U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Eduardo Munoz/Pool Photo via AP)

Fact Check: In UN speech, Joe Biden calls for collective action on climate, COVID-19

In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly as president, President Joe Biden said the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and other threats present world leaders with a stark choice at “the dawning of what must be a decisive decade for our world.”

“We’re challenged by urgent and looming crises, wherein lie enormous opportunities, if we can summon the will and resolve to seize these opportunities,” Biden said Sept. 21.

Biden addressed protecting the rights of women, nuclear disarmament, expanding individual liberty, and reducing global hunger, casting the U.S. as focused on diplomacy and partnerships.

“We are not seeking a new cold war, or a world divided into rigid blocs,” Biden said. “The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges, even if we have intense disagreement in other areas, because we’ll all suffer the consequences of our failure.”

While most of his address focused on lofty goals, we noticed a few points that needed additional context or clarification.

On climate change, “the scientists and experts are telling us we are fast approaching a point of no return.”

Biden’s words about “approaching a point of no return” reflects the broad concern that the world is unlikely to be able to keep global warming to within the 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that under every scenario they tested, global surface temperature will continue to rise until at least the middle of the century.

Climate scientists at Oxford University in England and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands said the “point of no return” is not a fixed date. Instead, they said it will change, depending on the temperature target and the tolerance for risk among the population.

Biden underscored the need for collective action to rein in climate change that is “ravaging every part of our world with extreme weather.” The alternative, he said, was to suffer “the merciless march of ever-worsening droughts and floods, more intense fires and hurricanes, longer heat waves and rising seas.”

In the past decade, researchers have grown increasingly confident that hard data shows a causal link between climate change and extreme weather.

In a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changereleased Aug. 9, 234 authors relying on more than 14,000 studies stated that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” It also said that some recent extreme weather events would be highly unlikely without this warming.

In some cases, researchers reach very precise conclusions. Atmospheric scientist Kevin Reed at Stony Brook University looked at rainfall from Hurricane Dorian in 2019, and reported that climate change increased the amount of rain by 16%.

But the science isn’t clear for all events. An international group of researchers called World Weather Attribution found that the 2021 record-breaking heat in the Pacific Northwest was “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.” On the other hand, the group has found it difficult to establish a connection with droughts.

The United States “is the largest contributor to humanitarian assistance” of any country.

Based just on the dollar amounts, Biden is correct that the United States ranks first in both foreign aid overall and for humanitarian aid specifically. But if you factor in the size of each country’s economy — and the U.S. has the world’s largest — more than 20 nations are more generous.

Looking at dollar amounts for 2020, data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that the U.S. spent more on foreign aid than any other nation, or about $35.5 billion. The next closest nation was Germany, with about $28.4 billion.

The OECD also breaks out humanitarian aid, and here the disparity is even more lopsided. The United States provided about $8.8 billion in humanitarian aid, far outpacing the second-ranking country, Germany with just under $3 billion.

But relative to each country’s economy, the United States ranked toward the bottom of the pack.

The United States spent 0.17% of its gross national income on foreign aid (and an even tinier fraction on humanitarian aid). The U.S. ranking on the percentage-based list was 22nd; Sweden ranked first with 1.14%.

“Already the United States has put more than $15 billion toward global COVID response. We’ve shipped more than 160 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to other countries.”

These numbers appear to be in the ballpark. Some experts have said the pace of donations is too slow.The Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks this spending, tallied $19 billion for global COVID-19 purposes (not just for vaccines).

On vaccines specifically, the U.S. budgeted $4 billion, some of which went to COVAX as a financial contribution and some in kind as donated doses, said Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. COVAX is an international consortium to share vaccines.

A State Department spokesperson told us that the United States donated nearly 160 million vaccine doses to over 100 countries in coordinated efforts with Gavi, COVAX, the African Union, and bilateral agreements, using higher figures than what appeared on the State Department’s website as of Sept. 19.

The U.S. has donated more than all other countries combined, but the number of doses donated is still very small relative to the global need, said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

“We need to provide more doses more quickly, and also use our influence to accelerate dose-sharing by other countries, most of which have done very little to meet their pledges,” Udayakumar said.

Ron Waldman, George Washington University global health professor, echoed this point: “Vaccine nationalism — selfishness — has become a very defining characteristic of this pandemic. As a result, many countries have been left without vaccine. The U.S. has clearly been partially responsible for allowing a very clear picture of vaccine inequity to develop.”

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