2017: Trump Peddles Climate Doubt in a World Sold on Action

The president-elect can surround himself with climate deniers, but he will govern in a world where climate change affects almost all international dealings.

When Donald Trump takes over the U.S. presidency from Barack Obama he will face a world already committed to climate change action, and his hostility to science and action could cause diplomatic ripple effects. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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President-elect Donald Trump may dismiss the Paris Agreement and pack his cabinet with climate deniers, but once he takes office, he will face a world that takes the climate crisis as seriously as he does not.

He will enter a complex web of diplomatic relations, where issues like trade, finance, migration, security, poverty, food aid and disaster relief are all intertwined and all have important links to the climate agenda. It’s a world already dealing with significant climate impacts and sold on climate action.

“I am struck by the shift over the last few years in how the global community puts climate change on its agenda,” Jonathan Pershing, President Obama’s special envoy on climate, told InsideClimate News. “It is now virtually everywhere.”

Since the signing of the Paris Agreement a year ago, addressing climate change has remained a major imperative for most of the world’s nations. Enough countries quickly ratified the accord so that it entered into force early, in November. Shortly after Trump’s surprising election, delegates from virtually every country in the world gathered in Marrakech to start putting the Paris treaty immediately into action.

Most countries also signed on to two other agreements this fall: one to reduce potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and another to cap emissions for the aviation industry.

Whatever the U.S. does under Trump, other countries “will move whether or not we are moving forward,” Pershing predicted.

“It’s already built into decisions that are being made,” said Timothy Wirth, vice chair of the United Nations Foundation, a former Colorado Senator and a top climate negotiator for former President Clinton. “To try to fight an uphill, rearguard action against the realities of science and climate seems to be a very worthless political exercise. They’d get nothing out it.”

Nathaniel Keohane, climate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that U.S. climate action could be a litmus test to gauge how far the Trump administration is willing to go in other realms of cooperation. It may even become a prime bargaining chip.

“What a country does in terms of its climate commitments is taken as a signal of how it’s going to act on its other commitments,” he said. For other countries, “how they engage, how willing they are to align themselves with some of the U.S. asks and U.S. priorities,” will be based partly on how America behaves on the climate front, he said.

“We would lose a seat at the table,” said David Wirth, a law professor at Boston College and a former legal adviser to the State Department. “We would lose leverage. We would create an immense amount of ill-will having taken on these obligations and now saying we are backing off for no obvious benefit.”

What the Trump administration will ultimately do on climate change is still unclear, but the evidence keeps piling up that it will be hostile to climate science and action. If Trump officials follow through with their most aggressive promises, such as to to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that oversees the accord, it would put the U.S. in new diplomatic territory.

The closest example is when George W. Bush distanced the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. The U.S., however, had not already ratified the agreement and the accord hadn’t already entered into force.

“I think it’s very hard for the U.S. to turn this around,” said former Sen. Wirth of the world’s climate commitment. If they tried, there “will be so much hue and cry.”

Climate Now ‘Core Issue’ in International Diplomacy

Beyond the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, the U.S., the largest economy in the world, is a member of several other international groups that have climate change high on their agendas, including the Group of Seven (G7) and Group of 20 (G20). And while the climate debate in U.S. politics is stuck on whether Earth is warming, discussion in these forums is focused on how bad it will be and what nations need to do about it. There is no waffling on the science.

“Climate has fundamentally become a core issue in international diplomacy and policymaking. We see it at every G-summit and G20 now,” said David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative. “That’s not going to change. And so any government out there that’s in that space, if they don’t deal with it they are going to be left aside at that table.”

Indeed, the international community has come to understand that the climate crisis is already happening and that it can exacerbate many existing world problems—hunger and poverty, the spread of diseases, refugees and perhaps even revolts. Climate solutions are also increasingly viewed as opportunities to address these issues. The Paris agreement states that combating the climate crisis must go hand in hand with poverty reduction and development. So does the sustainable development agenda that U.N. countries adopted last year.

Global discussions will be intensified by headline events like people dying in droves from the heat, storms swamping fragile island states, choking air pollution that shuts down cities and migrants fleeing drought. All of this affects not just third-world nations, but economic giants as well.

“Increasingly climate change is being viewed as a security threat and this involves government in a very, very different way,” said Pershing.

Trump’s diplomats may quickly be confronted with these issues at the 2017 G7 summit, which will focus on Africa and migration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the new leader of the G20, has already indicated she will push Trump on climate change and renewables. Germany recently unveiled the latest G20 agenda and it lists climate change as a priority.

The G20 has already pushed the conversation forward on climate disclosures. Under the group’s marching orders, an international panel of economic experts, called the Financial Stability Board, just released recommendations for how companies should disclose to shareholders the climate risks they face, such as climate threats to a supply chain or the risk of assets losing their value in a world that transitions to a low-carbon economy.

There are many other coordinated efforts, too. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, for instance, has been working with governments on climate economics and policy for decades. The International Energy Agency, which provides energy analysis to industrialized nations, has urged rapid reductions in fossil fuel emissions. The World Bank has financed climate projects across the globe. And the Arctic Council, of which the U.S. is now chair, handles international diplomacy in one of the world’s fastest-changing regions.

Officials from Canada, a major Arctic nation, have said they will try to convince Trump on climate change. China’s president said he expects Trump to keep America’s climate commitments. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested imposing a carbon tariff on U.S. products, but that did not quickly gain widespread support. Germany has dismissed the idea, but Canada and Mexico are reportedly open to it.

“We will try to convince the Trump administration to go ahead in the fight against climate change and avoid greenhouse gas emissions,” Stephane Dion, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, told the Canadian Press.

Whether or not Trump listens will be what the whole world is watching.