The Debate

Will Trump Really be a Climate Change Disaster?

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The Debate

Will Trump Really be a Climate Change Disaster?

A closer look at how the president-elect might affect ongoing global climate efforts.

Will Trump Really be a Climate Change Disaster?
Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

The somber mood at the Marrakech climate talks during the last two weeks was in direct contrast to the globally coordinated celebration just a few days earlier as the Paris Agreement entered into force on November 4, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump’s wide disdain for climate change is well known. He infamously tweeted that climate change “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” and has declared that he would pull out of the Paris Agreement if elected.

By the end of the two weeks of negotiations, the shock and disbelief of Trump’s win made way for countries to renew their resolve. The Marrakech Action Proclamation, agreed to by 196 countries, calls for “highest political attention” to stay on course. Major economies like China, the EU, and Brazil have all expressed their support for the Paris process. In other words, while Trump’s victory dampened enthusiasm and introduced considerable uncertainty about what to expect over the next few years, the Paris Agreement is not about to go into a tailspin dive. However, as diplomats face the prospect of Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, they are confronted with two issues: how stable is the Paris Agreement, and how can they raise the costs or benefits to prevent Trump from pulling out?

How Robust is the Paris Agreement?

Compared to the Kyoto Protocol that suffered a massive setback when the United States refused to ratify the treaty, the Paris Agreement does not hang on a legal balance. The Paris Agreement is already in force.  Many countries strongly see it in their interest to act. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 48 developing countries, including some of the poorest, committed to generate power through 100 percent renewable energy.

For major economies like China, non-climate benefits like lowering air pollution and improving energy security have been major drivers for their climate policies. Earlier this year, even Saudi Arabia announced its Vision 2030 that aims to significantly reduce its reliance on oil. Countries also have their eyes set out to the future. Canada, Germany, Mexico and the United States submitted their plans for decarbonization out to 2050.

More than 365 U.S. companies, including Intel, Nike, and Unilever, issued a public call and urged Donald Trump not to ditch the Paris Agreement. California’s Governor Jerry Brown said Trump’s win would not change the state’s commitments on climate change.

There are many more examples of how countries, companies, and communities have vowed to move ahead regardless of what Trump does. Perhaps what makes Paris fundamentally robust is that it provides a legal architecture to capture what countries are doing, provide peer pressure and learning, and sends signals for the long direction of travel towards the goal of decarbonization.

Deterring a Trump Pull Out: Raise Costs or Benefits?

What can the Paris Agreement do to raise the costs to discourage Trump from pulling out? It cannot do much on its own. The Paris Agreement was explicitly designed as an agreement that facilitates implementation rather than forces compliance. It aspires to be as inclusive as possible (for instance, even non-parties can participate in its carbon markets). Some analysts have pointed to the three-year cool off period for a country to formally exit the Paris Agreement. But most of the political damage will happen simply with the announcement of an exit.

Just because the Paris Agreement itself does not have sanctioning tools already built in does not meant that countries that are implementing climate policies in good faith will just ride it out. Republicans like Representative Kevin Cramer, who is allegedly in the running to lead Department of Energy, seem acutely aware of the “harsh rebuke” that withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will invite from all quarters around the world. It is highly likely that Trump is underestimating the political capital spent by the Europeans to secure the Paris Agreement, and most of all, by President Barack Obama himself. It is difficult to foresee a situation where other areas of engagement between the EU and the United States will not feel the heat of a Trump pull out.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already said that France would consider a carbon tax against American products if Trump pulled out. Others will probably follow suit. Similarly, the United States can also expect lawsuits through other venues such as the International Court of Justice and the Human Rights Council. Most of these bodies had remained mum on climate change out of respect to the UN climate change treaty process. However, if this crack is revealed, we can anticipate these bodies to start taking climate change far more seriously than they have to date. An adviser to a developing country said went far enough to say that he would try to get the United States declared a rogue state. How this would be feasible is a different matter, but the sentiment is clear.

All of this legal action might not mean much for Trump, who could prove to be oblivious to any damage that reneging on Paris would mean for American goodwill. If anything, putting in place sanctions or even corrective policies like border adjustments on American products have the real possibility of escalating into an all-out trade war.

If legal sanctions are not yet available, could be potentially ineffective and will likely pose a threat to the wider international legal order, how do we entice Trump to stay on board?

As mentioned earlier, Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax started by the Chinese to steal American jobs. It is worth pointing out that we often ignore the second part of his claim. For Donald Trump, the issue is not the lack of robust science. It is about competitiveness of the American economy and this is where we have an opening for international climate policy in the Trump era. If climate change is framed as an opportunity to boost American productivity and growth, he could easily revise his position and save face while doing so.

The good news also rests in the fact that the trajectory of American emissions is not fully under Trump’s control. Markets and technology are important drivers. Coal is highly unlikely to make a comeback in the United States, while relaxing fracking-related regulations may simply make it more difficult for coal to price out natural gas.

Why American Leadership Is Needed

The hard reality is that the leadership of the United States is still sorely needed. For the Paris Agreement to continue moving forward, it has to generate enough incentives for countries to stick to this process. An American exit is noteworthy because the United States can bring far more carrots to the process than other countries on their own. For example, the growing strategic convergence between India and the United States allowed some thorny issues like increasing financial commitments to developing countries to be set aside.

In other words, momentum for the Paris Agreement rests not just on the spirit of cooperation that has prevailed among countries to fight climate change. It is also supplied by the considerable heft that the United States enjoys in international affairs.

Though the total effect of pledges made in lead up to the Paris Agreement achieves a substantial shift in the trajectory of the emissions, it is nowhere near enough to put us on the path to warming below 2°C. In 2018, countries will revisit their pledges that they made before Paris. Increasing ambition over the next couple of years is absolutely critical if we are to avoid 1.5°C of warming. With the United States not in the picture, an already difficult process will demand far greater ambition from other major economies.

An important element of getting developing countries on board has been the collective commitment of developed countries to mobilize $100 billion by 2020. As a part of this commitment, the Obama administration promised $3 billion dollars to the Green Climate Fund. More than the absolute value of these commitments, the United States has been pivotal in setting the benchmark. China narrowly beat the American pledge with a $3.1 billion promise for its newly created South-South Fund.

China’s Turn?

Eyes have turned towards China in hopes that it can step in and claim the leadership mantle. What exactly does Chinese leadership mean in terms of the climate change negotiations? We need to distinguish between China staying on course by honoring its commitments and China actively attempting to fill the gap left by Trump by going above and beyond what it has already committed to do. This subtle but key distinction seems to have gotten lost in more sensationalist commentary on this subject.

On the surface, China seems a well poised candidate to push international cooperation on climate change. However, patterns of Chinese engagement in international forums reveal a distinct hesitation to step in. First, even though China is intensely aware of its own carbon footprint and feels the responsibility to act, active leadership by the Chinese would involve using its diplomatic muscle to keep other countries on board, offering up more resources to grease the system, and increasing its own ambition beyond what it has already promised to do. That is far more than what China has been willing to commit thus far.

Second, China has been sensitive about setting new precedents. Where Beijing has promoted new initiatives, it has preferred to keep them low-key, especially if they involve breaking away from UN tradition. Instead of contributing its $3.1 billion to the Green Climate Fund, the flagship fund created by the UN for climate change, China chose to create its own South-South Fund. But as with the case with its sizable aid program – as revealed by the Financing for Development conference – Beijing would prefer to keep these initiatives out of the limelight.

Part of this reflects the fact that China’s own status is rather fluid within the global climate change setting: the most vulnerable countries applaud its leadership role but other developing countries also expect it to stand up to the rest of the industrialized countries. That requires a tricky balance that is often tough to walk.

Finally, leadership in the context of the Paris Agreement means transparency. Countries need to build confidence in the system by providing a high level of assurance that they are really doing what they promised to do and that those policy changes are having verifiable results. It remains to be seen how China will respond to the demands for greater transparency asked for by the Paris Agreement.

The Road Ahead

Though much is still uncertain, it is likely that Trump will at least need a symbolic victory against the Obama administration even if he backs down on the substance of some of his suggestions.

If he is looking for an ideal target, it would be far easier to tear up a domestic executive order than to face the collective wrath of the international community. If he recognizes this, then the Clean Power Plan may eventually be the casualty of a Trump presidency, but American participation in the Paris Agreement can still be saved.

Looking ahead, there might also be ways to incentivize a Trump administration’s interest in global climate talks. This could be as easy as rebranding the next COP a “Jobs COP,” following this year’s climate summit that was build an “Action COP.” How could President Trump be against more jobs?

Rishikesh Ram Bhandary is a Junior Research Fellow at the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.