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Making sense of Trump's climate surprise

Before the world condemns the president's move, vital points to consider

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U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he announces his decision that the U.S. will withdraw from the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change on June 1.   © Reuters

The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change is regrettable - a diplomatic own-goal that needlessly undercuts perceptions of U.S. good faith with many friends and allies. The decision was ultimately Trump's alone, but he was moved by deeper forces. The U.S. has struggled with the tension between nationalism and globalism for at least a century, with the world often wanting America to lead and Americans frequently wanting to be left alone. Critics are right that managing climate change today requires U.S. leadership. But some of the international hysteria around the U.S. abdication of responsibility on climate change is overwrought.

First, in a world in which power is increasingly fragmented, among states and within them, climate leadership will not come from national governments and their bureaucracies but from cities and states that are at the pioneering edge of championing green technologies and industries. Already, a number of mayors and governors in America have pledged to continue their programs to reduce carbon emissions in the spirit of the Paris accords. Most of America's carbon emissions come from the heavily populated east and west coasts where these leaders predominate - not the empty and pristine rural hinterlands that are home to the majority of Trump voters.

Second, as Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Elon Musk of Tesla, and other corporate titans have argued, the U.S. private sector will lead on developing energy and climate solutions for America and the world - a task unsuited to the cumbersome and lumbering U.S. government. Already, thanks to the ingenuity of its private sector, the U.S. is leading an energy revolution that will make North America energy independent and reduce carbon emissions. Many U.S. energy, chemical, and industrial executives have expressed support for such efforts in part because their companies are pioneers in green technologies, or because they want to factor the cost of carbon emissions into their business models so as not to erode their long-term competitive advantage. At least for the globalized companies that sit at the top of the American corporate hierarchy, those dynamics will still hold even if the U.S. withdraws from the Paris Agreement.

Third, the U.S. will hold Congressional elections next year which will be a referendum on the Trump administration. There will then be a presidential election in 2020. American voters will have multiple opportunities to signal displeasure with Trump's course, on climate and other issues, within the four-year timeframe that would be required to unwind or renegotiate U.S. commitments made in Paris during the Obama administration. Of course, should Democrats prevail, the burden will fall to them to actually deliver climate solutions rather than the far simpler task of lambasting the Republican president and Congress. At the same time, Republican leaders should note that climate change is a generational issue - young Americans of both political parties care about the environment and are more conscious of the global dimensions of climate-change than are older voters.

Fourth, the fact that one man could make a decision to pull out of a major international agreement attests to the mistake President Barack Obama made in failing to send the Paris Agreement to the Senate for ratification as an international treaty. Had Obama secured the Senate's consent for his administration's diplomatic commitments, Trump would have been far more constrained in his ability to unilaterally revoke them. But Obama was either unable or unwilling to make the case to Congress, leaving his legacy vulnerable to sudden reversal.

Fifth, some of the moral condemnation by European allies of the U.S. and Trump should be taken with a pinch of salt. The European Union has struggled as a global actor in part because European leadership on the world stage still requires transatlantic cooperation with the U.S. Europe's vaunted "soft power" does not particularly work without a corresponding dose of "hard power" provided by its American ally. Thus far, Trump has been a force for European unity, and his latest decision on the climate pact could reinforce that. But in the longer term, Europe risks losing influence in a world of civilization-states that prioritize hard power, including the U.S., Russia, China, and India. So there is an existential crisis for Europe embodied in the U.S. retreat on climate multilateralism that has nothing to do with carbon.

Sixth, the conventional wisdom that America is the problem and China's stewardship on climate change is the enlightened solution is questionable. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, China's carbon emissions today (30% of the global total) are double those of the U.S. (15%) and more than four times greater than India's (7%), now surpassing China as the world's most populous country. The Paris Agreement gives China (and India) the right to increase carbon emissions for the next 13 years, even as those of the U.S. and Europe decline. Global elites are willing to concede that big Asian countries home to the world's most polluted cities and waterways have a right to continue polluting so they can grow. Many Americans do not understand why the U.S. does not.

Seventh, countries can do the right thing on climate because it is in their own interests. India has increased its solar-generating capacity by more than 80% in the last year alone; many of its dirtiest coal-fed electric plants are sitting idle, and it is considering a moratorium on new construction. China is investing heavily in wind, solar, and hydropower, perhaps less out of environmental consciousness than with an eye on dominating these industries of the future and mitigating the strategic vulnerability that comes from its enormous dependence on imported oil and gas. These and other countries will not change course based on the whims of one man in the White House.

Finally, some critics have argued that Trump's withdrawal from the climate change pact signals the death of the U.S.-led liberal world order. This is nonsense. True, that order depends on global rule-making and multilateral cooperation, both of which are out of favor with this American president. But underpinning the rules-based order is American hard power, of which he is unequivocally in favor.

Trump believes that unleashing American economic growth through deregulation and boosting military spending will enhance U.S. hard power assets that withered during the Obama years. As an approach, it is a gamble, though pursuing it need not involve heedlessly ignoring the sources of American soft power, including allied leadership and multilateral stewardship. But a stronger and more confident America would be better-positioned to manage the forces eroding the liberal world order - including Russian revanchism, Chinese assertiveness, jihadi terrorism, and state collapse in the wider Middle East. Trump's successor therefore might inherit a more powerful America - which she or he can then rededicate to the cause of internationalism.

Daniel Twining is counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He served on the U.S. secretary of state's policy planning staff during the George W. Bush administration, and as foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain.

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