The tale of America’s hollow climate change leadership
Barack Obama’s claims of American leadership in the fight against climate change were always hollow, and Donald Trump has just exposed this
On 1 June, US President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull his country out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The list of incorrect facts and flawed reasoning that accompanied his announcement is a long one. But three of them deserve to be mentioned.
One, Trump’s entire logic was based on the false premise that the Paris Agreement imposes disproportionate costs on the US. The argument was a throwback to the George W. Bush regime, which decided to walk away from the Kyoto Protocol on similar grounds. While Kyoto did indeed come with binding greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets for developed economies, the Paris approach was completely the opposite. The latter involved a bottom-up approach in which each country had to submit its own nationally-determined contribution (NDC) and there is no legal liability for failing to achieve those targets. In fact, it is because the agreement doesn’t impose anything that Trump has been able to end the implementation of the US-declared NDC even though the process of exiting the climate deal will take years.
Two, Trump said that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) obliges the US to spend tens of billions of dollars. He also singled out India—which he said has made “its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars”—for particular censure. While the developed countries have agreed to provide $100 billion annually by 2020, the amount pledged so far through the GCF is merely $10.3 billion. The US has delivered just $1 billion out of its own pledge of $3 billion, which itself—contrary to Trump’s claim of the US shouldering the entire burden virtually alone—is not the highest either in per-capita terms or in per-unit-gross domestic product (GDP) terms.
Three, Trump called the Paris Agreement—just like he has called many other treaties to which the US is a party—a conspiracy by other countries to put America at an economic disadvantage. Even if the charge seems puerile, it deserves a response. If Trump was correct, the withdrawal of the US should have started a procession of countries exiting the agreement. Instead, most leading European powers, India and China have reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement.
However, it is not the Trump administration alone. Previous US administrations also stand indicted in the fight against climate change. If the Bush administration was responsible for sinking the Kyoto Protocol—a much stronger instrument than the Paris Agreement—the Obama administration made sure that the Paris Agreement was so diluted that it would hardly do anything to achieve its ambition of restricting the rise of global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.
It was Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry who reportedly threatened to walk out of the deal if there was any attempt to build in differentiation between the obligations of the developing and developed countries. As a result, the Paris Agreement eschews any effort at accounting for historical emissions, mentions but does not operationalize the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, gives no legal instrument to poor countries to claim compensation for damages and allows for no penalties against the non-achievement of self-declared targets.
The logic of the Obama administration was that if any of the aforementioned provisions were included, the Paris Agreement would meet the same fate as that of the Kyoto Protocol. Close to 200 countries did agree to these compromises in order to get the US, the world’s second-largest GHG emitter, to agree to the deal. But Obama could still not generate domestic consensus on the agreement and he never sent it to the Senate for ratification, thus enabling his successor to pull out unilaterally. Obama’s claims of American leadership in the fight against climate change were always hollow and Trump has just exposed this.
All this while, the global media continued to project India as the chief villain of climate change treaty negotiations. Of late, there have been some corrections to that narrative, and India’s push for renewables is being increasingly appreciated. As Trump targets India, more voices in Washington will find a reason to praise India’s credentials. India should continue its credible march against climate change—which, it should be mentioned, is financed almost entirely from domestically-mobilized resources—and not feel elated by the late recognition of its good work. It is not difficult to imagine that if Trump had half the number of sophisticated cheerleaders that Obama did, the decision to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement could have been spun as the fault of countries like India and China.
Many analysts have situated this announcement in the broader realm of a Trump-led US receding from its role as the protector of the international liberal order. The problem with this framing is that while America was never a climate leader, it did stand—credit should be given where due—as a major bulwark of the international liberal order. Trump’s scepticism of globalization, coupled with his shoddy treatment of US allies in Asia and Europe, suggests that damage to the planet will not be restricted to the domain of climate change. India should also be prepared for a bumpy ride which may last the entire length of Trump’s tenure.
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