The roughly 10,000 people of the low-lying nation of Tuvalu, who are already battling the impacts of rising sea levels and changing weather conditions, are watching the climate change debate re-emerge in the United States with anxiety over whether or not President Donald Trump will follow through on his promise to remove his country from the landmark Paris Agreement.
“We see this box in front of our eyes every day with BBC and CNN beaming into the homes of our families,” said Enele Sopoaga, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu and a key proponent of the 2015 Paris Agreement. “It’s really distressing to see this.”
“These positions from the White House are giving people a very uncertain future and a feeling of distress and distrust on the whole idea of big countries helping,” he said.
The Paris Agreement was signed by most of the world’s countries in December 2015, with each signatory agreeing to lower their greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to stave off the most drastic effects of climate change.
Negotiations for the deal received a significant push by the administration of former United States president Barack Obama, who at the time of signing said the agreement sent a “powerful signal that the world is fully committed to a low-carbon future”. But that was then.
Now, President Trump is at the helm of the world’s second largest emitter. A leader who in the past has called climate change “a hoax” devised by the Chinese government.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump vowed to “cancel” the deal, calling it “bad for US business” and allowed “foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use”.
In an interview last week, Trump told Reuters he would announce a decision on whether Washington will remain “in about two weeks.”
In that interview, he complained that the United States had been treated unfairly in the deal because China, India, Russia and other countries were paying too little to help poorer countries under the Green Climate Fund.
“It’s quite a worrying scenario for us vulnerable countries like Tuvalu,” said Mr Sopoaga.
“We certainly hope that the Trump administration would reconsider and remain with us to work together. This is a global issue and therefore it requires a global response, particularly strong leadership coming from the leadership of the world.”
For Sopoaga, there could be a glimmer of hope as a United States departure increasingly seems far from assured.
In recent weeks, Trump’s cabinet colleagues and other influential advisers have urged him to stay with the Paris Agreement, a move that would break one of his signature campaign promises.
His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, a former oil company executive, has spoken in favour of “keeping a seat at the table” in the pact and major corporations, including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, have also stepped forward to embrace that position.
But some of Trump’s powerful allies remain steadfast opponents, including his chief strategist Steve Bannon and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier.
While a departure by the United States would not undo the multilateral United Nations accord, the exit of the world’s largest economy and second-largest greenhouse gas emitter would have serious consequences, weakening the agreement substantially.
Sopoaga warned a withdrawal would also weaken American leadership around the world, especially in the Pacific.
“Walking away from this would be a serious defeat to multilateralism, a serious defeat to humanity, and a great shame for us as human beings to walk away from these instruments that we worked so hard to achieve,” he said.
“The youth of every nation would look at this as very destructive leadership. And island nations like Tuvalu would see this as very damaging leadership, very destructive and obstructive, and therefore quite discouraging.”
Still, opting to remain in the agreement would not necessarily mean the United States would abide by its commitment to slash carbon emissions.
Already, Trump has eliminated restrictions imposed by Obama on fossil fuel exploration, committing to further oil drilling and coal mine development, and directed his interior secretary to review national monuments in an effort to roll back the borders of protected land.
But with China and the European Union among other powers declaring a willingness to step up to the plate on climate leadership, Sopoaga said the fight would go on with or without the United States.
“The people of Tuvalu, we are never giving up and we will maintain our leadership for global action against climate change,” he said.
“I’m sure the White House will reconsider the importance of us working together and remaining in the Paris Agreement for the sake of everybody. That’s my prayer.” - RNZI