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G20 Climate Change Control without the White House

John Kirton, G7 and G20 Research Groups
June 2, 2017

On June 1, 2017, President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the United Nations from the United Nations historic Paris Agreement on climate change, ending U.S. compliance with its commitments and seeking to negotiate a new deal that he felt would be better for the United States. The question immediately arose: What will this mean for the G20's governance of climate change, starting at its Hamburg Summit on July 7-8? There Trump will face off with German chancellor Angela Merkel as host, Chinese president Xi Jinping, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and the other leaders of the world's most powerful, intensely interconnected, systemically significant states.

At Hamburg, G20 leaders will go it alone, without the White House, to save the planet from the immanent, existential threat of human-created climate change. They will do so knowing that powerful American actors are already on their side and that the U.S. Congress could well join them after its mid-term elections in 17 months. They will also do so convinced of the following firm facts. Germany led the G7 to invent the global governance of climate change in 1979. The G20 and its sibling the G7 have coped well with an absent America in the recent past. The "G3" of the European Union, Canada and China have already united to lead the global climate control cause until the White House in its own interest returns to the fold.

Trump's unilateral isolationist move does reflects an authentic American instinct. It flows from George Washington's initial rejection of "entangling alliances," through America's costly decisions to abandon Europe in 1914 for World War One, in 1918 at the Paris Conference for the League of Nations and in 1939 for World War Two. But the United States soon realized it needed its North Atlantic allies and joined the new global governance regimes that they led. In today's intensely interconnected world, with atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations rapidly approaching catastrophic levels, there is less time to lose. But the world now has the G7 and G20 to substitute for and support the UN when the White House withdraws.

Today the new G3 has the capability and commitment to offset the White House withdrawal, especially as its members are backed by India, Mexico, Korea, Brazil, almost all of the G20, and most of America's key states, cities, mayors, citizens and perhaps courts. Together they can come up with the money to replace Trump's withdrawal from global climate finance. Moreover, the U.S. will legally remain part of the Paris Agreement, forged in 2015, until 2019. Before then, a new Congress will be elected by Americans who strongly support U.S. government action to control climate change. In short, Paris 1918 will not become Paris 2015.

At the recent G7 summit in Taormina in Italy, Trump and his closest, strongest democratic colleagues found the formula to control climate change, making a collective statement in the declaration, but the White House would take more time to make up its mind. With Trump signing on to the leaders' declaration, his six allies and the European agreed to forge ahead with the Paris Agreement and with climate finance. Trump joined them to agree to enhance energy efficiency and clean technology.

This formula provides a firm foundation for Hamburg. There Taormina's six versus one will become 18 versus one, should Russia and Saudi Arabia rationally choose to join the winning side, rather than go down with an unpopular president before political balances in Washington change.

In short, at Hamburg the rest of the G20 will raise America up before today's White House lets it and the world sink below the rising seas.

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John KirtonJohn Kirton is director of the G7 Research Group, and co-director of the G20 Research Group, the Global Health Diplomacy Program and the BRICS Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is also a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at China's Renmin University. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. His most recent books include China's G20 Leadership (Routledge, 2016), G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate, 2012) and (with Ella Kokotsis), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as The G8-G20 Relationship in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Ashgate, 2015), and Moving Health Sovereignty in Africa: Disease, Govenance, Climate Change, co-edted with Andrew F. Cooper, Franklyn Lisk and Hany Besada (Ashgate, 2014). Kirton is also co-editor of several publications on the G7/8, the G20 and the BRICS published by Newsdesk Media.

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