The speech US President Donald Trump made in the White House Rose Garden on 1 June sparked intense debate around the world. There is no denying that the US exit represents a tremendous setback for the Paris Agreement and climate diplomacy – not least because the US, currently the world’s second largest emitter and largest historical emitter, was a decisive player in negotiating the main elements of the agreement in the run-up to the Paris conference and made crucial contributions toward removing some of the main barriers. Of course, some of these barriers were also created by the US when it withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol under President George W. Bush back in 2001. In that sense the announcement in the Rose Garden was a kind of déjà-vu.
So what are the prospects for climate diplomacy after the US exit and why is there no need to sing a swan song for the Paris Agreement yet? Here are four arguments for even stronger engagement in climate diplomacy:
1. Climate policy is more than the Paris Agreement: The Paris Agreement provides the most important normative framework for the international climate community, but operationalising it and achieving its ultimate goal – climate policy – will require diplomatic efforts both inside and outside of the UNFCCC structure. Accordingly, there are a variety of complementary platforms paving the way toward a low emissions, climate resilient world including the G7 and G20 (minus one respectively), and a range of other ad-hoc coalitions of those willing to push forward with more ambitious climate policies – not to mention the many climate leaders in regional and local governments, the private sector and civil society. Their efforts may not necessarily be implemented under the Paris Agreement, but they are all contributing to the overall objective of avoiding dangerous climate change and promoting transformational change in society. And by the way: if President Trump really does see the US as “the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth”, then the rest of the world should welcome the competition. If the US believes it can make a significant contribution to the global battle to stop the planet warming outside of the Paris Agreement, and be more cost-efficient than other countries at the same time, great. Let’s start a race to the top.
2. The Paris Agreement is so much more than the US: Almost 150 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement to date, and many have responded defiantly to President Trump’s speech. China has already indicated that its climate policy is the result of thorough consideration of the costs of inaction and the benefits of climate policy, and that its sovereign stance is not dependent on the US’s position on the Paris Agreement. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 49 countries highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, has declared its resolve to take the lead on phasing out fossil fuels. Top politicians from Ethiopia, the Philippines and Costa Rica emphasized in a recent blog article: “Even [..] the US elections cannot stop those of us dedicated to battling climate change”.
3. The US is more than President Trump: US climate policy has always been a multi-level game. At the state level California and others have been taking the lead in implementing ambitious climate policies. Even the more conservative state of Texas is a frontrunner in wind energy. Cities have also always been at the forefront in adopting forward-looking climate policy. After President Bush withdrew the US from the Kyoto Protocol, US mayors came together to implement their government’s commitment instead. By October 2009, 1,000 mayors representing over 86 million people had signed the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. And last but not least, companies confident of the business case for sustainable energies will not enter into any process that hurts the country’s economy. However, this point again makes clear that implementing the Paris Agreement requires diplomacy across multiple levels and an approach that takes into account the needs of all levels – be they sub-national or in the private sector, in the US or beyond.
4. Climate finance is more than spending money: One of President Trump’s key reasons for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement was the US’s contributions to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Already under President Obama, the US transferred $1 billion of its pledged $3 billion to the fund. In arguing that this was a waste of money, President Trump does not appear to be aware of the strict conditions that have been placed on receiving the money to ensure accountable and transparent spending. He also does not seem to be familiar with the fact that large chunks of the GCF money requires co-financing by other partners and, where possible, by the receiving countries themselves. Further, he does not see that this investment can serve as a Marshall Plan for some of the countries most severely affected by climate change, many of which are already highly fragile and prone to conflict. Aside from providing this potential peace dividend, climate finance (by and beyond the GCF) will most likely offer further investment opportunities for the private sector to engage in low carbon and climate resilient transformation – an opportunity for generating American jobs that the US President appeared happy to forgo when he made his speech in the Rose Garden.