Energy & Environment

United States going it alone on climate change: What it means

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President Trump’s decision not to sign a Group of 20 declaration on climate change this weekend further isolated the United States on the issue.

Trump’s action — making the U.S. the only G-20 country not to support the Paris climate agreement or its underlying goals — further solidifies the White House’s embrace of the president’s “America First” campaign pledge.

{mosads}But it also reinforces the degree to which Trump is willing to go it alone on the environment, a decision observers say will hurt the United States diplomatically and threaten the world’s efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and confront climate change.

The G-20 declaration on climate change, issued during the first international summit since Trump’s June 1 decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, devoted an entire paragraph to the Trump administration’s position, including its plan to use fossil fuels “more cleanly and efficiently,” an addition that angered environmental activists.

The declaration quickly moved on from the U.S. position, stating that “the leaders of the other G-20 members state that the Paris agreement is irreversible.”

“We reaffirm our strong commitment to the Paris agreement, moving swiftly towards its full implementation in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” the declaration read.

World leaders reacted to the G-20 summit by refining their opposition to Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement.

After the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “everyone was against the United States” on climate change.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who will host Trump in Paris later this week, tweeted a picture with Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying, “To defend the Paris agreement, France and China are united,” adding the hashtag #MakeOurPlanetGreatAgain.

Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the United Nations’ climate mission, said in a statement that the U.S.’s position on the Paris agreement “has triggered widespread disappointment but also unprecedented solidarity among all other nations and cities, states and the private sector in the U.S. and beyond.”

She added, “That reality is that this is not like a chain, broken by one link, but an ever deeper and widening web of internationally aligned self-interest that bodes well now and over the years and decades to come.”

Advocates of the Paris agreement said the declaration’s language, and the dismissal of Trump’s position, shows the world is more than willing to marginalize the U.S. on climate policy.

“Time and again, world leaders have affirmed that the Paris agreement lays the foundation for a safer and prosperous pathway,” said Andrew Steer, the president and CEO of the World Resources Institute.

“In agreeing to the G-20 communique and Action Plan, these 19 leaders signaled their unmistakable commitment to that brighter future. While the U.S. pushed hard to weaken the communique, the Germans, Europeans and many others stood firm to keep the text tied to reality.”

The White House has defended the decision to pull back from Paris and its position within the G-20.

“There’s a diversity of opinions in a group of 20, so there’s people on every side of the issue, so it was never a situation where there was an isolated force there,” Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, said after the summit. Cohn had supported staying in the Paris agreement.

“Everyone accepted that, very early, that we chose to get out of the Paris agreement. But we do go out of our way to say in there that that doesn’t mean that we don’t support the environment, and we’re still working for the environment.”

After a lengthy internal debate about the status of the Paris agreement, Trump pulled out of the pact in June, blasting it as a bad deal for the United States because of financial commitments and greenhouse gas reduction targets established by the Obama administration in 2015. 

Trump has vowed to renegotiate the Paris agreement in order to get a better deal for the U.S., though there is no indication any other country is willing to go along with that plan.

Instead, Trump and his allies have touted his agenda as one meant to help U.S. energy firms and consumers that might otherwise face the prospect of a 26 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions envisioned by Obama.

“I suspect the Merkel et al. crowd are stunned that President Trump didn’t agree to some softening of his position, after all of their acting out,” said Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and critic of the Paris agreement, in an email.

“Her post-event commentary suggests this is the case and that she still can’t get her head around it. All they got was their own words, and no indication from [Trump] that the resistance inside the White House and State [Department] has made any headway whatsoever.”

Despite European commitments to the Paris agreement, there are indications Trump’s position has hurt international implementation of the agreement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this weekend that his country is less likely to ratify the agreement because of Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of it.

And finance officials at the Green Climate Fund, which aims to support climate adaptation work around the world, are also grappling with Trump’s decision to halt payments into the program.

Obama pledged $3 billion for the GCF by 2020, which is aiming to pump $100 billion into climate work in developing countries. Obama sent $1 billion to the fund, but Trump has said the U.S. will stop future GCF spending. 

“Already, wealthy countries were delivering far less than what was needed for poorer countries to deal with climate change. With Trump, the sum total will be even less,” said Karen Orenstein, the deputy director of the Economic Policy program at Friends of the Earth, who attended a GCF board meeting last week.

“Though little discussed, the reneging of the U.S. on $2 billion of a $3 billion pledge was definitely the elephant in the boardroom.”

Timothy Cama contributed.


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