Hidden Gems

Climate change leadership in the absence of US

Trump unravelled havoc this week in regards to energy and climate change when he signed an executive order that aims to rollback Obama’s Clean Power Act. In and of itself, this is definitely not a ‘hidden’ issue. A lot has been written about the issue. As such, I will not even summarise it.

There is, however, a noteworthy word of caution that seems to be missing in most analyses: that over-focusing on Trump and the very-short-term may not be the smartest thing to do.

This is of course not the case of all articles written about the topic. For example,

I particularly liked this article by Jamie Condliffe on the MIT’s Technological Review, entitled ‘Trump’s Rollback Paves the Way for a New Climate Leader’.

Whilst still US-centred, the article does enter into considerations about who will emerge as a new climate leader. It sees China emerging as a new leader.

The idea that China will be the new leader does make a lot of sense. It is in effect an opportunity to get even more global influence by doing what China would need to do anyway given pressing pollution issues in the country. It also seems to be rather meaningful. Given the size of Chinese markets, the US will still be forced to improve environmentally (not because of laws but due to rising standards globally) but will have little to no global influence in this regard.

But I want to go slightly beyond and think not per se about who will be the new climate leader but about the importance that new leadership has. Because this deserves a little more attention.

Trump is choosing to be the boxer that misses a fight. Once he rolls back regulations (if he’s able to), his influence will automatically diminish. As such, even if he can have a very short-term direct effect, the bulk of the action moving onwards will come from others.

Who knows! Maybe the absence of US’ influence will allow others to move faster. This would lead to Trump’s actions being a blessing to global environmental governance rather than a hindrance. Or maybe nobody will be able to organise activity at a global level and climate efforts will truly die. But even this would not be a direct result of Trump’s current actions but rather a failure by others.


It is tempting to fall into the craze of pondering the damage that Trump may be causing to the environment. But this assumes that the US is itself the reference for climate protection in the world and/or is still the indisputable world hegemon and thus no one else will be able to protect the environment without their involvement. But these assumptions are not so straightforwardly clear nowadays. In consequence, the real question here is not Trump’s direct impact on global environmental governance but the direction global environmental governance will take without the US.

Image credits:
By Pedro Ribeiro Simões (Modified). CC BY 2.0.