In Bonn, Germany, representatives of countries around the world have gathered for the annual UN Climate Change Conference. The mood might be a little different this year, however, because just a single country stands apart by not participating in the recent landmark Paris climate agreement
Embarrassingly, that country is the United States.
To be fair, until recently, we were one of three international holdouts. Just last month, Nicaragua - previously abstaining because they found the standards too lax - agreed to sign on. And this Monday, the war-torn nation of Syria announced that it too would join the rest of the world in implementing the agreement.
Ironically, it was American diplomatic leadership that made the agreement possible in the first place. In December 2015, more than 200 countries in Paris convened for the negotiations, which had been ongoing for some time. The same problem had been holding up climate talks for years: How could an agreement be built in such a way that each country in the world had to do not too much - but also not too little - to solve a problem that transcends borders and affects everyone around the world in different ways?
The true innovation of the Paris agreement was the mechanisms for both flexibility and accountability that it employed to solve this problem. Each country - large and small, rich and poor - committed to fighting climate change by enacting its own unique plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Then, every five years, all parties would reconvene to show their progress towards these goals; the targets were not legally binding, but the theory was that a sort of ‘international peer pressure’ could serve as an enforcement mechanism and would incentivize increasing those standards over time.
China and the United States made a symbolic gesture by ratifying the agreement together in September 2016, but President Trump had different plans. In June of this year, he announced our unilateral withdrawal from the agreement, ostensibly because its (again, legally non-binding) terms were not favorable to the United States. In reality, this appears to have been nothing more than red meat for his base and another step in his quest to dismantle every piece of his predecessor’s legacy.
This would be less painful if Trump Administration was doing something - anything - to address the national security, economic, public health, or other real and measurable consequences of climate change. Unfortunately, our current climate and energy policy appears all but stuck in the past.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt only seems to be in the news when he’s meeting with oil executives or taking taxpayer money for expensive commercial flights (including one $36,000 whopper to Italy). Meanwhile, the only group benefitting from Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s power plan for the United States are coal companies - like that of Trump backer Bob Murray, whose company stands to be subsidized by the higher prices paid by millions of American consumers. From rolling back the Clean Power Plan to approving new pipelines, the Trump Administration seems determined to roll back every one of the Obama Administration’s efforts to fight climate change and promote clean energy.
But while America is losing out on investment opportunities in clean energy, the rest of the world isn’t. China and India have overtaken us in this sector that is already providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to Americans, and could be providing far more. Leaders in these countries understand that just as fossil fuels dominated the last century, this century’s drivers of economic development will revolve around solar, wind, and other clean energy technologies - and that whoever develops the best technologies first will benefit from exporting that technology around the world.
Though the United States government may stand alone in ‘opting out’ of international efforts to fight climate change, there is hope beyond the federal level. Governors, mayors, CEOs, and private citizens around the country are setting their own goals to limit emissions, essentially trying to replicate the positive effects of the Paris climate agreement. The #IAmStillIn campaign has been one successful method for recruiting states, cities, companies, and communities to action, but there are many more.
Even in an absence of federal-level leadership, individual Americans are eager to show the world that we aren’t backing down from the fight against climate change. And that is anything but embarrassing.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.