Others will plug the money gap; the problem is emissions

February 2, 2017

Already, less than two weeks after President Trump was sworn into office, it’s clear that he intends to act in accordance with his previously stated antipathy toward the science of human-induced climate change and toward collective global action to tackle it. For people in my home country of Bangladesh, two aspects of the Trump administration’s likely climate policies stand out as significant: the size of US contributions to global climate finance and the scale of US greenhouse gas emissions.

Bangladesh is a poor, densely populated country. Its 156 million people are crowded into a land area of just 130,000 square kilometers. Most of Bangladesh is situated amid the low-lying deltas of two of the world’s mightiest rivers—the Ganges and Brahmaputra. These deltas are among the world regions most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, intensified flooding, and cyclones. Bangladeshis have as much reason as any people in the world to perceive climate change as a serious threat and to care about climate policies in other countries.

With Trump in charge, the United States is likely to withdraw the funding that, under President Obama, it promised to provide developing countries such as Bangladesh for climate mitigation and adaptation programs. The money will be missed, to be sure—but it’s likely that other developed countries will plug the gap, and that the $100 billion a year collectively pledged by developed countries under the Paris Agreement on climate change will in fact be delivered. The US share of the $100 billion was to have been a few billion a year; in the end its absence will not make a huge difference.

The second probable change under the Trump administration, more important by far, is that Washington will refuse to abide by the Obama administration’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Far from continuing the domestic climate policies enacted by Obama, Trump will seek to revert to a fossil-fuel–based approach to energy and transportation—an approach on which the United States relied as it became a superpower in the previous century. US refusal to reduce emissions will complicate the already difficult task of keeping global temperature increase since the Industrial Revolution to less than 2 degrees; limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees, an aspiration identified in the Paris Agreement, may become impossible. Nevertheless, even if the United States reneges on its emissions commitments, nothing prevents other countries from honoring their own. 

Ultimately, the most important outcome of Trump’s climate policy may not be intuitively obvious: As the rest of the world races forward into the post–fossil fuel age, the United States may get left behind. The clear winner in that scenario would be China. Trump is dropping the mantle of US climate leadership, and Beijing is well positioned to pick it up.