Withdrawal from Climate Deals Would Have Diplomatic Ripple Effects

Major allies are making climate a priority. What happens when the U.S. pulls back?

G7 leaders, from left, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Donald Trump, and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, pose for a family photo at the Ancient Greek Theater of Taormina, Friday, May 26, 2017, in Taormina, Italy.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
May 27, 2017, 12:02 p.m.

Even as President Trump continues to weigh whether or not to keep the country in the Paris Agreement, international leaders are assessing what a reduced U.S. role on climate change means.

The White House has been buffeted by high-profile arguments: A group of 22 Republican senators sent Trump a letter Thursday calling for a “clean break,” while international leaders including Pope Francis have urged him to stay in the climate deal. Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn told reporters Friday that Trump was still gathering input and that his “decision ultimately will be what’s best for the United States.” At the G-7 summit, the United States refused to sign onto climate change language endorsed by the other nations present, and on Saturday, Trump himself tweeted: “I will make my final decision on the Paris accord next week!”

But even if Trump stays in the deal, the U.S. role would be severely diminished from the Obama-era leadership that helped cement the deal, with some bilateral relationships even faltering. And experts warn that could have broad effects on how the U.S. relates to the rest of the world.

“The Paris Agreement is an international priority and it’s a priority for every one of our major allies,” said Brian Deese, a former senior adviser to President Obama who worked on climate change. “So if the United States’ message is that we don’t care either about the Agreement itself or about being at the table, it’s going to have consequences diplomatically. There’s just no way around it.”

Under Obama, the U.S.—long a climate laggard—made the issue a centerpiece of foreign policy. Besides taking a role in cementing the Paris Agreement, the Obama administration also struck high-level bilateral deals with countries such as China (which agreed to cap carbon emissions), Brazil (which agreed to limit deforestation), and Canada (which agreed to methane-emission cuts alongside the U.S.).

The administration also stepped up climate aid, pledging $3 billion to a United Nations fund for developing countries, of which $1 billion was delivered.

The Trump administration, however, has proposed cutting off those international payments and spending on broader climate change efforts, which Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney called “a waste of your money.” Domestic emissions-reduction programs, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, are being rolled back, and the proposed fiscal 2018 budget even zeroed-out funds to an international fund meant to comply with the 1990 Montreal Protocol.

A State Department official said, “As with many issues, the administration is reviewing the United States’ international climate-change policies,” but that no decisions had been reached. In the meantime, agreements linked to renewable-energy deployment are continuing forward.

But the budget cuts have thrown into question not just domestic-emission cuts, but America’s ability to help other countries. For example, Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 agreed to collaborate on reducing hydrofluorocarbons and expanding clean-energy financing in India.

In an email, Arunabha Ghosh, who has worked with Modi’s office on clean energy, said it would be “deeply disappointing” if the U.S. walked away from its agreement.

Ghosh, the CEO of India’s Council on Energy, Environment and Water warned that a lot of investment in joint research and development would go to waste “because business models developed by India and the United States would have had applications elsewhere too.”

“India seeks collaboration but it will continue to walk the talk,” he added.

Democrats and environmentalists say the U.S. risks falling behind as other countries invest in renewables and grow a clean-energy industry. Already, countries have announced collaborations without the U.S.; Canada, China, and the European Union met this week on advancing climate goals and agreed to do so again in September. China has also said it would invest at least $360 billion on renewable energy by 2020.

Beyond the economics, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said he also fears the country could lose moral ground as well if it backs away from one-on-one climate pledges.

“As a rule and as a matter of principle, the U.S. always sticks by its agreements,” Schatz said. “I don’t have a lot of expectations about initiating new ones, but at the minimum we should stick by our word.”

While the administration remains split on Paris, foes have said they fear that staying in would commit the U.S. to a policy that the administration won’t follow; Cohn told reporters that “the levels that were agreed to by the prior administration would be highly crippling to the U.S. economic growth.”

International leaders are making the case to Trump during his first foreign trip that the U.S. should not just stay in the Paris Agreement, but should keep up its climate work. French President Emanuel Macron told Trump not to make a “hasty decision” on the agreement as part of a larger discussion about “pragmatism,” Macron told reporters Thursday. Pope Francis left Trump with a copy of his landmark encyclical on climate change, and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni brought it up with Trump as well.

Andrew Light, a former Obama administration State department senior adviser who worked on climate-change collaboration with India, said there is growing recognition that climate change impacts issues ranging from food security to global security, so a reduced U.S. position could impact talks in a range of areas. Even when climate change is not on the table, countries could be more reticent of engaging with a country that has walked away from other international agreements.

“If this issue is sidestepped, it narrows the field of what allies are willing to discuss with the president and where they might want to push back,” Light said. “It’s going to strain our relationships across the board. When the U.S. is a vocal outsider among global leaders, it makes everything more difficult.”

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