Much of the world is in shock over President Trump’s decision to “cancel” the United States’ involvement in the Paris climate agreement. How could the nation withdraw from an international agreement that was decades in the making, includes just about every country in the world and aims at nothing short of maintaining a livable planet?
The president says his “America first” principles required withdrawal. But Trump is wrong and astonishingly misinformed on all the issues involved. His views about climate change being a “hoax,” clean energy being a job killer and American leadership being his brand are out of step with basic science, economic analysis and the history of U.S. diplomacy. And it was clear Thursday that Trump does not understand the very policies upon which he is deciding.
Consider the other decision Trump announced Thursday in the Rose Garden — to “terminate” U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund. Nearly everything Trump said about the Green Climate Fund to justify his decision was wrong or misleading.
The Green Climate Fund is an outgrowth of the Copenhagen climate agreement that Trump publicly urged adoption of eight years ago, in a letter he signed along with other members of his family. The aim of the fund is twofold. The first is to help developing countries reduce emissions that cause climate change. The second is to help these same countries adapt to the unavoidable changes already set in motion by historic emissions.
I had the privilege of serving as the U.S. representative on the governing board of the Green Climate Fund in 2013. These were early days of the fund that focused on negotiating its basic structure and objectives. Our team consisted of an extraordinary staff spanning the U.S. Treasury and State departments. We vigorously advocated for a fund that served the interests of the United States. But actually doing so required a recognition of climate change as a global problem and the need for participation in a multilateral framework. Trump fails not only to see the increasing need for this approach to diplomacy in an interconnected world, he simply does not understand the fund he criticized on the world’s stage.
The first misunderstanding is Trump’s assertion that the Green Climate Fund “calls for developed countries to send $100 billion to developing countries.” The Copenhagen agreement stipulated that 37 developed countries plus the European Union would “mobilize” a combined $100 billion in climate finance to developing countries by 2020. But that money is intended to come from both the private and public sectors. The Green Climate Fund is only one of many potential sources, most of which are aimed at using public money to leverage much larger pools of private sector investment. In 2016, the combined flows from all the developed countries were already at $66.8 billion.
Trump claimed that the fund is “costing the United States a vast fortune.” In reality, the United States has contributed to date $1 billion out of a total pledge of $3 billion. Which is to say that what we’ve spent so far amounts to about .026 percent of the annual federal budget.
Trump not only falsely characterized the U.S. commitment as “billions and billions and billions” of dollars, he also asserted that among other countries, “Nobody else is even close. Most of them haven’t even paid anything.” The facts are that while the United States is the largest contributor in absolute dollars, on a per capita basis, the U.S. pledge ranks 11th among the 45 contributing countries, and as a fraction of gross domestic product, the United States ranks 32nd. Every country with an official pledge has made a contribution, and nearly all have already paid a larger share of their total pledge than the United States.
Finally, the president asserted that “nobody even knows where the money is going to. Nobody’s been able to say where is it going to.” This statement suggests that no one in the Trump administration has bothered to look things up, or even asked the Treasury Department about the policy. The Green Climate Fund’s website lists exactly 43 projects that are underway in Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Asian Pacific region. The total amounts for each are listed, along with the anticipated benefits. It is, in other words, very easy to say where the money is going, and all of the projects have been carefully reviewed by the U.S. government.
The Trump administration should know this. As a matter of policy, U.S. participation in multilateral financial institutions always demands accountability, fiduciary standards, social safeguards and a growing role for the private sector. Indeed, pursuing these goals is part of the DNA of those who work in foreign assistance across government agencies. If the president or senior White House aides have questions about the Green Climate Fund, they could consult the outstanding International Affairs staff at Treasury.
But Trump’s decision isn’t only based on false information — it also reverses decades of bipartisan agreement on the need for climate-related assistance to developing countries. President George H.W. Bush helped establish the first international fund, the Global Environmental Facility, in 1992. President George W. Bush worked with other leaders to create the Climate Investments Funds in 2008, and these were intended as pilot for what has now emerged as the Green Climate Fund.
This history of support for funding climate-related assistance in developing countries is based on recognized national interest. Encouraging other countries to pursue development pathways with fewer emissions and less climate change has obvious benefits for the United States. Emissions in other countries have measurable economic costs in many sectors of the of the U.S. economy, including agriculture, health and labor. What is more, helping to ensure that the poorest countries are better able to cope with extreme weather events and experience fewer disasters creates a more secure and stable world. If the Trump administration is looking for evidence on this, it could consult the Department of Defense.
When Trump advocates “America first” and emphasizes the importance of national sovereignty, he fails to recognize that many of our nation’s greatest challenges are those that we face collectively with other countries of the world. The growing threat of climate change is among them. Meeting these challenges requires cooperation and not unilateral decision-making. Unfortunately, the president’s narrow and misinformed decisions about the Paris Agreement and the Green Climate Fund have tossed away decades of progress at a time when the world can least afford it.