The U.S.: A Hostile Environment for Climate Change?

5 MINS READJun 1, 2017 | 22:45 GMT
Exhaust rises from plants in Oberhausen, Germany.
Compliance with the Paris Agreement on climate change is — and will continue to be — largely driven by technological progress, economics and the political imperatives of individual nations.
(LUKAS SCHULZE/Getty Images)

Just days before the election that won Donald Trump the U.S. presidency, the Paris Agreement on climate change was enacted. The deal's list of signatories grew to include most of the globe in the months that followed. Then on Thursday, Trump announced his plan to pull out of the accord, confirming rumors that have been circulating for the past week. Though he left the door open to renegotiation, the United States will now join the lonely ranks of nonparticipants, which currently comprise only Nicaragua and Syria. For the most part Trump's rejection of the deal, touted as a landmark achievement in December 2015, is symbolic. As various forces advance the effort to address climate change, the industries, investors and military interests underpinning Washington's environmental policy will continue to dictate its actions on the issue. But the United States' withdrawal from the pact nevertheless raises an important question: Will China be able to fill the hole in global leadership that its Western rival will leave behind?

Despite the overwhelming consensus it inspired, the Paris Agreement itself has always been weak at its core. International courts, after all, have few ways to enforce it, and without consequences for those who fail to comply with its stipulations, there is little opportunity to hold shirkers accountable. Instead, compliance with the deal is — and will continue to be — largely driven by technological progress, economics and the political imperatives of individual nations.

Prior to Trump's announcement on Thursday, U.S. policy had already begun to diverge from the Paris Agreement. In March, Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency to review national fuel economy standards, and on May 31, he extended waivers on regulations from his predecessor's tenure for methane standards in oil and natural gas drilling. Officially pulling out of the pact will take four years, but in the meantime, the White House will pursue its policy objectives regardless of the United States' technical status in the Paris Agreement. 

Of course, that doesn't mean all of the policies undertaken under Trump will go against the accord's intent. A split has reportedly already surfaced in the White House over environmental policy. On one side stands a nationalistic faction that has disputed the validity of climate change and, like the president, has argued that the climate pact doesn't ask for large enough contributions from major emitters such as India and China. On the other sits the Wall Street contingent, driven by industrial and investor interests, that has pushed Trump to keep the United States in the deal.

Among American businesses, pressure has been building on corporations to acknowledge climate change and factor the risks it carries into their plans for the future. Consider the Exxon Mobil Corp. At the company's annual shareholders' conference on May 31, 62 percent of shareholders voted in favor of producing a yearly report on the effect of climate change on the company. (The motion followed a similar measure put forth by Occidental Petroleum Corp.'s shareholders earlier in the month.) Regardless of whether the proposal moves forward, its very existence underscores the fact that today's investors are keenly aware of the risks climate change presents.

The U.S. military and intelligence community have recognized the dangers as well and have taken steps to account for them. On its website, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence specifically referenced the threats posed by climate change, including societal disruption, altered living patterns and, eventually, heightened tension. Defense Secretary James Mattis has likewise pointed to the detrimental effects climate change has had on stability in regions where U.S. troops are deployed. These statements are hardly new; in 2015, the Department of Defense commissioned a report that reached the same conclusion.

Trump's decision to walk away from the Paris Agreement will not come without political consequences abroad. Under former President Barack Obama, the United States was among the handful of countries leading the lobbying effort to get stragglers on board with the pact. As it stands, 48 signatories still have not ratified the deal, which means France, Germany and China will have to take on the task of persuading them to finalize their participation. The United States' withdrawal, moreover, may encourage other countries that stand to gain from reneging on the agreement, such as Canada and Australia, to someday follow in its footsteps under new leadership.

Still, the international community will continue working together to implement the Paris Agreement, with or without the United States. At the end of this year's G-7 summit May 26-27, the United States' six fellow members in the group issued a joint statement on climate change without it. Europe and China, meanwhile, have stepped up their cooperation to crack down on global emissions. The two moved up a bilateral meeting scheduled for July — reportedly to send the United States a message about their positions on trade and the environment — and they are expected to issue a joint statement on climate change at the event. Similar rhetoric may well come out of the G-20 summit in Hamburg on July 7-8.

China, for its part, will be prepared to step in as the world looks to fill the leadership void the United States' departure will create. China's broader geopolitical imperatives have already lent momentum to environmental reforms at home and abroad. One area where Beijing may try to replace Washington in the coming years is the Green Climate Fund, for which Trump pledged in a press briefing Thursday to pull U.S. support. The fund aims to help developing nations incorporate renewable and more efficient technologies into their economies. And it may find a new patron in China as Beijing continues to pursue greater influence in the developing world.

Either way, today's announcement will do little to change the course of Washington's environmental policy. Geopolitical forces, rather than international deals, have shaped the United States' incorporation of cutting-edge technologies since long before Trump was elected, and they will continue to do so long after his tenure ends.

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