As Trump Tweets, the Planet Overheats; and China Leaps

To his critics, Trump is the ‘deflector-in-chief’. His latest volley of wild accusatory tweets fired around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday 4 March to shift attention away from his campaign’s undisclosed contacts with Russian officials is all too obvious – but it works. After the downfall of his National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was compelled to recuse himself from an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election; another resignation cannot be excluded. But for now, Trump’s tweets have moved the focus away from the Russian connection. Nevertheless, the specter of President Putin still looms over the Trump Administration. If the US President’s twitter feud enthralls his conservative base, it is also starting to put cracks into an artificial Republican consensus around the President. Some of his party’s lawmakers are annoyed at having to read between-the-tweets to determine White House policy and defend what they would rather eschew. But dissent is not only limited to Republicans in Congress; it is seeping into the White House.

Let’s take climate change and the 2015 Paris Agreement signed by 194 countries, including the two heavyweight polluters, the US and China. Candidate Trump had vowed to withdraw from the agreement ‘on day one’, just as he pledged to repeal Obamacare, his predecessor’s signature healthcare achievement (Trump now says ‘nobody knew health care could be so complicated’). Surprisingly, not a single tweet on the climate deal; not even an executive order! After his first botched executive order on immigration, he may be finding out that even a presidential pen stroke is not a panacea. For one, the Paris Agreement provides that a party may only effectively withdraw from it four years after its entry into force. Thus, Trump could only fulfill his electoral promise by November 2020.

In the meantime, China is wasting no time in carving out and solidifying its leadership role on trade and climate change. It has just solemnly announced that its projected growth for 2017 would be 6.5% instead of 7% —half a point adjustment. Contrast this with the US President’s response to Fox News last week: “You look at the kind of numbers we’re doing — we were probably G.D.P. of a little more than 1 percent, and if I can get that up to 3 or maybe more, we have a whole different ballgame.” [sic] So, President Trump wants to triple current growth rates, if he “can get that up”.

In 1970, when the US share in total global economic output was 21.2%, China’s was at 4.1%. Next year, it is expected to cross an economic milestone by overtaking the US share, according to Forbes. Trump may believe certain realities are hoaxes, but he cannot deny that China is great again. In the early 1970’s, as China was embroiled in Chairman Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, the French writer and politician Alain Peyrefitte wrote a book with a prophetic title: Quand la Chine s’eveillera, le monde tremblera (When China Awakes, The World Will Tremble). Had he read the book back then, Donald Trump would possibly have thought of it as another Chinese hoax —he had famously tweeted during the campaign that “the concept of global warming was created by the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.

Undeterred, Beijing has already taken the lead in curbing carbon emissions by adopting an aggressive energy strategy to limit the use of coal and promote investments in wind and solar energy; it is also set to launch the world’s largest carbon trading market later this year. While China embraces renewables, the US under Trump falls in love, again, with hydrocarbons.

The President chose a climate-change skeptic to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, established in 1970 by President Nixon (who, even prior to his historic trip to Beijing, did not believe environmental degradation was a Chinese hoax), and which candidate Trump himself vowed to dismantle. As Attorney-General of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, repeatedly sued the EPA over its Clean Power Plan. Now, the Administration is set to cut funding for his Agency by 25 percent. You also have the former Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who had infamously called in 2012 for the Energy Department he now leads to be “eliminated”. A fossil fuel advocate, he described the science on human-caused climate change as a “contrived, phony mess”. And then you have the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who, as CEO of Exxon-Mobil, supported the Paris Agreement. According to the New York Times, he is, with the support of Ivanka Trump —or presumably, the other way around— at loggerheads over the Paris Agreement with Steve Bannon, the President’s Chief Strategist, for whom campaign pledges seem to override international obligations. But with 70% of Americans supporting the climate deal and almost 80% favoring global warming regulation, Trump is clearly out of step with his own people.

On climate change —and certainly other critical issues— US policy may well be determined by who gets the upper hand: Ivanka and the more moderate members of Trump’s inner circle or his own Ras-putin, Steve Bannon. Unless, of course, the Republican leadership awakes and decides that the national interest of the United States and its role in the world cannot be left to the whims of the White House — or the President’s erratic tweets.

Originally published 9 March 2017 on The Huffington Post