Trump’s Climate Fail: Another Loss for American Leadership

Trump’s Climate Fail: Another Loss for American Leadership

© Stephane Mahe / Reuters

President Trump put more than progress on climate change in jeopardy when he reversed the previous administration’s clean-energy policies on Tuesday. With a signature on an executive order, he put America’s global leadership more seriously at risk than at any time in the last seventy years.

The White House was careful not to mention the Paris Agreement, the landmark accord signed by 197 nations in 2015. But in repudiating the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, Trump is withdrawing from the world’s working document on climate control in all ways but on paper.

Related: Trump Picks up His ‘Pen’ to Eviscerate Obama’s Rules on Climate Protection

The Paris Agreement, using 2005 as the baseline, commits the U.S. to cutting greenhouse gasses by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025. The Rhodium Group, the New York research firm, says Trump’s executive order means America’s progress will stall at a 14 percent reduction the year after next, slightly worse than the cut achieved in 2016.

That’s called walking away, and the entire world is watching this time.

Obama did plenty to cause other nations to question America’s global leadership, but his role in Paris was a big exception. Significantly, the U.S. was instrumental in getting India and China, both top polluters, to get on board with ambitious targets.

Now Trump is effectively telling them and 194 other nations that the U.S. won’t keep its side of the bargain it urged everyone else adopt. It’s hard to think of another time America said so plainly, “We’re not going to lead.”

On the climate question alone, it’s an open-and-shut case. China’s all too eager to take America’s place on the biggest issue facing the global community—as Trump will doubtless find when President Xi Jinping summits with him at Mar–a–Lago next week. (Was it a coincidence that Beijing confirmed Xi’s visit Thursday, two days after Trump’s executive order?)

Related: 3 Reasons the Pentagon Is Worried About Global Warming  

Not to be missed, China’s already powering into a market for solar, wind, and other alternative-energy sources forecast to be worth $8 trillion in coming decades. With $32 billion in global investments last year, China took leadership in renewable-energy technologies away from the U.S. just about the time Trump was inaugurated.

There was always a danger buried in Trump’s “America first” priority. Would his administration make the mistake of stepping back from international commitments, or would it more wisely devise new kinds of engagement, as Obama tried and failed to do?

The U.S. is out of the Trans–Pacific Partnership now, leaving 11 other signatories holding the bag. Why couldn’t Trump, once president, convene new talks to announce, “We’re in this, but we want to rethink the consequences for jobs in your countries and mine?” 

Trump has the Europeans thoroughly rattled. His military advisers pulled him back from his initial suggestion that NATO is useless, but he remains on the record approving Britain’s exit from the European Union, which formally began Wednesday.

Related: New EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Is Balking at Trump’s Big Budget Cuts

The EU and NATO are the two institutions through which the U.S. exercises its leadership across the Atlantic—and far beyond in the case of the military alliance. Subjecting them to re-examination is what leaders do; undermining confidence or unnerving members isn’t.

A few weeks after Trump was inaugurated, the German foreign minister said he saw no place for the U.S. in four-way talks on a settlement of the Ukraine crisis. Sigmar Gabriel also explained that when he put this to Rex Tillerson, the just-confirmed secretary of state concurred.

Russia, Iran, and Turkey, meantime, proceed with a peace process for Syria that, while tentative and slow, holds more promise than all previous efforts. The State Department confines its presence to an ambassador with observer status.

Trump inherited the Ukraine and Syria problems from Obama. That doesn’t mean he has to assume the same lack of imagination and dynamism.

Related: China, EU Reaffirm Climate Pledges After Trump Backs Away

In Syria and Iraq, adversary Iran is fighting ISIS on the U.S. side while ally Saudi Arabia has been among the Islamic State’s material and ideological supporters. Across the Middle East, it’s obvious that long-term stability depends on a reconciliation between these two powers, Shi’a and Sunni respectively.

Quick: Name the nation in the best position, and with sufficient influence in both capitals, to sponsor such a process.

Several policy experts in Washington this week suggested that the administration might get away with dropping Obama’s clean-energy policies by tinkering with scientific assumptions, stretching the 2025 deadline, and submitting a new set of national targets. Even if that works—and it’s a question—Trump’s plans as announced put America first while effectively making it a follower on an issue it used to lead.

It adds up. One issue at a time, the Trump administration must do more to preserve American credibility and American leadership.