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Will the US continue to lead on climate change?

On March 1, the temperature in Washington was a record-setting 80 degrees Fahrenheit. During the month of February, almost 6,000 other high temperature records were recorded across the US, while over the past two years, many parts of Europe and the Middle East experienced unusual weather patterns. Since the beginning of this year, different parts of Saudi Arabia experienced low temperatures, while others endured heavy rains that resulted in some flooding. Are all these things related? Perhaps.

Many Americans have long maintained that given the political, military and economic prowess of the US in the world, it is uniquely positioned to maintain order in the international community and to advance global economic development and prosperity. 

Advocates of US primacy on the world stage have argued that the US has played a leading role in bringing awareness to the truly global problem of climate change and global warming. It has led by example, they argue, as it has implemented various programs that aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions — among the leading causes of global warming — and set ambitious goals for further reductions in the future. 

However, the debate over the extent of the danger of climate change and the best measures to counter it was reopened when Donald Trump became the 45th US president. What the US does on the climate change front — particularly whether it decides to withdraw from the recently ratified Paris Treaty, seen by many as a turning point in the international community’s response to global warming — could have wide, global ramifications.

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) — informally known as the Earth Summit — held in Rio de Janeiro is widely considered a milestone by environmentalists. It marked a paradigm shift in the way the international community thought about the environment and the potentially disastrous results that could come about from its degradation due to human activities related to development and modernity. It was at that venue that the international community adopted the concept of sustainable development. Among the several components of the resulting “blueprint for action,” known as Agenda 21, was the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Developed, developing worlds collide

The international debate over the best course of action to address environmental degradation has been hampered by disagreement between developed and developing countries. While many of the former — including the US — have been at the forefront of the effort to limit environmental pollution, many developing countries argued that it was patently unfair to expect them to take measures equal to those of the developing world, while they were still in the middle or early stages of development. They maintained that developed countries implemented their industrialization plans and programs and achieved advanced stages of development with little regard to the environment, and are therefore responsible for the majority of the damage. That is why the 1997 Kyoto Protocol restrictions only applied to developed countries.

Some have argued that the 2015 Paris Agreement, which falls under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was a significant milestone in the effort to combat global warming. Although some skeptics remain in the West and developing world, the consensus among the global scientific community and many countries around the world is that global warming is occurring, and is primarily caused by anthropogenic drivers such as greenhouse-gas emissions.

Should the US withdraw from the Paris agreement, the global effort to address environmental degradation would likely suffer.

Fahad Nazer

In addition, there is also wide agreement that the increase in atmospheric and water temperatures has already begun to have serious ramifications on the lives of hundreds of millions around the world in the form of increased frequency of extreme weather patterns, droughts, hurricanes, increased rainfall, meeting of glaciers and rising sea levels. By most accounts, the last three years have been the warmest on record.

The debate over environmental degradation and global warming has centered on striking a balance between how best to mitigate its adverse effect on the ecosystem and human environments, while minimizing the cost and impact on businesses, consumers and the global economy. While one approach has been to develop renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and nuclear, other approaches involve introducing new technologies to limit carbon emissions by developing more fuel-efficient cars, for example, or factories that release less pollutants. The problem is that these new technologies are expensive. Businesses and companies around the world, especially energy and automakers, have been among the biggest opponents of stringent restrictions of emissions.

The Trump administration will be compelled to clarify its policy on climate change very soon. The administration has been consistent in maintaining that protecting and creating American jobs will be among its top domestic priorities. It has also generally favored fewer government regulations, which it maintains have been cumbersome to businesses.

The US administration is proposing to cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. There are also indications that it might be on the verge of rolling back some of the Obama administration’s plans to limit emissions by cars and coal-powered factories.

Advocates of US primacy in the world have already argued that, should the US withdraw from the Paris agreement, the global effort to address environmental degradation would likely suffer. They warn that the Paris agreement is already light on enforcement and has many voluntary components. Environmentalists and businesses around the world will no doubt watch how the administration proceeds very closely.

• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.