The president's climate inaction has frustrated the world, and allowed an economic rival to gain more power and influence.
Workers install solar panels on a roof in Wuhan, China. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
When people look back at Donald Trump's first year as president, they're likely to be perplexed by his actions on climate change. They will see an administration that put climate deniers in senior government positions during a year of record-breaking natural disasters, did everything it could to save a dying coal industry as jobs in renewables exploded, and exited from an international climate treaty that both environmental activists and Fortune 100 companies supported. And this is all despite the release of a government report that there is "no convincing alternative explanation" for climate change other than human activity—more evidence, if you needed it, that this is a problem that urgently needs attention.
"People would look back and think, 'Boy, that was certainly an aggressive effort to go directly in reverse'" of the direction we should be heading, Todd Stern, the United States special envoy for climate change under Barack Obama, told me. No matter how you interpret it, Stern said, 2017 is a "pretty bad" year for federal US climate policy.
Future observers will be even more perplexed when they look at what China was doing during the same time period. The top geopolitical rival to the US announced $361 billion in spending on renewables, moved to shutter hundreds of coal plants, mulled a ban on gas and diesel-powered vehicles, and officially stated its intention to be a global climate leader. "The policy direction is very clear," said Li Shuo, the Beijing-based climate policy advisor at Greenpeace East Asia. "[Low-carbon technology] is an area where through policy support [China] can really get an upper hand economically."
Trump has said he is putting "America First" with his actions on climate change. But in reality he is willingly surrendering vast political and economic power to China. "It's hard for me to identify a strategy in much of what this administration does," Joseph Aldy, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard and a former Obama administration official, told me. Yet the contrast between China and the US on climate change could not be clearer. "One of the countries has a leadership that's operating in the 21st century and the other is operating in the 20th," Aldy argued.
This only recently became the case. During the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, China blocked US efforts to create a globally binding treaty, arguing that it would unfairly restrict China's economic growth. But China was struggling with horrific air pollution. It was also investing billions in low-carbon technology. Stern began meeting in secret with negotiators in China and "we found a way to work together," he said. Those discussions resulted in a historic joint promise from the US and China in 2014 to strengthen "bilateral cooperation on climate change."
That may sound like diplomatic jargon. But this unlikely alliance between the US and China was a massive step forward in the global fight against climate change. It made possible the international climate treaty that was negotiated in Paris in 2015. After Trump won the US election and vowed to exit from the Paris treaty, observers wondered if China would also pull out. But any doubts were dispelled in early 2017 when China's President Xi Jinping said that "the Paris agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance. We must ensure this endeavor is not derailed."
China backed that up with a promise to invest $361 billion in renewable energy sources by 2020. Its National Energy Administration predicted this would create over 13 million jobs. China is also investing in clean energy outside its borders, spending $32 billion in 2016 alone, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. China now owns the biggest wind turbine manufacturer in the world and five of the six biggest solar module builders. "It really sees this as a new and emerging sector," explained Li, and its goal is to "gain an upper hand globally."
Trump's pick to lead the EPA is doing everything he can to help China achieve its goal. Scott Pruitt has said that the US should be withdrawing support for renewable energy. "I would do away with these incentives that we give to the wind industry," he recently argued. Pruitt has close ties to lobby groups like the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, as well as the oil companies supporting them. He's argued on CNBC that human activities aren't "a primary contributor to the global warming that we see." And one of his top policy goals is to end "the war on coal."
Trump released an executive order in March that claimed to do just that. It directed agencies and departments to repeal or revise climate change regulations introduced by Obama. "We are lifting job-killing restrictions on the production of oil, natural gas, clean coal, and shale energy," Trump said at the time. The president declined to mention that coal jobs have been declining since 2012 because of economic forces outside of his control, or that the solar industry now employs more people than coal or gas. But Trump isn't interested in the future. He wants to hearken back to "a period in the past when coal was a much larger fraction of our energy economy," Aldy said.
China is going the other direction. In February it announced plans to close down 500 outdated coal mines. Coal is still by far the largest source of electricity in China, supplying 62 percent of the country's energy. But China's coal consumption has dropped for the past three years due in part to the rapid rise of wind and solar. "I think it is safe to say we have reached the peak point of coal," Li argued. "It's going to be a declining trajectory." Many international observers agree. And if this trend persists, China could meet its 2030 Paris climate targets a decade early.
Not that climate hawks should be embracing China as a savior just yet. The country is strengthening trading relationships across Asia, Africa, and Europe under a $900 billion strategy called the "Belt and Road Action Plan." And some of the investments it's making in other countries are terrible for the environment, such as $15 billion for new coal power plants in Pakistan. "That's a real worry," Stern noted. "It's not going to help the world if fossil fuel development is financed by China outside their borders."
The broader economic trend lines are clear though. Over two-thirds of new energy installations across the planet last year came from renewables, according to the International Energy Agency. China announced in September it plans to ban gasoline-powered cars. The Paris treaty is as much about building the industries of the future as it is about cutting carbon emissions. That's why "90 plus percent of Fortune 100 companies" support US involvement, Stern argued. "Every industry: finance, heavy industry, tech, retail—you name it. There was hardly anyone opposed to staying in the Paris agreement."
Trump's decision to exit Paris in June was a giant middle finger to the rest of the world, but it didn't actually accomplish that much. The US is still technically in the treaty until 2020. The carbon reductions it promised were already voluntary. And even with Pruitt's current efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan, US emissions are at a 24-year-low. They are expected to keep declining over the next decade thanks to the rise of renewables and strong climate policies in states like California. The real impact of Trump's withdrawal is to surrender negotiating power to countries like China. "It's not clear what if any influence the US can have," Aldy explained.
This is not exactly an ideal situation for China. "A lot of people are dismayed," Li explained. "We need the US on board, this a question larger than any one country." But the absence of US leadership on climate creates a power vacuum China is now looking to fill. "There is an increasing realization in China that we need to foster this diplomatic opportunity," Li said. During a week-long Communist Party meeting in October, President Xi said that China is taking a "driving seat" in the fight against climate change and this will help the country "become a leading global power."
This is encouraging news for the world. We have only a few short years to implement policies capable of avoiding the deadliest impacts of climate change. But Trump's surrender to China on climate change is also a surrender of democratic values. President Xi is now the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. "He seems determined to tighten control over Chinese society, not least by enhancing the state's powers of surveillance," explained a recent story on Xi in The Economist. "The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China. Alas, it may get both."
Trump's actions are reversible. The US economy is shifting away from fossil fuels. States and cities are stepping forward. Emissions are declining. If Americans elect a Congress or president in the next four years that cares about unscrewing the climate, all these trends could feasibly be accelerated. It's possible that people in the future will look back at the Trump era as a momentary aberration: "'Well, that was crazy but at least it didn't last long,'" said Stern.
But Trump is stalling global climate action when it badly needs to be sped up. And as 195 countries meet in November for an annual United Nations climate conference in Bonn, Germany, it's still not guaranteed that China can mitigate the damage. "You run the risk of people looking back and thinking what madness gripped… this country and why did so many people go along with it?" Stern said.
Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.