(CN) — U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday kicked off what could be a difficult and disappointing round of high-level talks with other world leaders meeting in Europe to tackle the crises of climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden faces a tough few days as he tries to prove American leadership in a world beset by dangerous weather caused by worsening climate conditions, a pandemic that refuses to peter out, growing inequality around the world, widespread unease with American power, political paralysis in Washington and the specter of a new Cold War-type conflict with China and Russia.
Biden's schedule saw him arriving in Rome on Thursday to attend a weekend G-20 summit and then he will head to Glasgow, Scotland, on Monday to take part in what has been billed as a crucial United Nations climate change conference.
The Group of Twenty is an annual meeting where leaders of the world's richest nations try to hash out agreements and this year's gathering has the threat of climate change – and government inaction to halt it – hanging over it.
“The time has passed for diplomatic niceties,” Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, said. “If all governments – especially G-20 governments – do not stand up and lead efforts against the climate crisis, we are headed for terrible human suffering.”
But expectations for major breakthroughs at either summit have been dampened after Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin opted to not come in person.
They did not give clear reasons for not traveling to the summits, but both leaders are becoming much closer as the West increases pressure on their governments and accuses them of authoritarian tactics and militarism. Xi and Putin are expected to make statements to the G-20 via video.
Both Putin and Xi were on hand in Osaka, Japan, in 2019, the last G-20 to take place in person before the pandemic hit. That rendezvous of world leaders was made memorable by President Donald Trump and controversial and outrageous statements he made, including his praise for Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was accused of ordering the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Before the start of the G-20 summit, Biden stopped in to visit Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday. The pope and Biden met for about 90 minutes, a lengthy visit. Biden is only America's second Roman Catholic president, the other being John F. Kennedy. It was Biden's fourth visit to the Vatican.
On Friday, Biden also met with French President Emmanuel Macron in an effort to patch up a major rift between Washington and Paris after France was left out of military pact among the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region. As part of that deal, Australia scrapped a multibillion dollar submarine deal it had with France and instead opted to buy Anglo-American nuclear submarines. France called it a “stab in the back.”
Since the spat erupted the U.S. has worked hard to assure France that it remains a major ally and there is a possibility that the U.S. will do more to help France in its military operations against Islamist militias in sub-Sahara Africa, where France is seeking to shore up governments in its former colonies.
The big question mark hanging over this trip to Europe for Biden is whether he will be able to turn it into a success story on tackling climate change. His trouble getting a major infrastructure and climate change spending package through Congress has been an embarrassment to the president and weakens his hand.
Hopes to make this so-called Conference of Parties summit in Glasgow a major turning point in reducing heat-trapping emissions have been rising for months and are made even more urgent by a series of stark warnings and reports about rising temperatures, ecosystem disturbances and governments failing to reduce emissions. Also, this year was marked by record wildfires, severe flooding and catastrophic droughts.
Pope Francis urged world leaders to make “radical decisions” in Glasgow, which is being called COP26 because it is the 26th such climate change conference.
“We find ourselves increasingly frail and even fearful, caught up in a succession of crises in the areas of health care, the environment, food supplies and the economy, to say nothing of social, humanitarian and ethical crises,” the pope said in a radio message on BBC. “These crises present us with the need to take decisions, radical decisions that are not always easy.”
The climate change conferences take place on an annual basis, but only a few have been truly landmark occasions. One was in 1997 in Kyoto when nations agreed to reduce emissions, a treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol; another took place in 2011 in Durban, South Africa, when nations agreed to establish a legally binding deal to limit emissions; and another was in 2015 in Paris when the emission reduction deal was agreed upon.
The hope has been for the G-20 and Glasgow meetings to set in motion another major deal, but expectations are now being lowered.
In the run-up to Glasgow, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was pushing world leaders to agree to put their countries on the path of net zero emissions by 2050.
But China earlier this year said it will need more time to meet that goal and set 2060 as its deadline. Russia too says it plans to reach net zero by 2060.
Still, there are many other areas – including commitments to increase funding for poorer countries suffering the effects of climate change and stopping investment in foreign coal production – where leaders may find agreement.
“The world’s enormous challenges are not being tackled with anywhere near sufficient vigor,” said Mark Sobel, a former top U.S. Department of Treasury official, in an analysis for the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, a think tank. “The G-20 Rome summit will mirror that depressing global reality.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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