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Joshua Busby: The actions of the United States and China

Joshua Busby is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center, nonresident fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate & Security. He was a Senior Advisor for Climate at the U.S. Department of Defense and is serving in a part-time capacity in that role through June 2023. Dr. Busby has published widely on climate change, global health, transnational advocacy movements and U.S. foreign policy for various think tanks and academic journals, including International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Security Studies and Perspectives on Politics.

Dr. Busby was one of the lead researchers on a five-year, $7.6 million project funded by the Department of Defense called "Climate Change and African Political Stability" (CCAPS). He is the principal investigator of another DOD-funded project, "Complex Emergencies and Political Stability in Asia" (CEPSA) — a three-year, $1.9 million grant. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He received his Ph.D. in political science in 2004 from Georgetown University.

The actions of the United States and China are critical to future leadership in global climate governance

The worsening of climate change has become more common due to the frequency of extreme weather events this summer. From smoke from wildfires, causing pollution-related health problems, to hurricanes and floods that destroyed millions of homes and infrastructure around the world, climate change is undoubtedly behind these extreme summer weather events. It's an unfortunate cycle that repeats itself over and over again, resulting in destruction and loss for millions of people during the summer months. Authorities and governments around the world must reduce and phase out emissions as soon as possible to avoid more frequent and severe natural disasters in the coming years. To better understand governments' willingness and ability to work on climate governance and cooperation, SPCIS has interviewed Professor Joshua Busby of the University of Texas at Austin.

In the work, “Following the Leaders? How to Restore Progress in Global Climate Governance”, we distinguished the different follower types based on two dimensions: (1) the extent of environmental mobilization in society and (2) state capacity. The first dimension reflects the extent to which environmental attitudes are represented in government while the second dimension gets at the government’s capacity to implement policies. In countries that have say a Green party in a coalition government or a pro-environment party in power in a single party democracy, we would code that government as having high mobilization. State capacity reflects the bureaucratic capacity of a country to implement policies, which may be reflected by the technical competence of the staff, some measures of bureaucratic autonomy, a government’s ability to leverage taxable income to support government ends, or some other proxy indicators such as investor assessments of bureaucratic capacity.

States that have high mobilization and high capacity are Enthusiasts. They may be leaders in their own rights of willing and able to follow leaders with simple invitations from leading countries to join coalitions of the willing such as the High Ambition Coalition or the Power Past Coal Alliance. These kinds of countries probably do not need many incentives to join ambitious climate efforts.

Other countries may have strong environmental sensibilities reflected in government but lack the resources or bureaucratic capacity to implement policy. Here, I’m thinking of governments that already have announced ambitious net zero decarbonization goals like Ghana that may have some challenges of actually making good on those promises. These countries are Pliables, willing but may be less able to implement climate mitigation goals. These countries might need fiscal and technical assistance to reach their goals. Here, would-be leaders might think of creative mechanisms to generate new ways to support Pliables such as cancelling bilateral or multilateral debts in exchange for deeper new spending on scaling up renewables or efforts to lower the borrowing costs in emerging markets.

Two more difficult categories of states include ones that have state capacity but low environmental mobilization in government, Reluctants, as well as states that have low mobilization and low state capacity, Hard Nuts. In terms of Reluctants, I’m thinking of Brazil under Bolsonaro. Those states may be hard to move to embrace climate mitigation, unless trade sanctions or other coercive measures can be leveraged, but these are expensive and may not be sustainable over time. The strategy in those circumstances might be to bide time and hope for new leadership and then seize on the cooperative opportunities if there is a leadership transition. President Lula’s election in Brazil provided just such a moment and leading countries need to support Lula’s efforts to rein in deforestation as France’s President Macron has done with his willingness [1] to join a new regional organization to combat deforestation in the Amazon.

As for Hard Nuts, these states not only don’t really want to implement ambitious climate action, they can’t. The challenge is if states that are responsible for a large share of global emissions are in this category, possibly states such as Saudi Arabia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). You would have to not only need to enhance their willingness to support climate policy (through coercion or incentives), leaders would also have to support their capacity to implement policy. Perhaps generous enough incentives such as funding to combat deforestation in the DRC could simultaneously build capacity and diminish opposition, but that may be wishful thinking.


Leaders need followers to lead and that support can only come about if leaders are able to skillfully marshal resources to support followers, demonstrate their own bonafides through their own action to reduce emissions, by developing new ideas to limit warming, or by creating and supporting new institutional forums.

Countries like the United States and China that purport to have leadership ambitions in this space have a lot of work to do to reduce their own emissions. Since the negotiation of the Paris Agreement in 2015, countries have made ambitious net zero pledges, but as we had in to the first global stocktake this year, action to date has been woefully insufficient and collectively, we are not on track to meet global goals of keeping global temperatures from increasing 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In my view, the actions of the U.S. and China are critical to global leadership in this space going forward.

In terms of the United States, the Biden Administation has embarked upon the most ambitious set of climate policies through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. These investments may yet help bring down the cost of key technologies for the energy transition such as battery storage, hydrogen, and green steel, which would allow other countries to benefit. However, the United States has not been able to mobilize significant climate finance to help other countries mitigate their own emissions or adapt to climate impacts. The U.S. Congress in its current makeup cannot be expected to be really help in this space, so the best bet is for the United States to use its leverage with multilateral lending institutions like the World Bank to help lower the cost of capital for developing countries.

For its part, China could demonstrate leadership first by renegotiating the terms of its international debts with poor countries so developing countries can repurpose their debt repayments for climate mitigation and adaptation. Given the existential risks to countries in the Pacific from climate change, China should also speed its efforts to phaseout coal and decarbonize. China and the U.S. should also work some modus vivendi that allows the continued trade in products for the clean energy transition with a minimum of political impediments, which could have large effects on third country suppliers of clean technology like Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia.

Joshua W. Busby

Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas-Austin

Distinguished Scholar, Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Climate & Security

Non-Resident Fellow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Contact: Sun Zhishan

Interview: Ye Jiewen

Editor: Liu Chaoqi



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