Opening Statement by James N. Mattis (Secretary of Defense, United States of America). Image source: MSC / Mueller
Opening Statement by James N. Mattis (Secretary of Defense, United States of America). Image source: MSC / Mueller

Here’s How US Allies Are Trying to Convince Trump To Take Climate Change Seriously

The US is a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, with at least 47 more to go. His cabinet appointees have largely been confirmed, and they’re beginning to come into contact with their foreign counterparts. In several of these meetings, climate change has come to the fore.

Vice President Mike Pence met with EU officials Monday in Brussels. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his counterparts from G20 nations in Bonn, Germany, last week. And Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly met with EU and UN officials at a global security conference in Munich over the weekend.

These encounters have given countries that have been pushing global climate action their first chances to make their case to the Trump administration in person. On military matters, for instance, it could prove very difficult for the administration to ignore the threat posed by climate change — a fact that attendees to the Munich security conference made clear.

EU and UN officials discussed climate change’s role as a “threat multiplier” — a term often used by the US military and Mattis’s predecessor, Chuck Hagel. Stronger storms, rising seas, drought, famine, and the migration these events cause could each be the spark to ignite many potential conflicts smoldering around the world, prompting wars and destabilizing governments.

As longtime military commanders, Mattis and Kelly reportedly understand the importance of climate change to global security. And at the Munich conference this past weekend, officials discussed the need for all countries to abide by the Paris accord to stave off these threats — something the White House has promised not to do. US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told conference attendees to put pressure on the Trump administration and to make clear that “there’ll be consequences in other areas” if the administration follows through and ditches the agreement.

The economic power of G20 members could also provide leverage against the Trump administration in a way that an individual country might lack. (The UK, for instance, has seemed reluctant to broach the topic with the president. Prince Charles was warned by Trump staffers not to “lecture” the president on climate change lest he “erupt.”) But G20 member countries, together, represent more than three quarters of the world’s GDP. The four, and potentially eight, years of a Trump administration will see climate change dealing powerful shocks to international economies, particularly in the developing world. That will make it nearly impossible that the US will be able to continue to ignore the threat posed by an increasingly volatile world in its conversations with the G20.

However, if appeals by G20 members and the UN fall on deaf ears, two of those bodies most influential members, the EU and China, may have an opportunity to work together to outflank the US. At Beijing’s request, EU officials are planning the annual EU-China summit for earlier this year — likely April or May instead of July. The summit will provide an opportunity for Xi Jinping to again press his support for international trade and globalism, a rebuff to the Trump administration that China’s president first articulated at the Davos World Economic Forum.

Importantly, the summit will also give China and the EU a chance to forge closer ties on climate. Then-president Barack Obama’s November 2014 deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping to cut emissions provided momentum going into the Paris climate conference, and was a factor in the deal’s success. If European Council President Donald Tusk is able to swap seats with Obama, forming a new partnership to provide climate leadership, there may be some home of global momentum on climate change weathering the Trump years.