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Paris Comes to Pittsburgh

Posted by hkarner - 11. Juni 2017

The Trump administration has responded to the international community’s condemnation of its renunciation of the Paris climate agreement by denying that any international community actually exists. Not even a majority of Americans believe that, and at next month’s G20 summit in Hamburg, it will be clear that no leader can make effective foreign policy without accepting reality.

JUN 9, 2017 Project Syndicate

With the next meeting of the G20 taking place in Hamburg, Germany, in a few weeks, Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement will soon be shown to have only isolated and estranged the US within the international community. And while senior US officials such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and US National Economic Council head Gary Cohn argue that Americans have no cause for alarm, because no “international community” actually exists, the rest of the world knows better – as do most Americans

Trump’s announcement confirmed what many world leaders have been preparing for: productive American engagement in the world is off the table, at least for the duration of this administration. Indeed, what is most noticeable about the unequivocal global response to Trump’s decision is its consistency. Across the political spectrum, and from the global North and South, the message has been clear: Trump’s decision is bad for the world and, no surprise, also bad for America. At the very least, the US will fall to the back of the pack in the global race for a low-carbon future, with profound consequences for America’s relative economic performance and global standing.

Trump’s Suspended Reality

That second point has been emphasized by US business leaders, state governors, and city mayors who have created the #WeAreStillIn movement. In justifying his repudiation of the Paris accord, Trump argued that he had been elected to “represent Pittsburgh, not Paris” – an applause line for a Rose Garden audience packed with White House staffers. In response, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced almost immediately that his city, which has made a remarkable transition from being “Steeltown USA” to a health care, research, and education powerhouse (and which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton), was moving to 100% renewable energy and remained committed to the Paris agreement.

There is no mystery about the near-universal consensus opposing Trump’s decision. World leaders are increasingly aware that they cannot escape the need to tackle climate change. Their political credibility is on the line. Even those new to their job have worked this out.

French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, knew that cementing his position on the international stage quickly required him to position himself on the issues that are now defining global politics. Climate change – which connects every country on earth and has profound implications for international peace, security, and trade – was the obvious choice. So, for the first time in history, a French president delivered an address in English from the Élysée Palace. In a single speech, closing with the line, “Make our planet great again,” Macron tapped the global zeitgeist and embraced the world’s desire for progress.

Trump’s denial of the grim future reality that the Paris agreement seeks to prevent sets him at loggerheads with both international political opinion and the economic and social vision of some of his own political colleagues. It is simply impossible to rationalize Trump’s Rose Garden speech if you accept the well-established reality not just of climate change, but also of the implications of denial of that threat for investment, innovation, rural and urban development, health care, crisis management, food and water supplies, industrial supply chains, and energy systems.

To a large extent, the split with Trump over the Paris climate agreement marks a dividing line between a politics based on real, evidence-based threats and an approach based on the distorted reality of “alternative facts” and fevered ideological imagination. The delegitimation of the political and media infrastructure that has suspended reality for Trump and his supporters may turn out to be a pre-requisite for the resumption of a constructive US role in global discourse not only on climate change, but on countless other issues as well.

Make America Isolated Again

It is likely that discussion about the trade implications of the US exit from the Paris accord will begin on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 meeting. Trade policy is made when enough of the world’s interests align. With all major economies (other than the US) focused on reducing their emissions in line with the accord’s goal of keeping the increase in global temperature “well below” 2º Celsius, and making every effort to achieve the 1.5ºC objective, alignment of trade policy is only a matter of time.

If the Trump administration continues on the path of denying reality, investing in a dying coal industry instead of retraining its workforce for the growing renewables market, the trade-policy outcomes of the global alignment around Paris will work against US interests. That’s why so many of the global companies that call the US home have come out in support of the Paris Agreement.

While there is still a great deal to be done in terms of aligning the global economy with the goals of the Paris accord, the economic revolution that is at the core of the fight against climate change is unstoppably underway. The global transport revolution – driven by the electrification of cars, buses, and trucks – is coming faster than anyone imagined just a year ago; but the clean-electricity infrastructure needed to support it needs to roll out faster. Technological advances in low-carbon steel and chemical production and building materials are vital, as is a revolution in land use to reduce emissions and prepare for the adverse effects of climate change, which already are hitting agriculture globally.

All of this requires a major adjustment of investment strategies, and capital increasingly understands this reality. The management of ExxonMobil, the former home of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and one of the main funders of climate-change denial, recently faced a revolt by its own shareholders. The company’s investors are demanding that it take into account the reality that its primary products, oil and gas, must be phased out completely in the coming decades.

Europe to the Fore

Ever since the ill-fated Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, when President Barack Obama sat down with his counterparts from China and India to hash out an agreement on the last night of the tumultuous negotiations, the multipolar nature of foreign affairs has become increasingly obvious. Back then, the European Union was left in another part of the building wondering where the party was; but, by the time of the Paris climate conference in 2015, the EU had spent several years rebuilding its international links, helping bridge the old North-versus-South logic of the climate talks and also deepening its diplomatic and trade relations with the new poles of global influence in Asia, Africa, and South America.

In Paris, as the deal took shape, European countries played a vital role in building the “high ambition coalition” that kept the door open for key elements of the agreement, such as the commitment to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions in the 2050s. Both the agreement itself, and its subsequent high-speed ratification, were completed in the knowledge that the US might elect Trump and that he might seek to destroy it. The EU knew that it had to recover its place at the table before the US walked away.

Trump seems incapable of any other view of the world than the antagonistic perspective described by McMaster and Cohn. For this perspective, “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

That view will soon be overtaken by reality. Just as the world has rejected Trump’s flawed and mendacious reasoning in his decision to exit the Paris climate agreement, it has also rejected his administration’s foreign-policy analysis. The vacuum left by America’s retreat into isolationism, and Trump’s often-paranoid responses to international events in 140-character policy announcements, will be filled not by a single competitor, but by the consensus that cooperation is safer than isolationism. Unpredictable and inconsistent foreign policy, particularly by the most powerful global player, means that the rest of the world must move fast to shore up its relationships and prevent a descent into chaos.

With both former poles of the Cold War now controlled by leaders apparently bent on global disorder, those relationships will be crucial. A clear example is the renewed vigor of the EU-China relationship. In the first paragraph of the statement at the end of the EU-China summit, which came just days after Trump’s announcement, the two sides reiterated their commitment to implementing the Paris accord and fostering cooperation in their energy policies. The statement then went on to discuss trade, investment, security, and many other issues.

The G20 Fightback

For heads of state and government, meaningful commitment to climate action, with the Paris climate agreement as its primary architecture, has become an indispensable component of foreign-policy credibility. And that will become more apparent at the G20’s meeting in Hamburg in July, which should mark a turning point, as the world moves from defending the agreement to implementing it.

Most G20 countries have reiterated their support for the Paris accord. But not all have yet done so at the national leadership level. A vital moment in the discourse so far was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement following the May G7 meeting in Sicily that Europe could no longer “completely rely on others” as trusted partners, and that Europe will need to “take our fate into our own hands.” Merkel, Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni chose to issue a joint statement in direct response to Trump on Paris. But British Prime Minister Theresa May declined their invitation to join them (though she later noted that she was “disappointed” with Trump’s Paris decision).

The UK may find itself at sea with some very unpredictable shipmates if it continues down May’s current path of embracing Trump and other populist causes, whereas the EU’s united position will strengthen that of the G20. At the Hamburg meeting, leaders will not only unify and confirm their support for the Paris accord, but will also make progress on the details, particularly concerning climate-related financial-disclosure rules and how multilateral development banks will align their investment with the agreement’s goals.

Climate change is the ultimate example of a problem that can’t be addressed by the Trump administration’s Hobbesian approach to world affairs. There is only one atmosphere, it has no borders, and, to quote Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, “there are no jobs on a dead planet.”

As we move toward the G20’s Hamburg summit, and through the next rounds of bilateral and multilateral meetings that pepper world leaders’ schedules, the divide over the Paris accord will become embedded in global politics and begin to redefine many of the issues that connect the international community. To be sure, climate change is not the only issue that will roil international relations in the coming years. But the united response to Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement has shown that it is one of the defining issues of our era – and that, pace McMaster and Cohn, there really is an international community. And, with or without the US, the line in the sand on climate change that it has drawn will become etched in stone.



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