June 8, 2017 3:00 pm JST
Greg Colton

US exit from Paris deal marks end of influence in South Pacific

For island states, climate pact is a matter of life and death

A boy stands on top of a seawall near the village of Tangintebu on South Tarawa in Kiribati. © Reuters

President Donald Trump has unapologetically withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Consequently, the U.S. joins only Syria and Nicaragua as a non-signatory to the treaty. Syria is amidst a horrific civil war and sanctions mean it is hard for many government officials to travel. Nicaragua refused to sign because, as a developing country listed as fourth most affected by extreme weather events, it felt the deal did not go far enough. It took the moral position that it could not be a signatory to an agreement that would not do enough to lower global temperature increases.

Trump's announcement has provided many world leaders with an opportunity to offer an alternative view of the world, particularly in Europe where patience for the president's unstatesmanlike behavior is wearing thin. However, it is in the South Pacific that America's abrogation of responsibility is generating the most concern. For many of the smaller island states, climate change is not a matter of opinion but a very real existential threat. As such, Trump's stance on the Paris accord may mark an unrecoverable loss of influence for the U.S. in the region.

Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga of Tuvalu, a nation of nine islands of which the highest point is just 4.5m above sea level, expressed his frustration in an interview with Radio New Zealand. He said: "I think this is a very destructive, obstructive statement from a leader of perhaps the biggest polluter on earth and we are very disappointed as a small island country already suffering the effects of climate change."

Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati who was heavily involved in the negotiations leading to the Paris accord, said: "It's pretty selfish, I think there's no other way to explain that."

It is not as if the U.S. does not acknowledge that climate change is an issue. Following the withdrawal, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told CNN that the president "knows that [the climate] is changing and that the U.S. has to be responsible for it ... But we'll do it under our own terms."

That last part is instructive. It signals that, despite the views of 194 other countries, Trump has decided that domestic politics outweigh global issues. As such, by withdrawing from the accord, Trump has very deliberately turned his back on the collective aspirations of the international community to address a global problem. This significantly undermines America's self-declared role as leader of the free world and insistence that other countries abide by an international rules-based order.

No choice

The concerns of the South Pacific island nations are two-fold. First, a failure of one of the world's largest air polluters to curb emissions that contribute to climate change threatens their long-term national survival.

Second, Trump's announcement that the U.S. will also cease contributions to the Green Climate Fund threatens their short-term access to capital they need to adapt to environmental changes caused by historical emissions. For South Pacific island states, which already function on marginal economies, this is a devastating outcome.

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise from a U.S. president who seems to view international relations as a business ledger sheet; one in which friendships, loyalty and international partners count for nothing compared with international income versus national expenditure.

Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he is ready to eschew long-term benefit in favor of sealing the deal of the day. Therefore, for Trump what benefit is there in spending U.S. money to support climate adaptation initiatives in countries that have little if any positive impact on the U.S. economy? Why should he worry about the long-term future of South Pacific island nations that do not trade with the U.S. in any case?

What Trump does not seem to have factored in is that the global commons is based on diplomacy and conventions. By turning his back on the Paris deal, he is indicating that the needs of the U.S. outweigh moral considerations. Trump has successfully undermined the long-standing position of the U.S. as champion of smaller, democratic nations under pressure from global forces outside their control. He should not be surprised when other major powers step in to take up the mantle.

In 1793, the French National Convention released a collection of decrees, one of which included this passage: "The people's representatives will reach their destination, invested with the highest confidence and unlimited power. They will show great character. They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power."

As the president of the U.S., Trump undoubtedly wields great power. However, he has shown he lacks understanding of the responsibility that comes with this office. International relations are transactional in more ways than simple trade deficits. Other countries and their leaders understand this. China may seize the opportunity to assume the helm in the region, now that the U.S. has abandoned global leadership in climate change. In time, observers may well look back on the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as the beginning of the end of U.S. influence in the South Pacific.

Greg Colton is an Australian Army officer on secondment to the Lowy Institute for International Policy where he is a research fellow in international security. He is leading a project examining resilience and fragility in the South Pacific. These are his personal views.

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