The executive order signed by US President Donald Trump rolling back his predecessor Barack Obama’s climate change mitigation efforts places his country in danger of being an anachronism in an age when the rest of the world is increasingly veering towards clean energy. Trump’s actions certainly represent a setback to the efforts to arrive at a global consensus on fighting climate change. But much like Trump’s obsessive focus on revving up the US economy at the expense of global cooperation and his grouse that the world is benefitting at America’s expense, other countries must choose to ignore this betrayal and proceed courageously towards achieving their targets for greenhouse gas emission cuts. Today, it is China and not the US which is at the forefront of pushing clean technologies and taking the lead in manufacturing wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles along with an ambitious cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. While Trump bets big on fossil fuels like coal, shale and petroleum, China has committed to investing nearly $360 billion in renewable energy by 2020.
In many ways, Trump’s scrapping of Obama’s climate change efforts is a repeat of history. Though Bill Clinton had signed the Kyoto Protocol to reduced GHG emissions, his successor George Bush refused to ratify it, leaving the other signatories feeling cheated. In this context, the world heaved a sigh of relief when Obama took the lead at the Paris summit and ensured that an agreement was reached to keep average global temperature rise under 2 degree Celsius. Unlike most other democratic countries where conservatives and liberals are in agreement over the scientific evidence on climate change posing a threat to life on Earth, the Republican Party has among its ranks several climate sceptics. It is hardly surprising that many of them are also linked to the powerful petroleum and coal lobbies which stood to lose because of Obama’s Clean Energy Act.
The opposition to Trump’s executive order also mirrors the political divide in the US. Twenty-two state governments have expressed their intent to challenge the order in courts. As economist Thomas Friedman wrote, it is China and California that are taking the lead in clean energy, which is creating more jobs and business opportunities than conventional fuels like coal. For the past 120 years, it is the US that was at the forefront of the incredible advances made by humankind, be it aeroplanes, automobiles, computers and nuclear energy. It remains to be seen if Trump will follow up the climate change fight with federal funding cuts to universities and research institutions. The biggest danger of Trump’s anti-climate stance is that climate finance, which is crucial for poorer nations to embrace mitigative steps, will find no takers. Going by the “polluter pays” principle, the US cannot shirk its responsibility for inviting climate change upon the world.
Trump’s insular America First approach provides the perfect launchpad for China to assume a greater role in world affairs. Countries like India which are betting big on solar energy must pay no heed to Trump’s shenanigans and follow the lead taken by China in betting big on renewable energy.