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World Leaders Are Meeting To Tackle Climate Change And Pandemic Recovery

Jun 10, 2021
Originally published on June 11, 2021 7:37 am

LONDON — For the first time in nearly two years, the leaders of seven of the world's wealthiest democracies will meet to try to tackle some of the biggest global problems, including the post-pandemic recovery, climate change and the challenge of China. The three-day meeting of the Group of Seven, hosted by the United Kingdom, will open on Friday in Carbis Bay, a seaside resort in Cornwall in southwest England.

President Biden, who arrived in the U.K. on Wednesday on his first overseas trip since taking office, has big goals of his own: to reestablish U.S. global leadership and repair old friendships in the wake of the Trump years.

During his time in the White House, former President Donald Trump famously criticized America's democratic allies — "the European Union is a foe," he claimed — and sometimes praised its authoritarian rivals, including Russia, which was kicked out of what was then the G-8 in 2014 for annexing Crimea.

In Cornwall, Biden will strike a completely different tone.

"I know the past few years have strained and tested our trans-Atlantic relationship, but the United States is determined, determined to reengage with Europe," Biden said in February, addressing the Munich Security Conference.

Polls show that Biden's rhetoric and policy changes, such as rejoining the Paris climate accord, have boosted America's image in parts of Europe. A Morning Consult poll last month showed that attitudes toward the U.S. in Germany, France and the United Kingdom have rebounded since the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. But many Europeans remain skeptical of an American political system they once trusted, with majorities in Germany, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands telling pollsters in April it was completely or somewhat broken.

Analysts in Europe say Biden must now reach substantive agreements with G-7 countries if he hopes to persuade leaders that, as he has said, "America is back."

The "Mount Recyclemore" sculpture depicting G-7 leaders is made from electronic waste. Artist Joe Rush created the sculpture to highlight the damage caused by disposal of electronic devices. It's been erected near the G-7 summit.
Ben Birchall / PA Images via Getty Images

"We're beginning to ask ourselves questions along the lines of 'it's all very well and good that we love each other so much, but what is it that we're actually able to do together?' " says Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs in Rome and a special adviser to the EU's chief diplomat, Josep Borrell. "It's going to be important in the context of the G-7 for there to be an agreement on something."

G-7 finance ministers did agree this month to a global minimum corporate tax of at least 15%, which critics say is too low. But this weekend they'll also set their sights on the pandemic, which is grinding well into its second year.

This week, UNICEF urged the G-7 members — the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan — to send 20% of their vaccine doses to poorer nations in August or risk wasting them. The gap in vaccination rates between many wealthy and poorer countries is staggering. The U.K. says it has fully vaccinated more than 41% of its population, while Nepal reports a vaccination rate of about 2.5%.

Biden is set to announce Thursday that the United States has bought 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to donate to COVAX, which is distributing vaccines to countries that cannot afford to buy enough shots.

Britain says it intends to send doses abroad, but Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last week that vaccinating children at home is still the priority.

Rob Yates, who runs the Centre for Universal Health at Chatham House, the London policy institute, says G-7 countries need to share more vaccines with developing nations, help fund more factories for vaccine production and encourage drug companies to share technological know-how to help countries in need.

"If the G-7 is going to be serious about global leadership, we need to be taking a whole of humanity perspective and really valuing the lives of people in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa like our own," Yates says. "This is going to require a massive effort."

If the G-7 doesn't step up, he warns, the developing world will become "exasperated" and will look to other countries for vaccines, such as Russia and China, the West's authoritarian rivals.

The G-7 has already made progress on another big issue: climate change. Last month, environment ministers agreed to climate targets to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — more ambitious than the previous 2-degree ceiling.

"This is a really big deal," says Samantha Gross, who runs the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Technological advances have reduced wind, solar and battery costs, she says, making the lower temperature target possible and making it easier to take more carbon out of the electricity generation process. More action at the G-7 this weekend could provide momentum for change at two other global meetings this fall, she says: the G-20 — the 20 countries that produce the vast majority of the world's gross domestic product — which will gather in Rome in October, and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

"If the entire G-20 got on board, you would cover the vast majority of the world's emissions," Gross says.

The G-7 is a magnet for protests, and this year will be no different. Sculptor Joe Rush has built a replica of Mount Rushmore in a location visible from the G-7 venue, in which he renders the faces of the G-7 leaders — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Biden — with electronic waste, including keyboards and hard drives. Rush calls it "Mount Recyclemore" and wants to highlight the damage society does by the way it disposes of electronic devices.

Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement that began in a town in England's Cotswolds, plans to stage marches to expose what it sees as the hypocrisy of rich countries' and corporations' pledges to reduce greenhouse gases. British farmers also plan to take to the streets to protest a free trade deal with Australia that they fear will lead to a flood of cheap food imports.

Another expected topic of discussion at this weekend's summit is cybersecurity. In just the last month, cybercriminals have staged disruptive ransomware attacks on the world's largest meatpacking company and the biggest U.S. fuel pipeline. Christopher Painter, who served as the top U.S. cyber diplomat at the State Department, says G-7 countries need to impose heavier political and economic costs on nations that allow hackers to launch attacks from within their borders.

"Countries can work together to use all their tools to try to pressure countries like Russia, either when Russia itself is doing it as a state-sponsored activity or when Russia is harboring these cybercriminals," he says.

The other big issue in Cornwall will be China, which poses the greatest challenge to the West in decades.

Biden needs partners to help confront Beijing on everything from unfair trade practices and intellectual property rights to the country's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and threats toward Taiwan.

Backed by the world's second-largest economy, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping argues that Beijing's authoritarian model is an effective alternative to liberal democratic systems. Biden has called this an "inflection point" for democracy. The EU has cooled to China in recent months but shows no interest in joining the U.S. in an anti-China bloc.

Critics complain that G-7 meetings are long on statements, which are often quickly forgotten, and short on collective action. But this time, in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic and a narrowing window to tackle climate change, there may be more pressure to act.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden is in the English county of Cornwall for the G-7. This is a meeting of leaders of seven of the world's biggest economies. It was canceled last year because of COVID. Yesterday, Biden met with the summit's host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. NPR's Frank Langfitt is also in Cornwall. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: Joe Biden and Boris Johnson had never met before. What did they talk about yesterday.

LANGFITT: We don't really know because they didn't do a press conference. But the biggest thing you could tell was something symbolic. They talked about reaffirming the two countries' relationship. This is what - they referred to it as a special relationship because it's pretty long and very deep. And they were talking about this idea of a new Atlantic Charter. And this goes back to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt doing the same back in World War II to fight the Nazis. And Biden sort of suggested that these two old friends, they face a new group of big challenges right now, everything from rebuilding the economy after COVID to countering Russia and China and their attempts to undermine Western democracy. And this is what the president said yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We affirmed the special relationship - that is not said lightly - the special relationship between our people and renewed our commitment to defending the enduring democratic values that both our nations share.

LANGFITT: And one of the things that was really interesting is that Johnson also talked about the countries' shared agenda. And he referred to it as a breath of fresh air. And I got to say, that sounded like a criticism of former President Trump. You remember, they were really friendly in public. But if you actually look at the issues, Johnson and Trump were very different. This is what the Prime Minister said yesterday to the BBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: It's an incredibly important strategic relationship. And the talks were very good. And there's no question that under President Biden, there is a massive amount that the new U.S. administration wants to do together with the U.K.

KING: On the other hand, Joe Biden has been critical of Johnson in the past. They have differences over Brexit, over Northern Ireland. Did any of that come up?

LANGFITT: Not that we heard. But we do know that he's very concerned, Biden and Washington in general, about peace in Northern Ireland because Brexit has created a border between Northern Ireland and the U.K. And it led to a lot of violence, actually, recently.

KING: Looking forward to the rest of the summit over the next several days, what is Joe Biden's main goal?

LANGFITT: I think he really wants to reaffirm sort of U.S. global leadership and repair some of these old friendships. If you remember, Donald Trump was very critical of America's allies and sometimes would praise its authoritarian rivals. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I think the European Union is a foe - what they do to us in trade. We're protecting Germany. We're protecting France. We're protecting everybody. And yet we're paying a lot of money to protect. May not be politically correct, but we have a world to run. And in the G-7, which used to be the G-8 - they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in.

LANGFITT: Here in Cornwall, along England's southwestern coast, Biden will strike a completely different tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship. But the United States is determined, determined to re-engage with Europe.

LANGFITT: Polls show that Biden's rhetoric and policy changes, such as rejoining the Paris climate accord, have already boosted America's image in parts of Europe. But analysts here say the U.S. must now find substantive ways at the G-7 to address some of the world's most pressing problems, ranging from pandemic recovery to battling climate change. Nathalie Tocci runs the Italian Institute of International Affairs in Rome.

NATHALIE TOCCI: We are beginning to ask ourselves questions along the lines of, OK, it's all very well and good that we love each other so much. But what is it that we're actually able to do together? It is going to be important, particularly in the context of the G-7, for there to be an agreement on something.

LANGFITT: The G-7 finance ministers did agree earlier this month to a global minimum corporate tax of at least 15%, which critics say is too low. This weekend, G-7 leaders will set their sights on the pandemic. On Thursday, Biden pledged to give 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to countries that can't afford to buy enough shots. Rob Yates runs the Centre for Universal Health at Chatham House, the London policy institute. He says other G-7 countries need to follow suit and help fund more factories and encourage drug companies to share knowhow to help those places lagging far behind rich ones in their vaccination drives.

ROB YATES: If the G-7 is going to be serious about global leadership, we need to be taking a whole-of-humanity perspective and really valuing the lives of people in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa like our own. This is going to require a massive effort.

LANGFITT: If the G-7 fails to take up this challenge to really have a much more equitable distribution of vaccines around the globe, how will that be met in the developing world?

YATES: A lot of the developing world would be very exasperated if we don't step up and will look to alternative, powerful countries to fill the gap.

LANGFITT: Which in a couple of cases would be authoritarian countries, Russia and China.

YATES: Well, exactly.

LANGFITT: The G-7 has already made progress on another big issue, climate change. Last month, environment ministers agreed to climate targets to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That's considerably more ambitious than the previous 2 degree ceiling.

SAMANTHA GROSS: This is a really big deal.

LANGFITT: Samantha Gross runs the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution, D.C. think tank. She says technological advances have made the lower temperature target possible.

GROSS: Wind and solar costs have been falling for years and are still falling. You're seeing battery costs fall. And those become less expensive. And so it's becoming easier and easier to decarbonize electricity.

LANGFITT: Gross says more action at the G-7 could provide momentum for change at two other global meetings this fall, the G-20 - the 20 countries that make up most of the world's GDP, which gathers in Rome - and the U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow.

GROSS: The G-20 and the G-7, they're small enough to get things done. And they have enough in common that they can work together. And they're also among the largest emitters. If the entire G-20 got onboard, you would cover the vast majority of the world's emissions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIO BENITEZ: We are still feeling that pain at the pump over the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack. This gas station right here...

LANGFITT: Another challenge leaders are expected to discuss in Cornwall is cybersecurity. Christopher Painter served as the top cyber diplomat at the U.S. State Department. He says G-7 countries need to impose heavier political and economic costs on nations that allow hackers to launch attacks from inside their borders.

CHRISTOPHER PAINTER: Countries can work together to use all their tools to try to pressure countries like Russia either when Russia itself is doing it as a state-sponsored activity or when Russia is harboring these cybercriminals.

LANGFITT: Critics complain that the G-7 is long on statements but short on movement. However, in the face of a once in a century pandemic and a narrowing window to tackle climate change, this time, there could be more pressure to act.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Cornwall, England. Thanks to your reporting, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "MANSIONS OF MILLIONS OF YEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.