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Abdicating U.S. Climate Leadership Could ‘Make China Great Again’

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In the wake of Donald Trump’s Tuesday afternoon executive order on climate change and energy, analysts and advocates were emphatic—just as they were in the immediate aftermath [1] of the United States election—that no one country has the ability to derail global action on climate change.

As it turned out, the executive order was conspicuously silent about the United States’ future participation in global climate initiatives, signaling [2] that a fierce policy battle within the administration on whether to depart the Paris agreement has yet to fully play out. But by drawing the U.S. to the end of its dominant position in international climate fora, several news reports concluded, the net impact of the order might be help “make China great again” [3].

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“Hampering the U.S.’ ability to deliver on its international climate commitments will impact the world’s climate trajectory, but it will not define its outcome,” said [5] WWF Global Climate and Energy Practice Leader Manuel-Pulgar Vidal. “Our ability to achieve the promise of the Paris agreement does not rest on the actions of one government alone.”

“The action by the U.S. to undo important domestic carbon reduction regulation in the face of the enormous momentum building globally toward a low-carbon economy risks putting the country on a back foot at a time when most Americans are looking to lead. This decision will make things harder, not easier for Americans,” said former UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to breathe dirty air, who wants to worry about their water source, or who wants to leave a dangerous world to their children. And because we are all united by these common desires, I am optimistic that Paris will endure.”

At Vox.com, correspondent Brad Plumer summarized [2] the unfolding White House debate over the Paris deal. Senior strategist Stephen Bannon is believed to be urging Trump to keep his campaign promise to renounce the agreement, while other voices, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and First Daughter Ivanka Trump, urge a more measured position.

As that argument plays out, “there are a few policy nuances to this debate that are worth exploring,” Plumer noted. “If Trump decides to walk away from Paris, pay attention to how he does it—since that could influence whether countries like India or Brazil end up scaling back their own climate efforts in response. Conversely, if Trump sticks with Paris, that’s not necessarily a total victory for efforts to tackle global warming, since a lot depends on how seriously the U.S. works to reduce its own emissions,” and how the State Department approaches future Paris negotiations.

Whatever position the White House eventually arrives at, Jake Schmidt, international program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, stressed [6] that Trump’s executive action can’t sign away global progress on climate change.

Preliminary estimates put total [global] wind and solar installations at new records, with $287 billion in new clean energy investments in 2016,” he wrote. “And more climate action and clean energy is coming around the world. To date, 141 countries have formally joined the Paris Agreement [7] and detailed specific national climate action plans that they will implement in the coming years. Implementing these targets will unleash an even greater shift to clean energy around the world. These countries are acting because it is in their own interest to continue to move forward.

So while the U.S. stepping back from international climate negotiations and finance would be noticed, and their more active recent participation would be missed, Trump’s withdrawal would be more a matter of passing the torch than burning down the house.

The U.S. has brought a great deal to the international climate effort: billions of dollars of funding [8] that helped persuade poorer nations to accept the landmark deal in Paris in 2015, as well as world-leading scientific observation and research,” the Guardian’s Damian Carrington reported. Now that Paris has entered into force and negotiations have shifted to implementation, “Trump may pull all that from the table, but there are plenty of other players ready to step up, not least the European Union and China.”

He added that it’s “far from fanciful to imagine other nations penalizing future U.S. goods if they are produced with dirty energy. Politicians are already talking about such border carbon taxes [9] and might point to the astronomical tariffs the U.S. imposes [10] on imports of which it disapproves, such as Chinese steel.

But that doesn’t speak to the front-line impacts—or the front-line message—of the U.S. stepping away from a global crisis that is already affecting vulnerable nations and communities around the world.

“Trump’s reprehensible move to dismantle U.S. progress in fighting climate change is yet another signal that this administration could not care less about the millions of vulnerable people around the world who live on the front lines of a climate crisis they did not create,” said Oxfam America Climate Change Manager Heather Coleman. “These actions cater to the fossil fuel industry and corporate elites, while leaving the most vulnerable high and dry.”

Coleman added that “never before have the impacts of a changing climate felt so severe, with disproportionate impacts on those already living in poverty here at home and across the world. Yet with these actions, the Trump administration is choosing to abandon any claim to the U.S. moral high ground.”