In the coming days President Donald J. Trump may follow through on his campaign pledge to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. Or he might not.
The president’s closest aides are strongly divided on the matter. On the one side, senior adviser to Trump, Stephen K. Bannon, is advocating for the U.S.’s exit; on the other, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump say the U.S. should stay in.
Trump may decide to initiate the four year process to leave the accord to coincide with plans to sign an executive order next week to undo President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that aims to reduce emissions from power plants. The plan was central to the Obama administration’s efforts to meet its pledge to reduce its emissions by 26% from 2005 levels by 2025.
As the world’s largest economy, second largest greenhouse gas emitter and largest historic emitter, a U.S. departure could undermine the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit the rise in global temperature to well-below 2 degrees Celsius and align finance flows with low emission and climate-resilient development. To ensure a safe climate this means phasing out the burning of fossil fuels by 2050 while phasing in 100% renewable energy.
Leaving the accord would damage the U.S.’s reputation and partnerships with key allies. The agreement was the product of devilishly difficult negotiations over many years which scores of vulnerable countries regard as a lifeline to ensure both their future prosperity and survival.
As the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Secretary Tillerson, is an unlikely ally in this fight. Yet given the climate skepticism and fossil fuel interests largely dominate in the Trump administration and Congress, the Paris Agreement needs all the help it can get.
Cue the Organization of American States. The OAS remains the only institution encompassing all countries in the Western Hemisphere. Most of its members including the U.S., Canada and over twenty Latin American and Caribbean countries including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, and Grenada have ratified the Paris Agreement. With Secretary Tillerson onside, the OAS is a useful vehicle for Latin American, Caribbean and Canadian ministers and diplomats to engage with their U.S. counterparts on the importance of the Paris Agreement.
Latin American and Caribbean countries invested considerable diplomatic capital in helping to secure it. These countries are motivated by their extreme vulnerability to rising sea levels and more intense droughts. They also believe the targets to reduce carbon emissions can act as catalyst to spur investment in renewable energy, clean public transport, and the protection of natural capital such as forests.
Moreover, as small- and medium-sized countries, many governments in the region have a strong stake in a rules-based international system underpinned by multilateralism to solve global problems like climate change.
Latin American and Caribbean countries alongside Canada should ramp up their diplomacy and use the available channels through the OAS and elsewhere to make the case to both the Trump administration and lawmakers in Congress that the U.S. should stick with the Paris Agreement.
Countries in the hemisphere could make some of the following arguments in their diplomatic efforts with the State Department, Congress and the White House.
- Voters across Latin America and the Caribbean are increasingly worried about global warming and its impacts.
Latin American citizens are among the most worried about global warming in the world. In the case of Brazil, 90% say climate change is already harming people.
A 2016 survey by Gallup found that 64% of U.S. adults say they are concerned about global warming. A majority of U.S. citizens also support setting tough carbon pollution regulations for coal power plants, and requiring utilities to produce 20% of their electricity from renewable energy, according to a survey produced by a group at Yale University. This includes a large number of Trump voters.
- If the U.S. abandons the Paris Agreement the likelihood of limiting global warming to well-below 2 degrees will be dashed and the Western Hemisphere will be less safe.
The hemisphere is already experiencing serious climate impacts that will likely get worse if the Paris Agreement fails to deliver. Since 2014, droughts have ravaged the Caribbean, Central America and Bolivia due low rainfall and exacerbated by El Niño.
These climate impacts carry a significant cost to human life and property. The U.S. is not safe either: deadly floods in Louisiana and Hurricane Matthew are part of the same global trend of increasing frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters. Extreme weather events cost U.S. taxpayers $27 billion in damages in the first three-quarters of 2016.
President Trump’s interest in cutting the U.S. foreign aid budget, including funding for climate-related programs, would undermine efforts by Latin American and Caribbean countries to manage climate risk and protect lives. This would damage programs and policies that are attempting to cope with increased climate-induced migration from Mexico and Central America to the U.S., which is being driven in part by drought.
It would also severely damage the U.S. credibility and erode its soft power in a largely friendly region that regards tackling climate change as a central part of its development agenda.
- U.S.-Latin American and Caribbean cooperation on climate change and clean energy represents a bright spot for hemispheric relations
Whether on issues of U.S. drug policy, what to do about the crisis of democracy in Venezuela or immigration, the hemisphere is often at loggerheads. Cooperation on climate change and clean energy represents one area where U.S.-Latin American relations are working well. This reflects the level of the priority afforded to these issues by most countries in the hemisphere.
In 2014, the U.S. launched a Caribbean Energy Security Initiative to support Caribbean nations reduce their dependence on costly imported fossil fuels and provide assistance to unlock their considerable potential to develop renewable alternatives. In 2014 and 2015, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) committed over $256 million to clean and renewable energy projects in the Caribbean and Central America.
In June 2016, the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership between the U.S., Canada and Mexico established the goal to achieve 50% clean power generation by 2025. There are also various bilateral efforts between the U.S. and Latin American countries such as the U.S.-Brazil Climate Change Working Group with the aim to enhance bilateral cooperation on land use, clean energy, and adaptation to climate impacts.
A move by the Trump administration to abandon the Paris Agreement and other climate-related initiatives could jeopardize this cooperation. It could impair relations with the region and scupper the Trump administration’s chances of gaining support for its agenda on other issues such as renegotiating NAFTA with Mexico and working with regional partners on fighting corruption, terrorism and organized crime.
- Abandoning the Paris Agreement would make the hemisphere less competitive
The global transition to a low carbon economy is underway. Latin American and Caribbean countries view this transition as a path toward achieving greater prosperity and managing climate risk. Delivering on the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals is shaping up to be the most important growth story this century.
Take renewable energy. Most countries in the region have created renewable energy targets and established an enticing regulatory environment. This strong support is attracting record levels of clean energy investment which has eclipsed other sectors including mining in the case of Chile. In some areas, renewable energy is nearing or has achieved grid parity without subsidies.
This progress sends a strong signal to investors that renewable energy continues to be the leading option for new power generation capacity. The consultancy, EY, estimates that Latin American mining companies will invest more than $1 billion in renewable energy projects by 2022, up from $37 million in 2013.
Latin American and Caribbean countries should promote renewables with the Trump administration not least because they help improve energy security by decreasing reliance on costly fossil fuels imports and reducing vulnerability to climate impacts including droughts which undermine hydropower.
Governments in the region also back renewables as a means of creating jobs, boosting growth and improving energy access. In the case of the U.S., the Department of Energy says there are 374,000 American jobs in solar, 102,000 in wind and more than 2.2 million related to energy efficiency compared to 160,000 Americans working in coal.
Latin American and the Caribbean alongside China are dispelling the myth that decarbonization stifles economic growth. Rather, the transition that entails shifting away from old, resource-intensive industries means shifting to more innovative, efficient means and industries. Last, renewables present a key avenue for countries to achieve their emission reduction goals submitted as part of the Paris Agreement.
The potential for greater hemispheric cooperation on renewable energy is considerable. Latin America and the Caribbean represent $1 trillion of clean energy investment opportunities by 2040, of which $600 billion is expected to materialize by 2030.
The U.S. would be unwise to ignore these opportunities. If the U.S. sits back or abandons the field, China, which has already positioned itself as a global leader on clean energy, will swoop in. China is moving aggressively to consolidate and expand its leadership to achieve its goal of becoming the first clean energy superpower where countries around the world would be buying its clean energy technologies.
- Latin America’s private sector is beginning to play a greater role on climate change. If the U.S. pulls out of the Paris accord this could dampen this inchoate enthusiasm.
Latin America’s private sector has an essential role to play in supporting national efforts to achieve emission reduction targets and build resilience. Given the vast sums required to build a low carbon economy, governments urgently require private sector investment.
Private sector enthusiasm to invest and contribute voluntarily to emission reduction is increasing yet remains inadequate. A number of large companies in mining industry and banks are making voluntary pledges to address climate change. Mexico’s CEMEX pledged to set an internal carbon price by 2017. In 2016, 27 companies with operations across Pacific Alliance countries, including Bancolombia, Deloitte and Unilever, pledged their commitment to work with government to encourage greater public-private partnerships to spur interest in building clean, innovative and resilient infrastructure.
A U.S. departure from the Paris Agreement could undermine private sector confidence both to invest in the national climate change plans and contribute to emission reduction efforts across the hemisphere. Moreover, the Trump administration’s anti-climate agenda could strengthen the calls from those Latin American actors in business and industry which seek to undermine or weaken national climate policies and targets.
- If the U.S. ditches the accord, some Latin American countries would lose an ally to push major emitters such as China and India to be more transparent about their climate actions.
Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of the Paris Agreement. A robust transparency mechanism is necessary to ensure progress towards achieving the agreement’s long-term temperature goals and tracking levels of climate finance to support developing countries. This must be adequately monitored, reported and verified. Enhanced transparency can lead to greater confidence between countries which in turn can lead to increased ambition.
At the UN climate negotiations in 2015, countries agreed to establish a robust transparency mechanism but the details are still being ironed out. China and India would both prefer a more lax system for developing countries. On the other hand, the U.S. alongside some Latin American countries have pushed for a more rigorous approach applicable to all countries.
If the U.S. leaves the table, a group of Latin American countries would lose a powerful ally to try and push China, India and others to accept a more robust transparency mechanism which would strengthen the global climate regime.
Can hemispheric diplomacy convey these reasons?
Following the woeful treatment of Mexico, other countries in the hemisphere will be aware of the risks of appearing to challenge the Trump administration. Yet climate change poses too great a threat to the Western Hemisphere’s current and future development prospects to remain silent.
Backed up by their leaders, ministers and diplomats can work together and speak up forcibly to defend the Paris Agreement and the continuing participation of the United States. The OAS may just be the forum for them to collectively express their support for the agreement and the United States.