The Glasgow climate talks are under way, an urgent referendum on the U.S. commitment to exercise responsible leadership in the world. 

In 2009, the U.S. failed a similar test at the Copenhagen talks, under eerily similar circumstances. Now as then, a new president brings a collaborative spirit and an end to the nose-thumbing that dominated his predecessor’s foreign policy doctrine. And again this time, a balky Congress, beholden to fossil-fuel interests, failed to send America to the talks with the bona fides of serious national climate legislation.

At the end of the Copenhagen talks, President Barack Obama delivered what may have been the least inspiring speech of his career. Exhausted, hamstrung by Congress’ inaction, and snubbed by Chinese negotiators, Obama was in a mood. “Hopenhagen,” as we exuberantly called it going in, was a bust.

As I literally cried in my beer in a bar at the Copenhagen conference center after Obama’s speech, a young Japanese woman approached me and said in broken English, “Please, to stop crying, and explain to me, what is wrong …” and suddenly her English got very clear and emphatic, “ … with the United States Senate?!” She knew all about the filibuster. She was incensed that a Senator from South Dakota, representing fewer people than a Tokyo neighborhood, could hold up the whole world’s efforts to respond to a crisis.

People working on climate solutions around the world know the peculiar dysfunctions of the U.S. Senate better than many Americans, because the Senate has been blocking climate solutions on behalf of fossil-fuel interests since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Our global partners are angry, frustrated, and perplexed that we Americans allow this to continue. So they press and cajole us to make our government do better. They expect more of us than we seem to expect of ourselves.

If the world’s hope of responsible American leadership seems naive, perhaps it’s because the sour puss of the U.S. Senate isn’t the only face of America they see. The Biden administration sent 13 cabinet members to Glasgow with sleeves rolled up, exemplifying the “all of government” approach to climate action the president promised.  The indefatigable John Kerry is leading the negotiating team again, with almost as much passion (adjusted for age) as he brought to ending the Vietnam War half a century ago.   Young activists from the U.S. and around the world are there in droves, leading the way, pushing “leaders” to follow.


States and cities are where a lot of the climate action happens in the U.S., and Washington is well represented in Glasgow:  Gov. Jay Inslee is there, having run for president on a climate platform and elevated that platform to the forefront of the debate in Congress. He and state Sen. Reuven Carlyle will talk about Washington state’s Climate Action Now legislation, among the most forward-looking “subnational” policies in the world. And U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal is back in Washington, D.C., holding the line, showing the world what it looks like to stand up to fossil-fuel interests who are trying to scuttle the climate provisions of the Build Back Better plan in Congress.

Will this be enough to reassure the world that the U.S. is in for serious climate action? Will they believe we have the integrity to step up and contribute as much to climate solutions as we have to the problem? Not hardly; after a quarter century of U.S. obstruction they’d be fools to just trust us. And with the utter abdication of the Trump years, the U.S. will never again get the benefit of the doubt.

But the world hasn’t given up on the United States. The world doesn’t have that luxury, and neither do we. We have a different, better story about our commitment to climate action than the fossil-fuel industry and its friends in Congress tell. But the story won’t be fully true until Congress codifies it by passing the Build Back Better Act. 

At this late hour, it doesn’t really matter to the world or our kids whether we have faith that Congress will deliver. All that matters is how much determination we can muster to see to it that they do.