Climate Change, the US Elections and Small Island Developing States’ Survival

Alicia Nicholls

We are the first generation to be able to end poverty, and the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our moral and historical responsibilities.” – Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations.

In a step that was both historic and symbolic, the Presidents of the United States (US) and China last week ratified the Paris Agreement ahead of the on-going G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. This single showing of solidarity by the world’s two largest industrialised powers was welcomed news for the small island developing states (SIDS) such as those in the Caribbean, Pacific and the Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS) states. Through the 44-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), SIDS  pushed not only for the conclusion of the Paris Agreement but insisted on the inclusion of language in the Agreement in which parties endeavored to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement).

SIDS are the least culpable but most physically and economically vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Rising sea levels have dislocated coastal communities and threaten the territorial integrity of the Pacific states of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Earlier this year, Cyclone Winston caused US1.4billion in damage, with the highest economic and human toll in Fiji, while Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 cost the Caribbean state of Dominica nearly half of its GDP. However, as the story of a remote Alaskan village which has voted to relocate from their ancestral home because of sea level rise shows, climate change is not a SIDS’ problem alone. It is a cross-cutting global issue which has implications not just for the global environment but for human health, security, sustainable development and economic growth.

So what does all of this have to do with the upcoming election for the 45th President of the US? Well, if one considers the wide disparity in climate change rhetoric and policy proposals between the two major candidates running for the Oval Office, it is pellucid that the election of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump is the difference between strong US support for reducing GHG emissions and leading the global fight against climate change on the one hand, and on the other, a reversal of the gains that have been hard fought for. In other words, the future of SIDS’ survival could depend on the outcome of the US election.

Current US climate change policy

Current US policy supports global climate change efforts. US President Obama’s three-pronged Climate Action Plan commits to cutting carbon pollution in America, preparing the US for the impacts of climate change, and critically for the Paris Agreement, leading international efforts to address Global Climate Change. This is a policy position which Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has pledged to honour should she be elected to office by the American people this November.

The Paris Agreement was concluded in December 2015 at the end of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21). Since the Agreement’s opening for signature in April 2016, over 180 states have signed. However, as of September 3, only 26 states so far (representing 39% of global emissions) have ratified it. The recent ratification by the US and China, which together account for about nearly 40% of GHG emissions, is a significant step towards the threshold needed for the Agreement to come into effect; ratification by at least 55 countries which contribute to 55% of global GHG emissions. According to a White House press release on the US-China Climate Change cooperation outcomes, the two countries “committed to working bilaterally and with other countries to advance the post-Paris negotiation process and to achieve successful outcomes this year in related multilateral fora”.

Climate Change Platforms of Candidates 

While a four-way race in theory, the candidates of the two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, still have a large lead ahead of the two other candidates (Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party). Perhaps never before has there been such wide disparity in the positions of two US presidential candidates on the issue of climate change. The democratic candidate, former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has vowed to “take on the threat of climate change and make America the world’s clean energy superpower”. Some of her major policy initiatives to this end are: launching a $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge, investing in clean energy production and infrastructure, cutting methane emissions across the economy and prioritising environmental and climate justice, inter alia.

This stands in stark contrast to the stated position of Republican candidate, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, who, inter alia, tweeted in November 2012 that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. He later said he was joking. Unfortunately, for the world, and especially for SIDS, climate change is no joking matter.

While Trump’s skepticism on the anthropogenic nature of climate change is not dissimilar to that of most Congressional Republicans, a Sierra Club report has rightly stated that “if elected, Trump would be the only world leader to deny the science of climate change.” He has also denounced the Paris Agreement as a bad deal for America, ascertaining it “gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use right here in America”, a claim soundly and poignantly rejected by the US special envoy for climate change (2009-2016) in a Washington Post op-ed. Mr. Trump first asserted he would renegotiate the Agreement and later stated that he would ‘cancel‘ the US’ participation in it. He has railed against environmental regulations. His proposals to reverse President Obama’s climate change initiatives, abolish the US Environmental Protection Agency, save the coal industry and continue subsidies to the oil and gas industry would jeopardise the US’s current emission reduction targets.

Implications for SIDS of US Climate Policy Change

Should a President Trump, if elected, implement his stated policies, not only will there be a 360 degree reversal of the US’ current commitment to meeting its emission-reduction targets, but an end to US cooperation or support for the global climate change agenda. If this happens, there will be little the world could do,besides raise universal condemnation. This is because one weakness of the Paris Agreement is that there is no binding enforcement mechanism in the agreement to force compliance of countries to the emissions limits they set for themselves. Already, there is skepticism that the current “nationally determined contributions” are not ambitious enough to conform with the Agreement’s goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement).

Secondly, should the US withdraw from the Agreement or renege on its commitments, some other high emitters may feel less of a moral imperative to follow through with their own commitments or may withdraw as well.

Thirdly, climate change finance is important for SIDS’ adaptation to, and mitigation of, the effects of climate change. Under Article 9 of the Paris Agreement developed country members are obligated to provide “financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention”.

Caribbean countries  and several other vulnerable states around the world have benefited significantly over the years from the US Department of International Aid (USAID)’s projects which aim to build countries’ resilience to climate change. Climate change was one of the Obama Administration’s priorities for DA funding with $310.3 million in funding requested for Global Climate Change in the FY2017 Budget Request. The future of USAID aid flows to developing countries for climate change adaptation is bleak if current US policy towards climate change action changes under a Trump administration.

What then for SIDS?

The aim of this article is NOT to be an endorsement of either of the two major candidates running for the upcoming US Presidential election, neither is it an attempt to influence the American people’s decision. The US election is a democratic choice for the American people and only they can decide which of the four candidates’ platform better serves their interests. What this article attempts to do is to discuss and show the wide policy differences which exist between the two candidates of the major parties on climate change, and argues that any negative change in current US climate change policy will have far-reaching implications for the global climate change fight.

There are a few nuggets of hope, however.  Because of Article 28 of the Paris Agreement, a President Trump would have to wait at least three years from the date the Agreement has entered into force in the US before he could notify his intention to withdraw the US from the Agreement and it would take another year for such withdrawal to come into effect.Any US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is unlikely to be a popular move among Americans. Recent US polling data show there is grassroots support for Climate Change. Action. This includes not just environmental lobbies but the ordinary man on the street. There would also be universal condemnation by other major countries.

SIDS may have a few allies in the fight within the US. Outside of federal action, some states, like Oregon, have quite robust climate change initiatives. Moreover, faced with pressure from more discerning and environmentally-aware consumers, more businesses and large corporations are forced to demonstrate their use of energy-friendly processes and products.

Despite this, however, besides lobbying and moral suasion by other countries, there is little SIDS  can realistically do to change US climate change policy should there be a reversal. The vote for US president is a decision only the US electorate can make. However, for SIDS it could be a matter of survival.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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