Trump’s isolationism on full display at international climate talks

Trump’s isolationism on full display at international climate talks
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The last two weeks saw the annual global climate diplomacy showdown in Bonn, Germany, where nearly 20,000 people gathered to define the details of the Paris Agreement. Several heads of state and ministers were in attendance to report on how their countries are preparing themselves to implement the climate agreement.

For anyone in the U.S. still wondering, Bonn made clear that the Paris Agreement is very much alive, with or without the United States. Though many regarded it as an insider technical affair to produce the fine print attached to the Paris Agreement, it featured a few events of significance for the United States.


The American press reported widely on Trump administration’s infamously tone-deaf feature event on “The role of cleaner and more efficient fossil fuels and nuclear power in climate mitigation.” The entire spectacle was basically a futile defense of the misnomer “clean coal.”


Rare for this conference, this event was delayed because of a loud protest staged by civil society groups. As former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg tweeted, “promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit”. It was unnecessary and an example of how out of touch the Trump administration is with the rest of the world.

Apart from Trump, his cabinet and his most ardent fossil fuel industry supporters, there is a complete global political consensus on the urgency of the problem and the collective action needed to tackle it.

This is the first year that an island nation — Fiji — presided over what may be the most complex multilateral process ever negotiated by humanity. Being obvious victims of climate change due to sea level rise, exposure to hurricanes and destruction of coral reef ecosystems, island states are the moral consciousness and the most urgent doomsayers in the climate change negotiations. 

During the first week of the conference, Syria, despite being devastated by civil war, joined the Paris Agreement, leaving the United States isolated as literally the only nation trying to back away from the accord. 

Another highly visible affair was the shadow U.S. delegation composed of several state governors spearheaded by California Gov. Jerry Brown and prominent former elected officials such as Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreFox's Napolitano: 2000 election will look like 'child's play' compared to 2020 legal battles Who calls an election? Why we need patience and nonpartisanship this time Universal mail-in voting jeopardizes the equal right to vote, but absentee voting protects it MORE. Many delegates regarded the grouping as the de-facto U.S. delegation, which was, without a doubt, much busier and more popular than the one composed of officials from the White House. This shadow delegation’s “America’s pledge” is a message to the rest of the world that the U.S. is still engaged.

But beyond what was reported about the Bonn meetings, there are three aspects that may not be as obvious to the average American and that have repercussions beyond the climate world. 

It was clear after the meeting in Bonn that the Trump administration’s decision to disengage from the Paris Agreement has relevant consequences for the United States: the loss of international political leadership and influence, the loss of enormous economic potential, and a loss of transparency in global affairs in general.

The self-imposed isolationist path that the Trump administration has taken in many areas is perhaps most evident in the climate negotiations.

During the Bonn conference, the president of France explicitly committed to assist the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the body that unites thousands of the top scientists around the world and informs the United Nations conference. President Macron vowed to replace every dollar that the U.S. government is taking out of climate science. 

China, together with the European Union and Canada, stepped up in their “Ministerial Climate Action” coalition, which came about as a result of Trump’s election last year.

It does not take a Ph.D. to figure out that in global affairs as well as almost in anything in life, you reap what you sow. Not engaging the world in an issue common concern and priority will result in the world not entertaining U.S. priorities.

The economic consequences of pulling back on climate action are also clear — and stark. As part of their commitments to the Paris Agreement, many countries will rapidly transition to clean energy. The United States would ordinarily be in an excellent position to benefit from leading in the clean energy sector. Unfortunately, by not engaging, the Trump administration risks handing the economic benefits of the world’s transition to clean energy to our main financial competitors — China, Germany and Japan.

Finally, the world will lose out as a result of the United States not engaging in the Paris Agreement, because other countries that have less democratic traditions and where civil society does not exercise a relevant role in internal affairs will fill the void left by the U.S. and be emboldened.

For example, we can see that China is not as interested in strengthening the aspects of the Paris Agreement that have to do with “monitoring, reporting and verification” of climate reductions, something that the United States, together with Europe, had emphasized in the past.

Similarly, this past week Saudi Arabia slowed down aspects of the negotiations with pre-Paris arguments about common but differentiated responsibilities between developed and developing countries, something that the United States could have helped to diminish had they been interested in the success of the treaty. 

It is a shame that the United States chose a path against science and in favor of isolationism. President Trump, willingly or not, is driving the United States out of the position it had for the past 100 years as world leader and moral force.

Unfortunately, many of his supporters are not yet interested in removing their blinders. Therefore, we need leadership from other parts of the country and other branches of government in order to maintain the moral authority of the United States of America.

Ramon Cruz is is a member of the Sierra Club's National Board of Directors. Cruz previously served as vice president of the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board.