- By Daniel B. BaerDaniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013. Baer was an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group.
Amid the predictable flurry of “first 100 days” stories last week, most of those written from a foreign-policy lens focused on President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior with allies like Canada and Germany, his bluster-without-apparent-strategy approach to North Korea, and his bombs-without-apparent-strategy approach to Syria. Others highlighted Trump’s unprecedented unpopularity, the scandals surrounding the guy with apparent neo-Nazi ties that Trump employs (for now) on the National Security Council, and the possible illegal acts of his first national security advisor — including failure to disclose money received from the Turkish and Russian governments (which is of particular interest given ongoing questions about how much Vladimir Putin’s efforts helped Trump in the election, and how much Trump and his team knew about those efforts or coordinated with them).
But climate action also deserves attention from those evaluating the administration’s nascent foreign policy. On April 29 — the 100th day of the administration — approximately 200,000 people in Washington, D.C. (and tens of thousands more in other cities) marched to put pressure on the Trump White House to get serious about climate change. But they were also marching, in part, about foreign policy.
The Trump administration’s approach to science generally and to climate change in particular has the makings of a foreign-policy disaster. Environmental policy is one of the areas where domestic and foreign policy converge — not just because the policies we institute at home have direct impact on citizens of other countries, in addition to our own present and future economy and health. And not just because the Pentagon — including Secretary of Defense James Mattis — regards climate change as a security threat. It’s also because climate change is an example, par excellence, of an international collective-action problem that can only be effectively addressed through multinational and, likely, multilateral cooperation. And when U.S. credibility to lead the world in solving problems that demand cooperation — and cannot be solved by the kind of episodic transactions (or deal-making) that Trump fancies himself good at — is damaged, America loses.
After negotiators failed to reach a binding agreement in Copenhagen in 2009, the Obama administration, and particularly President Barack Obama himself, was determined to leverage American leadership to achieve success at the Conference of Parties (COP 21) meeting in Paris in December 2015. Before the Paris meeting, Obama worked with his Chinese counterpart to establish an understanding of what China and the United States would each bring to the table, and that understanding became the spine around which other arrangements in the deal could be worked out. After the negotiations of the Paris agreement were finalized in late 2015, Obama and President Xi Jinping again moved forward in tandem, jointly announcing their countries’ plan for formally joining the Paris agreement last September.
The Paris agreement, signed by 195 countries, elaborates how countries will take action to achieve the goal of averting a 2 degrees Celsius rise in the global average temperature, including by ceasing net additions of carbon to the atmosphere due to human activity by 2100. The 2 degree threshold is widely recognized by scientists as the level at which catastrophic effects become unavoidable.
Trump famously called climate change a hoax during last year’s campaign and said he would pull the United States out of the agreement. While there is disagreement within his Cabinet (and possibly the Trump family), the administration is thought to be nearing its decision about whether to formally withdraw from Paris. If Ivanka Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson win out, and the administration decides not to withdraw, there will likely be some expressions of relief. These should be muted. Because in terms of protecting us from the catastrophic threats associated with climate change, the spirit (and substance) of Paris matters more than whether the United States is formally part of the agreement.
Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes, and the steps taken by the Trump administration in the first 100 days — nominating a climate-change denier to head the EPA, rolling back science-based regulations, signing an Executive Order last week to review (presumably with an eye toward undoing) designations by Trump’s predecessors that protected broad swaths of our land and marine environment — already send a signal about U.S. intentions to make good on its commitments at Paris.
And there is no time to waste. According to a paper published earlier last month in Nature and Communications (full disclosure: my husband is one of the authors), global carbon emissions must peak in the next 10 years if the goal of the Paris agreement has a reasonable chance of being met. Even if the Trump administration only wastes the next four years, the United States may have undermined the prospect of a verdant, prosperous, and peaceful world for our children and grandchildren. Without U.S. leadership, global action to confront climate change is near impossible. In the same paper, the authors model the “business as usual” approach — what would happen without concerted action — and find that a rise in temperature of 3.2 degrees Celsius would be likely by the end of the century. This would cause famines and massive waves of migration across the world. It would kill farmers crops here at home, bring new diseases, and wreak havoc on our economy.
As an approach to mitigating the threat that climate change poses to our homeland, if “America First” means pulling out of Paris, then is actually “America Last.” If America First is nothing but facile unilateralism, then it put us in a prisoners’ dilemma: we can’t reduce the risk to climate change unless we coordinate with others. We are the richest country in the world in total wealth; thus we have more to lose if the economic consequences of climate change are not mitigated. We play a unique role in the world, and we have more to lose in terms of blood and treasure if we see an uptick of new wars for old reasons, as the humanitarian consequences of climate change foment instability and conflict.
Climate — like trade — is a policy area where Trump’s general approach of tearing up deals in order to strike new ones damages U.S. credibility as a serious actor and will undermine our ability to lead the world toward cooperative approaches to addressing global challenges. America is the most powerful country in the world, but coercion is a much more expensive way of achieving outcomes than leadership and cooperation, both of which depend on trust.
We won’t always have Paris, and to throw out the agreement now would be to foreclose a singular opportunity. If the administration wants to put America First, it must not only announce that the United States will not withdraw from the Paris agreement, but also that America intends to meet our climate change commitments, and to hold China and others accountable for doing likewise.
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