Joe Biden’s fight against climate change and the greening of sovereignty

by Marie Prüm


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Within the first hours of his presidency, Joe Biden fulfilled his campaign promise that the United States would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.


In doing so, he signalled his commitment to prioritising the fight against global warming and marked the symbolic start of what has been dubbed the most ambitious environmental agenda of any US president yet.


The move follows campaign pledges to ensure that the United States reaches net-zero emissions by 2050, the appointment of John Kerry to the newly created position of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and the assembling of a cabinet that promises to tackle climate change from a variety of angles.


After President Trump’s dismissal of the current climate crisis, the incoming administration appears infused with a vocation to undo four years of opposition towards international cooperation and environmental deregulation at home.


However, in light of the urgency of the threat posed by climate change, mending the wounds left by the Trump administration will likely be the easy part of the job ahead. Among other things, global warming is redefining what it means to be a good sovereign.


My research identifies several ways in which sovereignty is being reformed by its use in environmental politics.



While the previous administration has used sovereignty like a shield to resist international environmental regimes, there are undeniable signs of change. The opportunities and challenges this offers to the Biden administration need to be analysed in light of a long history of unevenly distributed rights and duties among states.


The current climate crisis has resulted in a tendency to emphasise the novelty of thinking about sovereignty in terms of the natural world. There seems to have been a sudden realisation that environmental flows do not stop at national borders.


In turn, this fundamental mismatch between the natural world and the modern states system is widely interpreted as the sign of the limits of sovereignty itself. Yet, fragmenting the globe’s ecological system is not a mere side-effect of the emergence of sovereignty. On the contrary, since its inception, sovereignty has implied a particular relationship to the natural world.


At its core, it entails the extension of authority over the natural world through the extraction, exploitation and management of the resources located within one’s boundaries. In many ways, Donald Trump’s policies to exploit rather than protect natural resources were directly linked to his aim of putting America first and reasserting the United States’ sovereignty. If the exploitation of the natural world is a core element of sovereignty, does this make it inherently incompatible with international environmentalism? Certainly, Trump’s hostility towards
environmental regulations confirmed the fears of many.


Nevertheless, sovereignty is a remarkable institution in both its resilience and its capacity for change. The demise of sovereignty might not be around the corner, but the threat of a global climate catastrophe has not left sovereignty untouched either.


My research identifies several ways in which sovereignty is being reformed by its use in environmental politics. In the wake of international legal disputes on transboundary harm, the definition of territorial integrity is expanding to include ecological integrity. The international regime on hazardous waste recognises the unwanted entry of harmful substances as a form of external interference compromising a state’s sovereignty.


Undoubtedly the management of nature within one’s boundaries remains a domestic concern. Yet the rise of both domestic and international environmental regulations points to a shift from the state as the exploiter to the state as the protector of natural resources. This shift towards the greening of sovereignty signifies the inclusion of environmentally responsible behaviour in the list of the core duties of a state.


Under the Biden administration, the United States has the possibility of embracing the greening of sovereignty. Following the examples of its agenda to spread democracy and human rights, the United States could make its respect of others’ sovereignty dependent on good environmental behaviour. Joe Biden has already proposed to include environmental conditions in international loans and to publish rankings of countries’ environmental records, similar to existing rankings on democracy and human rights.


This strategy is based on a mechanism of social pressure, where countries who fail to meet their environmental obligations are stigmatised as “environmental pariahs” or
“climate outlaws”. It echoes the naming and shaming principle at the heart of the Paris Agreement. With the weight of the United States behind it, countries are likely to feel the pressure of reaching and even outperforming their targets of reducing national CO2 emissions more acutely.


However, if nations are going to be ranked in terms of their environmental records, the United States is likely to play catch up rather than spearhead revolutionary climate efforts. Beyond the obvious need for domestic progress and ambitious new goals, the United States needs to open itself up to international judgment and be willing to be held accountable.


Historically, this is a position the country has not been comfortable with long before Donald Trump’s presidency. At the Rio Convention in 1992, George W. Bush declared that the “American way of life is not up for negotiation,” and after leading the negotiations, the United States never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Instead, time and time again the United States has blamed others for global warming. This tactic has often been pointed out as a way to perpetuate global inequalities in the use of the natural environment and its resources. On the one hand, the important differences that exist between countries in terms of their vulnerability and responsibility for global warming
are obscured.


On the other hand, legitimate sovereign behaviour is defined according to the proper management of nature as understood by the United States. This justifies American interference in the domestic affairs of a state that is considered to fail environmentally, but not vice-versa. Biden’s rhetoric of pointing the fingers to others, particularly China, suggests a likely repetition of this pattern.


However, to work effectively towards a sustainable future, ecological management cannot just be another criterion defined by Western states and used to undermine the sovereignty of those who fail to conform.


Biden faces the challenge of ensuring that the greening of sovereignty comes hand in hand with the mutual respect of states’ sovereignty, not at the cost of it.

About the author

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Marie is a PhD student at POLIS, her research looks at identity politics of sovereignty. 

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