U.S. surrenders leadership at world’s climate change negotiation




When the dust cleared and the gavel dropped, the United States’ place at the 2018 global climate negotiations — a two-week long affair in Poland attended by nearly 200 nations — had been sealed.

The superpower’s behavior will almost certainly be remembered as equal parts bizarre and unhelpful, not least for its resistance — on the global stage — to climate science that has been intensively studied for decades, confirmed and re-confirmed by distinguished institutions like NASA.

After wrapping up talks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference late Saturday night, Earth’s nations did eventually find an agreeable way to keep the historic 2015 Paris climate agreement alive, which is humanity’s emerging plan to dramatically reduce today’s extreme and unprecedented rise in carbon emissions

Yet, while the overall talks established critical rules for how nations will count and potentially curb their carbon emissions, the United States’ shunned the opportunity to take on any sort of leadership role over the looming problem of climate change, a reality so problematic that the Department of Defense is openly worried about the consequences. 

Instead, the U.S. banded with a small cadre of four oil-dominated nations (including Saudi Arabia) and objected to the recent damning UN climate report. The U.S. then led a well-publicized event at the negotiations, in which it promoted the continued burning of coal — the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Protestors laughed and booed during the presentation.

“We’re clearly losing the position of leadership in relation to climate,” Paul Sabin, an associate professor of environmental history at Yale University, said in an interview. “My impression is that the global community is deeply mystified and greatly shocked by the U.S.’s position.”

The Trump Administration’s opposition to globally agreed-upon climate science is all the more perplexing, noted Sabin, because the United States’ historic economic and societal successes have largely been enabled by our scientific prowess, and reliance on the work of scientists. 

“Much of U.S. history is based in science and technology,” said Sabin. “The U.S. lives in a world that is crafted by science and engineering.”

“It’s a very strange position for the U.S. to take,” he added.

The Trump Administration’s position is especially stark when compared to three years previous in Paris, when then-President Obama stood in front of world leaders and declared: “I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”

Secretary of State John Kerry later signed the historic Paris Agreement on stage at the United Nations, with his granddaughter sitting in his lap

Over two years later, the Trump Administration no longer even pretends it’s interested in new, deeply-vetted climate science. In fact, the administration didn’t even bother to modify or censor the latest landmark climate reports prepared by U.S. scientists — which warn of the environmental harms already wrought by a warming globe. Instead, the administration simply dismissed the reports.  

“They simply ignore the science”

“The Trump Administration released a series of dire climate reports that directly contradict their policy positions,” James Turner, a U.S. environmental historian at Wellesley College, said in an interview. “They simply ignore the science and emphasize other priorities.”

These priorities include seeking more oil in hard-to-reach places and keeping the declining coal industry afloat as natural gas increasingly dominates the nation’s energy landscape.

Both the Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress are quite candid about their intention to continue questioning or denying climate science. Minimal leadership or any modicum of interest in the climate arena will almost certainly have to wait for a new, climate-friendly administration. In super-polarized America, that means Democrats. 

“The best thing this administration can do for climate change is to continue to mire itself in scandal, prompting a strong Democratic wave in 2020,” Daniel Sargent, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley who studies U.S. foreign relations, said in an interview. 

“I’m sorry to be so bleak,” Sargent added. 

A legacy of poor leadership

The Trump Administration’s leadership on climate may be exceptionally poor, but prior to President Obama, the U.S. didn’t have too impressive of a climate, nor global environmental, record.

Indeed, there are instances of U.S. environmental leadership on the world stage — notably in the 1980s when global nations banded together to preserve the depleting ozone layer, an agreement called the Montreal Protocol. But that was an exception. 

“I would challenge this idea that the U.S. has exercised leadership when it comes to the international environment — I think that’s romanticizing,” Michele Betsill, a political scientist at Colorado State University, said in an interview. 

Betsill points out that in 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol — a 1997 international agreement that concluded industrialized countries like the U.S. were responsible for reducing the planet’s high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

While European nations wanted to make the Kyoto Protocol international law, “the Bush Administration said ‘we don’t want anything to do with this agreement’,” said Betsill.

“That’s not leadership,” she added.

The U.S. began to distance itself from global environmental leadership during the conservative Reagan Administration, some four decades before the Trump Administration’s showing at this year’s climate talks. 

“This dynamic isn’t entirely new,” said Turner. “It represents the new culmination of deep suspicion from the Republican party towards the sciences and towards international action on environmental issues.”

“Back in the 1970s the environment was like motherhood and apple pie,” Turner added, referencing the President Richard Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its many environmental regulations, like the Clean Air Act. “That begins to fall apart with the Reagan Administration.”

“That’s not leadership”

President Reagan — who once argued that trees cause pollution — reacted to a shock of oil shortages in the late 1970s by seeking to expand U.S. access to oil. Environmental laws stood in his way

In recent years, however, political animosities to the environment have escalated. Climate change is now a tool openly employed by conservatives to deride environmental law and stoke passions about government overreach.

“The Republicans have made opposition to climate change a rallying cry for the conservative grassroots,” noted Turner. 

Blue colors shows temperatures cooler than average.

Red and yellows show temperatures above average.

Red and yellows show temperatures above average.

The U.S., though, hasn’t just been weak on environmental leadership for decades. “The record of U.S. leadership, virtually across the board since the 1970s, has been pretty dismal,” said Berkeley’s Sargent. 

With the diminished atomic threat from the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, the U.S. efforts to build international order and powerful global alliances like NATO have been lacking since the 1970s, noted Sargent. 

But, if the U.S. comes to see the looming threat of climate change like it once viewed the Soviet’s weapons of mass destruction, perhaps national leaders will become motivated to seriously combat climate change — rather than making due with questioning climate science at major international climate negotiations.

“If Americans come to see climate change and its disruption to our way of life as a threat no less than the Soviet Union, the U.S. may make those [climate] commitments,” said Sargent. 

The costs of denial

An unforgettable moment at the 2018 climate negotiations occurred when Wells Griffith, a Trump advisor on energy policy, told a crowd that “no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.”

In short, the Trump Administration argues that transitioning to a low-carbon economy is bad for American workers, and the greater economy. Indeed, in such a transition to cleaner energies some coal jobs will be lost, but many others gained — in realms like natural gas, solar, and wind.

But what Griffith and the greater Trump Administration overlook, or perhaps ignore, is that not weaning society from carbon-heavy fossil fuels will have dramatic, long-term economic costs. 

“Historical data clearly shows that during warmer years, economies do worse,” Marshall Burke, Deputy Director of Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment,” said in an interview.

Workers are less productive when its hot, and a nation’s overall output, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), falls. 

These costs really accumulate. Recent research suggests that if carbon emissions continue unabated through the century’s end, average global temperatures will rise by some 4.5 to 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5-3 degrees Celsius). This equates to a drop in GDP by some 25 percent, compared to limiting warming to around 2 degrees F.

“That’s just a pile of money we’re throwing away by not mitigating,” said Burke.

In the absence of U.S. climate leadership, it’s fair to say that European nations — in Sweden, Denmark, and beyond — have been the leaders keeping global climate action afloat, said Colorado State’s Betsill.

And as the U.S. steps offstage, another global power, China, has stepped in.

“In many ways China is stepping into a void left by the U.S. and is taking advantage of the age of Trump,” she said. 

In 2017 at the World Economic Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping noted that it’s “important to protect the environment” and “achieve harmony between man and nature.” Though, these are still only words: Coal-happy China is still the top user of coal in the world, and is the number one emitter of carbon.

But unlike the U.S., China didn’t object to the U.N.’s recent climate report at last week’s negotiations. The current U.S. political leadership is still mired in doubting well-established scientific fact, some of which are physical realities understood since the 19th century.

“I’d much rather be arguing about vision and values than the basics of climate change, which are beyond dispute,” said Turner.

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