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Trump wants stronger oversight on China, except when it comes to climate change

Late on May 18, President Trump communicated to the World Health Organization (WHO) that unless it committed to “major substantive improvements” in the next 30 days, the temporary hold on U.S. funding will be made permanent and the president will “reconsider” U.S. membership in the organization.  

Primarily at issue is whether the WHO should have taken a more skeptical line on information coming out of China on the coronavirus outbreak, including its initiation, infection modes and rates, committed mitigation measures and whether those measures were succeeding. This has been brewing for a while. The president first suggested that the WHO “blew it” in early April, spilling into the first big foreign policy fight between him and former Vice President Biden over who is better positioned to be tough on China. 

There are ample reasons to doubt the president’s motivation for criticizing the WHO. But let’s take the claim at face value. There is a critically important role for independent international oversight on the self-reporting of another country on a problem that threatens the U.S. and the world.  

In this context, it continues to be alarming that President Trump does not have the same attitude on the capacity for international transparency and oversight on climate change, which is now also threatening us. According to the 2018 official U.S. National Climate Assessment, released by this White House, climate change will multiply the threat of pandemics and everything else that comes at us.  

What President Trump now demands from the WHO on coronavirus is ready with the Paris Agreement on climate change. It created a platform to determine whether any country is accurately reporting its greenhouse gas emissions, their committed mitigation measures and whether these measures are succeeding. Sound familiar?

But at President Trump’s direction, the U.S. will exit the agreement starting the day after the November election, unless that decision is reversed. The U.S. is now abandoning any say over whether the agreement’s oversight provisions and institutions are working as they should, with respect to China or any other country.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was created under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, unanimously approved by the Senate and signed by then-President Bush. From the beginning this body confronted an extremely difficult debate. How to fairly share the responsibility for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in an unequal world? The only guidance from the convention was that this division should be in accordance with “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  Everyone has to do something, but burdens should be shared based on capabilities, with rich countries like the U.S. moving first.

Fair enough. But in the 20 years that followed the language of “differentiated responsibilities” led to unanticipated outcomes over the implications of development status. A critical one was the emergence of two sets of rules for determining whether a country was fulfilling its own commitments to clean up its climate pollution. Developed countries had more demanding and stringent rules than developing countries, with less oversight. Moreover, countries insisted on locking their development status to what it was in 1992, freezing them on one side of this divide seemingly forever.  

Of interest in the current debate, is that in the years prior to negotiating Paris in 2015, China didn’t have to follow the same transparency rules as the U.S. To some, it didn’t matter that China was completely transformed from China in 1992. It didn’t matter that China was now the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, ahead of the U.S., which remained the largest historical emitter. It didn’t matter that China’s per capita emissions were heading beyond the E.U. But after Paris, all parties including the U.S. and China cooperated on the same exacting criteria and oversight.  

With the U.S. abandoning the institutions and rules it created under the Paris Agreement, we are seeing predictable attempts to weaken them. Calls for a return to the old days of separate systems of accountability are getting louder.  

Polling in April confirms that even in the midst of this crisis, the majority of Americans believe that climate change is real, human-caused and a threat. We are appropriately worried about what other countries are doing on climate change as we are appropriately worried about the spread of the coronavirus: No one country can solve either problem by itself and without knowing what others are doing.  

This White House cut U.S. experts inside China just prior to the outbreak. If we’re not going to do the job then we do need international institutions engaged in active oversight without prejudice. Similarly, now is not the time to abandon international oversight on climate change and a U.S. say in how those institutions work. It is time to double down on them.

Andrew Light is a former Senior Advisor to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change during the Obama administration and now a professor at George Mason University.

Tags China Climate change Donald Trump Environment Global warming Paris agreement paris climate accord Politics of global warming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change USA WHO

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