Let me use a metaphor. Climate change means that earth, humankind’s habitat, is like a leaking boat. Temperatures are rising as the water level would rise in a sinking boat. Anyone who claims leadership in such a situation, must obviously do something to stem the crisis. Trump, however, is shying away from any such responsibility. Basically, his “America first” rhetoric means that he will fight to ensure his country keeps a big dry spot in the leaky vessel, but plugging the leak is someone else’s job.
Anyone with any knowledge of the issue knows that the commitments of the Paris Agreement have to be stepped up for our climate to get sufficient protection. Without such "racheting up", global warming will spin out of control. Any power aspiring to lead in such a situation must be seen to be weighing options for enforcing more stringent environmental rules. Instead, Trump has been pondering for months whether to water down US committiments as a party to the Agreement or to withdraw entirely.
The Paris Agreement is the international community’s attempt to plug the leak. All nations are on board, except for Syria and Nicaragua. Now that the USA is leaving too, its diplomats will no longer have a bearing on related global negotiations. That may actually be preferable to US diplomats slowing down such negotiations, as the Trump administration definitely would have done if it had chosen to accept the Paris accord. Trump's talk of the Agreement being unfair to the USA is nonesense, of course, as the Agreement is non-binding and national committments are determined by the national govenments themselves.
Not many countries around the world will relish a US exit from Paris, by the way. The leaders of most emerging markets and developing countries understand only too well that climate change is set to thwart whatever prosperity may be budding among their peoples. They also know that renewable energy, especially solar and wind power, are more promising options than depending long-term on importing fossil fuels. China and India, in particular, have been showing a keen and steadily growing interest in renewables technology. They are true leaders.
Trump will find few allies with his anti-Paris agenda. Saudi Arabia and Russia might appreciate such a choice. Both depend on fossil fuel exports and both have historically failed to diversify their economies. Both countries are led by authoritarian leaders who are so afraid of their people that they restrict fundamental civil rights. That may suit Trump’s authoritarian leanings, but it does not boost American leadership.
In past decades, the USA commanded soft as well as hard power. American ideas of freedom and democracy were inspiring. That was why the USA prevailed in its cold war competition with the Soviet Union. Scaring the world with massive military power alone does not result in leadership. It does not even suffice to ensure dominance, as Russian leaders, in particular, should have learned.
The commitments governments have made in the context of the Paris Agreement must be stepped up to avoid disaster. That the US administration will not do that is a real problem. If most other countries cooperate well, there is a chance of making progress nonetheless. And they will find partners in the USA - not in the White House, but among state governors and business leaders for example.
The good news, on the other hand, is that the USA is on course to reach the targets Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama set for 2020 regardless of his decision. The reason is that major investors will not be building big new fossil-fuel dependent facilities. They know that such investments would be extremely risky.
The EU and China have pledged to forge ahead with climate protection, no matter what Trump does. They are likely to find many more allies, particularly if they can provide technology for a more sustainable energy future. Of course, everything would be easier if the USA assumed responsibility.
This week, a new railway that links Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, to Mombasa, the country’s main port, was inaugurated. It is one of many example of China funding infrastructure in developing countries. Railways are comparatively energy efficient. The new infrastructure was funded and built by China at a time when the White House wants to slash official development assistance in half. Trump’s idea of making America great again is really only resulting in self-marginalisation.
By the way, if you don’t trust me to judge whether Trump is forsaking his claim to world leadership, you might trust David Frum, who wrote speeches for George W. Bush when Bush was the US president. His headline for The Atlantic, the Boston-based news organisation reads: “The death knell for America’s global leadership.”