Biden: China made 'a big mistake' by 'not showing up' at U.N. Climate Change Conference

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GLASGOW, Scotland — President Biden criticized China on Tuesday evening, saying at the U.N. Climate Change Conference that “it’s been a big mistake, quite frankly, for China ... not showing up” at the event, also known as COP26.

Responding to a reporter’s question at a press conference in Glasgow, Biden acknowledged that the conference’s momentum has been slowed by the fact that the top leaders of some large countries are not attending.

“China and Russia not showing up and Saudi Arabia not showing up is a problem,” Biden said.

President Biden stands at a podium and gives a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
President Biden delivers a speech at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/AFP via Getty Images)

“We showed up. We showed up,” he said, repeating himself for emphasis. “And by showing up we’ve had a profound effect on the way I think the rest of the world is looking at the United States and its leadership role.”

A top priority of the U.S. delegation at the conference has been to reestablish American leadership on fighting climate change following then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2020.

Biden apparently hoped that by boasting of the prestige his leadership on addressing climate change has brought to the United States, he could encourage China and Russia, which view themselves as world powers in competition with the U.S.

“The rest of the world is going to look to China and say, ‘What value added are they providing?’” Biden said. “And they’ve lost the ability to influence people all around the world, and all the people here at COP. The same, I would argue, with regard to Russia.”

China is currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, while the U.S. is the second. Russia is the fourth-largest, and Saudi Arabia ranks ninth. Russia and Saudi Arabia are also both major producers of oil and gas for export, while China manufactures products that are consumed worldwide, so the scope of the three countries’ participation in COP26 is important to the outcome.

A commuter wears a protective mask while standing and waiting at a traffic light during a seasonal sandstorm on April 15 in Beijing.
A commuter wears a protective mask while waiting at a traffic light during a seasonal sandstorm on April 15 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Technically, all three are participating in COP26, but their heads of state are not there in person, and all three countries have made only tepid, relatively unambitious pledges to reduce their own future emissions. China and Saudi Arabia, along with Australia and Japan, have also lobbied behind the scenes for setting a less ambitious target limiting average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, instead of the 1.5 degrees Celsius that scientists say is needed to avert catastrophic effects from climate change.

Later, in response to another question, Biden returned to the subject of China’s commitment.

“I think, presumptuous of me to say, to talk for another leader, but the fact of China is trying to assert a new role, understandably, in the world as a world leader and not showing up? C’mon,” Biden said with evident disappointment.

“The single thing that’s gotten the attention of the world is climate, everywhere from Iceland to Australia. You know what I mean? It’s just a gigantic issue. And they walked away,” he said. “How do you do that and claim to be able to have any leadership mantle?”

Biden had issued a similar complaint about China and Russia on Sunday in Rome, and he returned to Russia again in his comments Tuesday.

“Same with [President Vladimir] Putin and Russia: His tundra’s burning. Literally, the tundra’s burning,” Biden said. “He has serious, serious climate problems. And he is mum on the willingness to do anything.”

Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades. Step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.

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