By Melissa Powers, GEI Director and Jeffrey Bain Faculty Scholar & Professor of Law, Lewis & Clark Law School
The former head of the U.S. climate change delegation, Jonathan Pershing, held a brief press conference on Monday to discuss the future of U.S. climate policy. Although Dr. Pershing noted at the outset that he could not predict where U.S. international climate policy will go, because Donald Trump has not yet appointed a transition team to navigate the U.S. position regarding the global climate treaty, most of the questions from the press focused on the potential impacts of a Trump Administration. The press asked about U.S. follow-through with its funding commitments, the potential U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement or even the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the treaty signed by George H.W. Bush and ratified by the U.S. Senate), potential retaliatory responses from the European Union through a border carbon tax if the United States does rescind its climate commitments, and the degree to which any U.S. withdrawal would affect other countries’ compliance. On the positive side, it seems clear that other countries are committed to following through with their own climate mitigation strategies. However, the questions also revealed the extent to which the United States would lose standing on a number of other global issues if it retreats from the climate treaty.
The Paris Agreement is arguably one of the most significant climate achievements of the Obama Administration. Before President Obama took office, the United States had developed a decidedly poor reputation due to the George W. Bush Administration’s repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol and continued resistance to binding climate mitigation commitments. When President Obama took office in 2009, hopes rose that the U.S. negotiating position would change significantly. However, many countries loudly opposed President Obama’s support for and behind-the-scenes negotiations of the Copenhagen Accord, a generally weak document that uses a bottom-up approach for securing countries’ climate commitments. While President Obama walked away from Copenhagen having broken a major logjam in the climate treaty-making process, his focus on negotiating the Accord with only a handful of major emitting countries left many developing countries feeling alienated and betrayed.
Since then, however, the Obama Administration’s persistent efforts to address climate change domestically (through, for example, regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles; support for renewable energy research, development, and deployment; and carbon dioxide emissions limitations from power plants) have strengthened the United States’ standing on the international climate stage. Most significantly, the Obama Administration’s bilateral negotiations with China led to a joint agreement for both countries to reduce greenhouse gases and increase renewable energy development. This agreement paved the way for the Paris Agreement—the first international climate treaty in which nearly all countries of the world have agreed to take action to address climate change.
It is hard to overstate how much the Obama Administration’s efforts have paid off in terms of good will for the United States. It is also hard to overstate how damaging another U.S. retreat from the international climate regime will be—not only to the world at large, but to the United States itself. Good faith participation in the global climate treaty-making process has allowed the United States to exert its influence on many countries in a positive and collaborative way. U.S. funding and support for technology innovations and developing country access to clean energy have allowed the United States to develop and maintain effective working relationships around the world. U.S clean energy companies have also benefitted from access to new markets as more countries increase their own use of renewable energy. If the United States retreats from the climate regime, other countries will step in to fill the gap. These countries will not only provide their own industries ready access to emerging clean energy markets; they will displace the United States as one of the more influential parties in the climate regime. In fact, China’s delegates have specifically said that the U.S. retreat will give China the moral high ground as it moves to occupy the space left vacant by the U.S.
A friend of mine commented the other day that the election of Trump will erode the United States’ status as one of the world’s superpowers, particularly if the Trump Administration follows through with its threats to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and the larger climate treaty regime. Perhaps that’s hyperbole. But at the end of the press conference, the man sitting next to me revealed how happy he is with Donald Trump’s election. “I’m Russian,” he said.