thinking on global challenges. Please get in touch if you would like more information via or follow us on Twitter, @imperial_forum.


James Rae

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