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Who Will Lead on Climate in the Age of Trump?

A simpler time: Officials at the opening of the climate conference in Marrakech (Photo: UNFCCC | FlickR)

A simpler time: officials at the opening of the climate conference in Marrakech. (UNFCCC | Flickr)

Grief unfolds in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In the aftermath of the U.S. election, climate policy-makers have been struggling through this process themselves. The urge to deny the significance of the coming U.S. climate policy turnaround is understandable. The Paris Agreement was hailed as a momentous deal, and negotiators had to fight a lot of difficult battles to get there. A little less than a year later, much of that progress could be on the verge of irrelevance.

Coincidentally, the first international climate conference after the Paris deal kicked off two days before the U.S. election. In the early morning hours of November 9th, it became clear that American voters—or more accurately the U.S. electoral system—had dropped a bombshell on negotiators. Within two months, Donald Trump will be moving into the White House, joined by Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and a soon to be reinstated conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

The repercussions are pretty clear. Donald Trump’s plans for the EPA will likely end the agency’s mandate as a climate regulator. Support for fossil fuels is one of the key pillars of his energy strategy. Trump has promised lifting regulations on both shale gas and coal in order to boost production and jobs. While these moves are unlikely to do much for either one of these goals, they could slow down the death of coal.

The President-Elect has also shown a complete lack of awareness when it comes to the relationship between business, international trade, and the climate. So it is hardly surprising that Trump wants to cut U.S. support for UN climate measures and has openly flirted with pulling the U.S. out of the Paris deal. Yet other measures like cancelling U..S membership in the UNFCCC or the Green Climate Fund are within the realm of the possible.

Of course, the incoming President could, in a Trumpian fashion, reverse all of these positions overnight. But the question is not to what extent a President Trump will differ from candidate Trump. Rather, the real question is this: how will the international community respond?

Under the Paris Agreement, 21% of emissions cuts through 2030 were to come via the United States. The Obama Administration had made some modest progress to put the U.S. on a path towards meeting these commitments. Hillary Clinton had a plan in place to continue a strategy build around an assortment of executive actions. On the one hand, even Donald Trump and a Republican Congress will not be able to stop the growth of renewable technologies, whose economic fundamentals are strong. On the other, U.S. policy was already comparatively weak. The imperative for the U.S. was to do more, not less.

But this is more than a story about U.S. emissions plans. It remains indispensable to have the world’s biggest economy on board with the climate agenda. Post-election, that is no longer the case. It appears very likely that the United States will pull back from diplomatic engagement in global climate politics. This could mean that other countries that are on the fence on climate issues—Russia, Australia, Saudi Arabia and others—have license to relax their ambitions even further.

In such a scenario, the Paris agreement collapses unless other countries step up. But the deal was already fragile. What parties to the agreement are currently pledging is far from meeting the 2°C goal. And there is no guarantee that they will actually put in place the commitments that do exist. To make matters worse, the formula that countries agreed on last year essentially depends on them taking greenhouse gases out of the air in the second half of the century. Such technologies currently do not exist. Add to that a likely U.S. exit (if not on paper), and the situation looks pretty critical.

Now, there are many voices calling for a workaround that would essentially see countries continue on the Paris path without the U.S. China has been mulled as the new global leader. For years, the country has invested massively in renewables. Urban pollution and business opportunities give Chinese leaders good incentives to move ahead with that agenda domestically.

China has also ramped up its political ambition internationally. In its quest for status on the global stage, the Chinese government sees climate change as one of the areas in which it can conceivably move ahead of other countries. China has also used climate change as an issue over which it can declare its solidarity with poorer countries.

Another more natural alternative would be Germany, home to the Energiewende (energy transition) and a global leader in renewable energy technology. With the UK and the U.S. pulling back from international engagement, the New York Times sees Angela Merkel as the “liberal West’s last defender”. Does Germany’s supposed new role on the global stage extend to climate change?

Such a prospect seems unlikely. Germany has traditionally assumed more of a backstage role. Within the EU, it has dealt in uncomfortable fashion with the new responsibilities thrust upon it by the Euro crisis. The country is more at ease as a lead-by-example player than as an out-and-out leader. Merkel, who is likely to win a fourth term as Chancellor next year, is also not someone known for visionary ideas or strong political convictions. She is a manager at heart. In the short-term, she may be able to patch something together. But Merkel is ill-suited as someone to reorient a process as complex as global climate diplomacy.

That leaves a third option: moving away from state-oriented leadership. This is something that has already happened with increasing speed in recent years. Cities, businesses, NGOs and activists are all governance actors in their own right. Corporations like Apple and Wal-Mart have long since recognized that being proactive on climate change will save them money in the long-term. For cities, climate change is an issue of air quality, jobs, and innovation. Along with NGOs and activists, these actors have strong incentives to collaborate and drive solutions.

The problem is that, despite globalization, we don’t live in a borderless world. To a large extent, regulations remain national in scope. And the Paris deal is one that was agreed on by states, who retain control over crucial policies that will determine the course of emissions going forward.

The upshot is that U.S. withdrawal from climate diplomacy throws up a plethora of questions. Rather than focusing simply on the nitty-gritty aspects of the Paris deal, climate negotiators will also have to find a way to replace not only expected U.S. emissions cuts, but its role as an important diplomatic force. The faster they can move from depression to acceptance, the better the chances at success.



Tim Pfefferle

Tim Pfefferle writes about the politics of climate change, the United Nations, as well as US and African politics. Originally from Germany, Tim has studied in the UK and in the US, and has also worked in Uganda and Brazil. He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of London, and is a recent graduate of the MSc Global Governance and Diplomacy program at the University of Oxford. He's currently a consultant working on climate change. When he is not thinking or writing about foreign policy, Tim enjoys the lighter sides of life, like pop culture.