It is being widely reported that the United States will pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the largest and most important international treaty to mitigate the effects of climate change. If these reports are correct, Donald Trump will have unilaterally pushed the United States into a new age of isolationism.
Experts who worked on the Paris agreement and in the State Department under President Obama are quick to point out that the treaty isn't merely designed to protect the environment: It's one of the more important works of diplomacy the international community has ever worked on, a method the United States and others used to find common ground with countries that have traditionally had fraught relations.
"There has been a lot of trust built between the US and other countries because of the progress we've made on climate agreements," Jessica Brown, former Foreign Affairs Officer and lead climate finance negotiator at the State Department, told me in December.
In November 2015, as world leaders were meeting to fine-tune the details of the agreement, President Obama's White House was quick to say that America was working closely "with countries as varied as Brazil and India," noted that "cooperation with China is absolutely essential," and said that Paris climate talks with France and Germany segued into international collaboration to fight ISIS.
"To forfeit areas of mutual benefit with China unilaterally and voluntarily seems like the wrong thing to be doing at this time"
"This is not first and foremost about saving the environment for its own sake," Paul Bodnar, who helped negotiate the treaty and is now a senior fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute, told me. "It's about protecting our economic and security interests around the world. If you support food security, global health, poverty eradication, you should be very concerned about how climate change works to counteract those goals."
The idea here is that, with climate, the US has been able to find areas of common ground with countries like China that have segued into greater diplomatic cooperation.
"We saw positive knock-on effects from our leadership on climate on other areas," Bodnar said. "In China, it has been one of the bright spots of the relationship and has made it easier to maintain that a vital, bilateral relationship, which is one of the most important in the world at a time when there's been a lot of friction."
"To forfeit areas of mutual benefit with China unilaterally and voluntarily seems like the wrong thing … to be doing at this time," Pete Ogden, who studies climate policy at the Center for American Progress and formerly worked at the State Department and in the White House, told me soon after Trump was elected.
"We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own."
Even though Trump has not yet officially announced that the US will leave the Paris accord, his rhetoric on climate, NATO, and international trade deals during his campaign and in the past year have made the global community feel obligated to forge ahead without America's leadership.
Earlier this year, French President-elect Emmanuel Macron appealed directly to "American researchers, entrepreneurs, and engineers working on climate change: … Please, come to France, you are welcome." Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said "the times in which we could rely fully on others—they are somewhat over … we have to know that we must fight for our future on our own." In New York Tuesday, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said "it is absolutely essential that the world implements the Paris Agreement—and that we fulfill that duty with increased ambition." Last week, Macron compared Trump to Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Russian and Turkish strongmen leaders who are known to break from the broader international community on world affairs.
If America leaves the Paris Agreement, it will be abandoning an agreement signed by quite literally every nation in the world save for Nicaragua and war-torn Syria. We will be alone.
Isolationism and an "America First" ideology is what Trump campaigned on, and so it's not surprising that the United States has pursued these policies of self-ostracization. But the Trump administration is swimming upstream against a world that is united. As the world goes one way, America heads another. It is not just the environment that Trump is sacrificing; he is also throwing out any goodwill and influence America has earned as a result of international cooperation and collaboration.