Trump Hands Climate Leadership Role to China to Dismay of Global Leaders

By David Tweed and | June 2, 2017

President Donald Trump’s decision to isolate the U.S. on climate change triggered waves of complaints from government and business leaders around the world and handed China a golden opportunity to burnish its image as a global leader.

Trump’s withdrawal from the almost 200-nation Paris Agreement on climate, which aligned the U.S. with Syria and Nicaragua as the only holdouts, risks undermining the commitment of other countries to limit fossil-fuel pollution. A European Union-China summit in Brussels provided a platform for their first-ever joint statement on climate and and clean energy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to capitalize on the public-relations opportunities afforded by Trump’s “America First” doctrine since — helping mask the country’s habit of flouting that very order when the rules don’t suit its goals. China’s leader used the Davos forum of global business and political elites in January to enhance his country’s credentials as a bastion of free trade in contrast to Trump’s protectionism.

“This situation should do a lot to ease the pressure on China to ‘behave well’ as a rising power,” Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said by email. “Now, it’s the U.S. that looks like a revisionist power. China, on the other hand, due to its increasing efforts to play a leadership role in world affairs, will be now viewed positively, especially among the Europeans.”

With his announcement in Washington on Thursday, Trump kicked off a process that will take years to unfold — creating an opening for him to reverse course and injecting it as an issue in the next presidential election. Under the terms of the deal, the earliest the U.S. can formally extricate itself from the accord is Nov. 4, 2020 — the day after the next presidential election. He would have wide latitude to change his mind up until that point.


Trump said the accord undermined U.S. interests, sent taxpayer money abroad and didn’t require enough from other nations, singling out China and India.

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh — not Paris,” he said. The mayor of Pittsburgh subsequently tweeted his criticism of the move. State and local leaders in the U.S. also broke with the Trump. California Governor Jerry Brown was headed to China Friday to urge the world’s most populous country to take their cues from Sacramento and not the U.S. capital.

Meantime, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger and Tesla Motors Corp. founder Elon Musk both withdrew from a presidential jobs panel. And such blue-chip U.S. titans as General Electric Co., Ford Motor Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Microsoft Corp. were among companies weighing in with their dismay. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein took to Twitter for the first time to express his dismay. The chorus even included oil-industry executives.

Before Trump even made his decision public, oil explorers Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and BP Plc reiterated their support for the global agreement. Their argument: The U.S. is better off with a seat at the table so it can influence global efforts to curb emissions that are largely produced by the fossil fuels they profit from.

Exxon CEO Darren Woods took it a step further during the company’s annual investor meeting in Dallas on Wednesday. He reiterated his commitment to the Paris pact’s goals and methods, and said oil demand will continue to grow in the coming decades, even with the Paris agreement in place.

“Energy needs are a function of population and living standards,” Woods said during his first annual meeting since becoming CEO on Jan. 1. “When it comes to policy, the goal should be to reduce emissions at the lowest cost to society.”

Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax,” campaigned on the pledge to exit the 2015 pact. White House legal advisers had warned that staying in the accord could undercut Trump’s efforts to rescind rules on power-plant emissions and fuel efficiency.

Flexible Targets

The agreement allows nations to adjust their individual emissions targets, with a goal of strengthening them over time. But there is no established mechanism that would prompt countries to renegotiate the entire accord. Negotiators built flexibility into the deal from the start, structuring the agreement so that individual countries could determine their own commitments — without any punishment for failing to fulfill them.

“Apparently the White House has no idea how a treaty works,” Christiana Figueres, the former executive-secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told reporters on a conference call. She described Trump’s announcement as a “vacuous political melodrama.”

The U.S. leader’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric has done little to counter Xi’s message — on full display at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May — that it is China, not the U.S., that leads the world when it comes to vision on everything from the global economic order to saving the world.

“This is an open goal for China to step up and be the most responsible global leader on the planet and do so in a way that is not threatening to anyone,” said Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “You can bet your bottom dollar that China is going to present itself as a pioneering leader.”

The praise China is winning with its “guardian-of-the-rules-based-order” messaging contrasts with its behavior in other domains.

Mixed Record

Beijing last year earned widespread condemnation when it ignored an international tribunal ruling — made under a global convention to which China is a signatory — that its claims to almost all of the South China Sea have no legal standing. In Hong Kong, its persistent encroachments on the city’s autonomy prompt regular outcries that it has breached a treaty signed with the U.K.

The U.S.-European trans-Atlantic bond is already under pressure after Trump’s visit to European capitals last month. In the aftermath of his blustery diplomacy on trade and security, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that ties that have underpinned German foreign policy since World War II are “to some extent” less dependable.

China has already established itself as a climate-change leader when it comes to its world-class environmental problem, an issue considered politically existential by the Chinese Communist Party. The pollution that now chokes the country’s rivers and air — forcing its population to regularly don filter masks and keep their children home from school — is a result of breakneck economic growth promoted for decades by Beijing.

China has been the world’s biggest clean-energy investor since 2012. In 2016, it spent $88 billion on clean sources of energy such as wind and solar power, accounting for about one third of renewables investment globally. According to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China invested $17.9 billion in new clean energy projects in the first quarter, compared with $4.1 billion in Japan and $9.4 billion in the U.S.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a Thursday briefing in Beijing that while China communicates regularly with the U.S. on topics including climate change, its support for the Paris accord derives from its own interests.

“No matter how other countries’ positions change, we will continue to uphold green, sustainable and innovative development,” Hua said.

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