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Global Climate Action’s Biggest Obstacle Is US Foreign Policy

The U.S. must abandon its toxic climate imperialism and embrace the transition to a peaceful, sustainable planet.

Environmental activists attend the U.K. Student Climate Network's Global Climate Strike protest, in central London, England, on September 20, 2019.

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The climate crisis and war are both international problems that cross borders and threaten the future of humanity. The melting of glaciers in Greenland has global repercussions, just as the catastrophic war in Syria has drawn in and impacted countries way beyond the Middle East, including the United States and Russia.

These crises must be addressed by international agreements, negotiations and cooperation. But the U.S.’s insistence on leveraging its economic and military power to have the final say on issues that affect the whole world is stifling international efforts to cool our burning planet and to prevent the spread and escalation of violent conflicts.

The UN Charter and other international treaties recognize nations as independent and sovereign, with basic rights to govern themselves and enter into treaties and agreements with each other. Multilateral treaties that large majorities of countries have signed and ratified become established rules of international law.

On the other hand, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has claimed an extraterritorial sovereignty that trumps the individual sovereignty of other countries and the rules of international law, permitting it to militarily invade other countries; conduct airstrikes in their territory; detain and kidnap their citizens, imprisoning them at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere; and impose unilateral sanctions that prohibit other countries from doing business with each other, even when no U.S. business is involved. It also tries to shield U.S. companies from being held accountable for environmental disasters overseas, from Dow Chemical poisoning banana workers in Central America to Chevron-Texaco dumping toxic waste in rivers and lakes in Ecuador.

The only basis for the U.S. to exercise this kind of extraterritorial or “imperial” sovereignty over other nations and people is its raw economic and military power. When the Bush administration tried to legitimize many of these policies in its “doctrine of preemption” in 2002, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy dismissed it as “a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept.”

The U.S.’s “might makes right” approach to international affairs has gotten even worse under the Trump administration, which has shown unprecedented and open disdain for international law. In his September 2018 speech before the UN General Assembly, Trump bluntly stated: “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, irresponsible, global bureaucracy…. America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism and enthusiastically accept the doctrine of patriotism.”

In the first month of Trump’s presidency, he announced a moratorium on new multilateral agreements — and then began ripping up already existing ones. The Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal that had been approved by the UN General Assembly; it withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — one of the central disarmament agreements with Russia; it quit the UN Commission on Human Rights and UNESCO; it voted against the Global Compact on Refugees that was supported by 181 nations. It even threatened to deny visas and impose sanctions on members of the International Criminal Court if they investigated alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan.

On the environmental front, the U.S. has deliberately and consistently undermined the world’s collective efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, transition to renewable energy and solve the climate crisis. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord was only the latest iteration in this U.S. policy of climate imperialism.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, nearly every country in the world agreed to specific, binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The developed countries that are most responsible for the problem agreed to make the largest cuts. But there was one notable absentee: the United States. Only the U.S., Andorra and South Sudan failed to join the Kyoto Protocol, until Canada also withdrew from it in 2012.

Many developed countries substantially reduced their emissions under the first round of the Kyoto Protocol, and the 2009 Copenhagen Summit was planned to draw up a legal framework to follow up on Kyoto. The election of President Barack Obama encouraged many to believe that the United States, the country historically responsible for the greatest greenhouse gas emissions, would finally join a global plan to fix the problem.

Instead, the U.S. put a price on its participation: An insistence on voluntary, nonbinding targets in place of a legally binding treaty. Then, while the European Union (EU), Russia and Japan set targets of 15-30 percent reductions from their 1990 emissions by 2020, and China aimed for a 40-45 percent reduction from its 2005 emissions, the U.S. and Canada aimed only to cut their emissions by 17 percent from their 2005 levels by 2020. The U.S. target was only a 4 percent cut in emissions from its 1990 level, while other countries were aiming for a 15-40 percent cut.

The Paris Agreement was based on the same model of nonbinding, voluntary targets as the Copenhagen Accord — and now President Trump has vowed to pull the U.S. out of the agreement (and has already enacted policies that violate the targets the U.S. agreed to).

With the second and final phase of the Kyoto Protocol expiring in 2020, no country will be under any binding international obligation to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The inevitable result of this made-in-the-U.S.A. diplomatic chaos is that countries whose people and politicians are genuinely committed to a transition to renewable energy are moving forward, while others are not.

The Netherlands has passed a law to require a 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions from its 1990 level by 2050, and it has banned the sale of gasoline and diesel cars after 2030. Meanwhile the U.S. is still spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than it did in 1990, and its carbon dioxide emissions actually increased by 3.4 percent in 2018.

As with other international treaties, the U.S. has weakened climate change agreements as the price for its participation and then refused to be bound by them anyway. This has so far been a successful bait-and-switch strategy to limit international action on climate change at every step of the way.

The overall goal of U.S. climate imperialism has been to preserve as much as possible of the international oil- and gas-based economy, which fueled the U.S.’s rise to global power in the 20th century, for as long as possible. Under Obama and Trump, it has doubled down on this deadly strategy, boosting its domestic oil and gas production to record levels through fracking and shale oil.

The U.S. ruling class rationalizes its destructive environmental policies as part of its neoliberal ideology, which elevates “the magic of the market” to a quasi-religious article of faith. This shields politics and economics in the United States from any aspect of reality that conflicts with the narrow financial interests of the plutocratic U.S. ruling class and increasingly monopolistic corporations, including a handful of big oil and weapons companies. A soaring stock market (between crashes) makes it seem as though the economy is “booming,” even as it destroys the natural world whose real magic sustains us all.

As the people of the world struggle to unite socially and diplomatically around the necessary transition to renewable energy and agreements like the Iran nuclear deal to prevent new wars, the United States faces a stark choice between clinging to toxic, self-obsessed U.S. “exceptionalism” and climate imperialism or embracing the transition to a peaceful, sustainable planet. We hope that our fellow Americans can muster the political will and the people power to put us on the right side of history.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story

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