U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to exit the Paris climate accord undermines American leadership in promoting global environmental sustainability. Even worse, it undercuts U.S. credibility in seeking to lead the world in the 21st century.
The U.S. attained global leadership by fighting fascism during World War II. When American soldiers stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, with more than 4,000 killed, this was a proactive move to fight Nazi Germany instead of waiting for a possible attack on the U.S. homeland. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt emerged as a global leader to defend those being oppressed, without claiming "America first." If there was any "America first" back then, it was America taking the lead with sacrifices and commitments.
America's actions then were mutually beneficial for allies alike. The U.S. took the lead in creating the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which contributed to international stability and prosperity that helped America enormously. A world with the U.S. dollar as the international reserve currency has given America a unique financial hegemony. The Marshall Plan to help rebuild western Europe in the late 1940s provided the U.S. with an edge in its geostrategic competition with the Soviet Union.
"America first" is not a new idea. Since its founding, the U.S. has rejected any notion of domination by another power. Gradually, the nation came to be led by internationalists rather than isolationists. By its provision of public goods as well as international institutions, the U.S. emerged as a global leader.
In contrast, Trump's vision of "America first" is based on a rather narrow view of his country. Rather than calculating the number of coal-based jobs that would be lost by adhering to the obligations of the Paris climate deal, his administration should have counted the number of new "green energy" jobs that would have been created in the future. By its withdrawal, the U.S. has forfeited this opportunity to other countries.
As America turns inward, it is allowing other countries to fill the void of global leadership. The EU, as its leaders have made clear, has concluded that the U.S. is unreliable and is determined to carve out a more independent path. China, meanwhile, as the world's biggest polluter, has committed itself unambiguously to the Paris climate accord regardless of other countries' actions. China will certainly feel short-term pain in transforming its coal-based economy to a green energy one. For its long-term success, however, Beijing has signaled its interest in sticking with the Paris climate agreement.
By implementing a national plan to build around five nuclear power reactors annually from 2015, China aims to have about 100 new reactors operating by 2030, when its carbon emissions are expected to peak. Despite huge investments in financial and technical resources, China believes it will benefit in terms of both new jobs and exports. As it pursues its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing will find that green energy will play an important role in promoting cooperation with regional partners.
China's global leadership aims
While the Trump administration is turning inward, China is looking outward. Despite obvious self-interest in its Belt and Road policies to promote the export of excess manufacturing output, the initiative also amounts to a public good by advancing regional infrastructure construction and improving connectivity. It is already clear that China's BRI program will exceed the impact of the Marshall Plan in scale.
When the U.S. withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change under the George W. Bush administration, Japan did not make an issue of it. Now Tokyo is expressing regret for the latest U.S. move to exit the Paris accord. Despite confronting energy problems after shutting down most of its nuclear power stations in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011, Japan has been able to balance jobs and environmental needs. China and Japan, the second and third largest economies in the world, are finding an opportunity to share the same goals of creating a sustainable environment that will ultimately benefit the entire world.
Major carbon emitters, including China, Japan, the EU and India, will cooperate in helping make the earth green again. These countries share a special responsibility in curbing their carbon emissions as ambitiously as possible in the Trump era. With the U.S. exit, it is important that these major powers forge a coalition to assure other members of the Paris deal to honor their respective promise as 2030 approaches.
While the U.S. withdrawal might frustrate global efforts to combat climate change, there is also hope that future political change in the U.S. will see the country once again embrace international cooperation, just as President Barack Obama reversed the climate policies of the George W. Bush administration.
It is also worth noting that both the complexities of U.S. politics and the time frame needed to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement mean that it will be some time before the impact of America's exit will be felt. That is another reason why other signatories should stick with the pact.
Shen Dingli is professor and associate dean at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University in China.