ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The people negotiating a climate agreement here are diplomats. It's literally their job to be diplomatic. So you ask delegates how the talks are going, and they tell you they're hopeful or optimistic, which makes this a rather bracing assessment.
COLIN YOUNG: We are not seeing that level of commitment nor ambition from the countries who are most responsible for causing climate change.
SHAPIRO: Including the United States.
YOUNG: Including the United States.
SHAPIRO: That's Colin Young, executive director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center. I wanted to understand how the U.S. is perceived here at COP26, and he said he's disappointed.
YOUNG: What we are seeing is a lot of talk, a lot of posturing. What leaders are saying and what's happening in the negotiating rooms are very, very different.
SHAPIRO: So when you hear President Biden or John Kerry say America is back, what goes through your head?
YOUNG: We'd want to see it. We'd want to see it in terms of where the actions that are being taken matches the rhetoric. This is a collective responsibility we all have, but certain countries have an outsize role to play, especially in terms of global leadership.
SHAPIRO: Global leadership - it's the No. 1 talking point that every senior U.S. official here in Glasgow has hit. Their speeches might not specifically mention President Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord four years ago, but they don't let you forget it, either. Here was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at an event this week focused on gender.
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NANCY PELOSI: And we come here equipped, ready to take on the challenge, to meet the moment.
SHAPIRO: And you hear the same thing in one-on-one conversations, like when I spoke with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg yesterday.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: It's been really encouraging to see how warmly I've been received and how warmly I think the U.S. is being received by a lot of countries that really missed us these last few years and recognize the importance of the U.S. not just being around but being in a leadership position.
SHAPIRO: So are diplomats from other countries just being diplomatic, or do people here really think the Biden administration is doing enough to lead the world away from the brink of catastrophe? I decided to ask some folks.
We went to the Glasgow Science Center, which has been converted to what's known as the Green Zone. It's a place for civil society groups, activists and corporations to gather, demonstrate and set up displays.
JAMES SILVERMAN: As far as I can tell, America is a bipolar actor with two forces. And each take turns driving, and they're going in different directions.
SHAPIRO: James Silverman (ph) is a 26-year-old Londoner who works in sustainable development.
SILVERMAN: The world looks at America like, what is going on?
SILVERMAN: Just make a decision and stick with it, please.
SHAPIRO: Is there anything you think this administration could do that would be persuasive?
SILVERMAN: It's difficult because it's not a single-administration job. No matter what this administration does, how do I know the next one's going to uphold any of that?
SHAPIRO: So that's one critique - that the U.S. is unpredictable. Policy may do a 180 depending on which party is in control. But there's another critique, which is that American leaders are, sadly, all too predictable. This comes from a 22-year-old Malaysian climate activist named Hailey Tan.
When you hear American leaders say the U.S. is back, we're ready to lead, what do you hear? Do you believe it?
HAILEY TAN: I hear lies, and I hear broken promises. As we know, the President Obama has promised the global south 100 billion since 2009. And yet we are in 2021, and we have not received finance. And we think that the global south and the most affected peoples and areas deserve more, and we deserve the truth and to stop being lied to and fed greenwashing lies.
SHAPIRO: And that view has a ripple effect.
DIANA ELHARD: My research is on climate finance, and so I talk with a lot of people who are - you know, the U.S. isn't meeting its promises on that front.
SHAPIRO: Diana Elhard is a graduate student at Northwestern University. She's been to a few COP summits, and she has learned to expect a certain reaction when she says she's American.
ELHARD: It's not so much an eye roll, and it's not so much a sigh. It's hard, too, because of masks, right? So...
ELHARD: But it's like something in the eyes is just, like, not there.
ELHARD: It's like a connection is like, not...
ELHARD: It's like, oh. Particularly when I talk about the climate finance stuff, it's like, oh, you're from the U.S., and you do climate finance. Like, what are we going to see? The money? It's just the tone. I think it changes fundamentally the tone of the conversations.
SHAPIRO: I actually wasn't able to find anyone who gave an unequivocal thumbs-up when I asked about claims of U.S. leadership, and that may be tied to another way of looking at this question. Colin Young of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre pointed out to me nations in his region are working to clean up a mess that they didn't make.
YOUNG: On a per capita basis, we are doing more than some of the larger countries to cut emissions, even though our emissions in the entire Caribbean is less than 1%. We are also doing collectively our part.
YOUNG: But then you're not living up to your part.
SHAPIRO: Climate change is a crisis the U.S. played a leading role in creating. For decades, Americans emitted far more carbon than any other nation, so many people here at COP26 believe U.S. leaders shouldn't ask for a pat on the back when they say they'll try to fix it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.