The United States isn’t just forfeiting its environmental leadership. It’s shipping jobs and influence to Beijing.
- By Gina McCarthyGina McCarthy was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2013 to 2017.
The South China Sea. Human rights. Trade. Currency manipulation.
When U.S.-China relations are discussed we often ascribe these issues some level of tension. However, our countries’ cooperation has historically been more cordial and productive in one area: environmental protection.
The reason for this fertile diplomatic ground is simple. All nations and peoples have an interest in lowering pollution, which harms our health, stifles economic growth, creates instability, and knows no boundaries.
A powerful instance of environmental diplomacy revolved around an air-quality monitor on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2008. Its purpose was to inform the American diplomatic corps of how safe it was to be outside on any given day. However, the public availability of this solid air-quality data led to growing demands from Chinese citizens for cleaner air, eventually pushing the Chinese government to respond by better connecting the dots among clean air, climate change, and economic growth.
International relationships have always been influenced by the availability (or constraints) of natural resources essential to public health, well-being, and economic growth. Unfortunately, the “America First” mantra touted by the Trump administration seems blind to the fundamental need for clean water, air, and land. There are vast economic opportunities and diplomatic leverage the United States can either seize on or cede to China through climate leadership.
The proven economic benefits of domestic action to advance clean energy, such as tax incentives for wind and solar energy, have supercharged our fast-growing clean-energy industry, added hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs, and promoted significant economic growth. Clean energy helped pave the way for the Obama administration to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 1994 levels, while managing to create 11.3 million jobs with 75 straight months of employment growth.
In short, the current administration doesn’t seem to get it. It argues that the Environmental Protection Agency needs to return to its “core mission,” as if carbon pollution doesn’t threaten public health and safety — never mind its impact on clean air and water.
If the Trump administration fails to show leadership on domestic climate actions and support the Paris Agreement on climate change, it will cede a competitive economic edge to nations like China. It would place the health and safety of our families, communities, and country at risk and waste our international expertise and leverage, which are essential to ensuring that each country is accountable to its commitments and achieves lower emission levels that science may demand over time. It’s misleading of this administration to point to China’s 2030 reduction goal under the Paris Agreement, as if it gives the nation a free pass until then. China must act now to meet its commitment, and it is already making substantial investments in renewable energy and disinvestments in coal-fired power plants. In fact, during the next five years, China is expected to remain the largest player in wind-energy growth.
Combating environmental health risks is an exercise in addressing the “tragedy of the commons.” Pollution, like carbon, is diffuse and blind to borders. Addressing global environmental health risks always requires multilateral cooperation, which will always demand a strong, global leader. Without a path paved by nations bold and considerate enough to set terms, craft solutions, and sell them to the rest of us, we will all suffer the consequences of inaction.
In the past, the United States has been that leader.
As a country, we became stronger and more competitive because of our unflinching action, not in spite of it. When the thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer threatened the well-being of all people, the United States seized an opportunity to lead. In 1988, the Reagan administration led a historic charge to institute a global agreement to attack the pollution causing the problem. To this day, the global regime to combat ozone-depleting substances is hailed as one of the most successful multilateral agreements ever.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is bowing to the old special-interest line that the United States must choose economic competitiveness over environmental protection even though history says otherwise.
During the EPA’s 46 years, the United States experienced record growth while curtailing pollution. For every dollar spent on lifesaving regulations, we’ve seen up to $9 in health benefits — a boon for economic welfare. Conventional air pollutants have been reduced by 70 percent, while our economy grew by about 250 percent. By 2008, the environmental technologies and services industry supported 1.7 million jobs and generated $300 billion in revenue. That year, the industry exported goods and services worth $44 billion, topping U.S. sectors like plastics and rubber products. During the Obama administration, we set a course with the auto industry to double fuel efficiency and prevent millions of tons of carbon pollution. Today, the industry is thriving.
Bullish environmental leadership and climate action are not costs; they’re investments. By weakening or withdrawing our nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement, we would be sending the wrong signal to clean-energy investment dollars and the rest of the world, which historically looks to us to set the pace and tone of the global economy.
Under President Barack Obama’s leadership, we tactfully secured China’s support for a joint climate agreement before striking the Paris climate deal. In sharp contrast, climate change was not a topic of discussion during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in April. And the Trump administration refuses to name a special envoy for climate change, a key U.S. position in international climate negotiations.
Although the EPA and American climate diplomacy may be less relevant under this administration’s regressive brand of scorched-earth leadership, no one person — not even the president of the United States — can reverse global economic forces moving toward a lower carbon economy. The train to our clean-energy future has left the station.
If we want to lead the world and reap the benefits, the United States must lean into climate action, not away from it. We’ve been that nation before, and we can be that nation again.
Illustration by Matthew Hollister
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of FP magazine.