June 1, 2017
“America First” went from slogan to reality this week. On June 1, US President Donald J. Trump moved to fulfill a campaign promise to extricate the United States from the Paris climate agreement, a landmark accord designed to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change.

The decision came just days after European allies, members of the G7, and even the Pope urged Trump to stay in the agreement. They were not alone in their efforts—US companies from GE to Exxon Mobil to Microsoft to Google called on the president to stay in the Paris deal, to no avail.

This is not the first time that the United States has walked away from a previously-made climate commitment. However, in the years since former President George W. Bush rejected the 2001 Kyoto treaty on global warming, the global momentum for climate action has grown, as has US climate leadership. Washington was instrumental in forging the Paris Agreement, and, with the leadership of former President Barack Obama, convinced many allies of the sincerity of its global engagement and (re-)commitment to multilateralism.

Against this backdrop, Trump’s announcement of the US departure from the agreement is all the more jarring—and all the more difficult to swallow. The nature and manner of the decision, coming on the heels of social media hype, teaser tweets, and a fraught conclusion to the G7 where the United States acted as a stumbling block to reaching shared language on climate, point to the potential for more serious diplomatic repercussions.  

While reporting on the internal maneuverings and machinations within Team Trump that led to this outcome is widespread, assessing the damage is only just beginning. The reverberations of this decision will echo far beyond US borders and modern lifetimes. In absconding, the Trump administration has made the meaning of “America First” clear—going its own way, regardless of allies, irrespective of responsibility, and in opposition to the global order the United States once helped build and maintain.  

Rather than first, America may simply find itself alone.

On June 2, leaders from the European Union (EU) and China will meet in Brussels, and reportedly intend to announce plans to cooperate on climate mitigation. While the EU-China relationship has been characterized by a certain degree of wariness on both sides in the past, Trump’s decision seems to have pushed the two closer together. The EU and China will cooperate in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and double down on Paris commitments. Together, they will call on other signatory countries to do the same.

Meanwhile, the United States will find itself on the outside of a blossoming green alliance.

Not long ago, it was the United States and China that together set the global tone for climate cooperation, whose leadership commanded the attention of other nations, and whose words galvanized other nations into action. However, rather than capitalize on that leadership, Washington has renounced it. Trump should not be surprised if the United States ends up playing a lesser role on the world stage and finds returning to the collective embrace of allies and friends more difficult.

While many, both inside and outside the Trump administration, may find little cause for concern in losing US climate leadership, the implications of walking away from a global agreement amid calls from allies to stand and support it will extend far beyond the field of energy. In addition to ceding international leadership on climate diplomacy, the United States risks falling behind in the development of climate technology and competitiveness, which will do little to help Trump fulfill his campaign promise of creating more US jobs.

Another potential casualty of the decision has been a guiding force and constant in US diplomacy over the past six decades: the United States’ relationship with Europe.

Trump’s decision could erode a sense of shared values and obscure a common mission which has historically defined the transatlantic relationship. Together, US and European allies have championed liberal norms, stood up for human rights, negotiated and maintained peace, and ultimately maintained the international order. This leadership has rested, in part, on the prestige of the parties themselves, the power of their word, and the appeal of being in their good graces—and, of course, peer pressure.

Today, the United States went back on its word. Its credibility, already in jeopardy, will suffer, as will its ability to convince others to maintain their responsibility to collective commitments. Efforts to encourage European nations to shoulder their share of the security burden may be met with questions about the US unwillingness to similarly share collective climate responsibility.

All this is not to say that the United States cannot make progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in absence of the Paris Agreement—it can. Energy innovation, the influx of cheap natural gas, a burgeoning renewables industry, and state-level policies all point in a positive direction. It also means new opportunities for engagement with the stipulations of the Paris deal at the state level, providing a new outlet for European allies and an alternative to Washington’s stated path.

However, it does mean that the United States now lacks not only domestic climate policy, but also a guiding international rudder. It means that the United States will lack a seat at the table and a say in the international climate debate. Ultimately, it means that the Trump administration will have to work even harder to regain its credibility—in the climate debate and beyond.

Ellen Scholl is an associate director in the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @EllenScholl 

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