Time for China and Europe to lead, as Trump dumps the Paris climate deal


Christian Downie, Australian National University

President Donald Trump’s announcement overnight that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement comes as no surprise. After all, this is the man who famously claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese.

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While it will take around four years for the US to withdraw, the prospect is complicated by Trump’s claim that he wants to renegotiate the agreement – a proposal that European leaders were quick to dismiss. But the question now is who will lead global climate action in the US’ absence?

As I have previously argued on The Conversation, there are good reasons for China and Europe to come together and form a powerful bloc to lead international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

China is now the world’s number-one energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter, and should it combine forces with Europe it has the potential to lead the world and prevent other nations from following the US down the path of inaction.

There are very early signs that this may be happening. Reports this week indicate that Beijing and Brussels have already agreed on measures to accelerate action on climate change, in line with Paris climate agreement.

According to a statement to be released today, China and Europe have agreed to forge ahead and lead a clean energy transition.

While it is too early to predict how Chinese and European leadership will manifest in practice, in the face of American obstruction they are arguably the world’s best hope, if not its only hope.

Decades of destruction

Trump’s announcement only reaffirms his antipathy towards climate action, and that of his Republican Party, which for decades has led attempts to scuttle efforts to reduce emissions at home and abroad. Let’s not forget that it was President George W. Bush who walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.

In just the few short months of his incumbency so far, Trump has halted a series of initiatives executed by President Barack Obama to address climate change. These include taking steps to:

  • Repeal the clean power plan

  • Lift the freeze on new coal leases on federal lands

  • End restrictions on oil drilling in Arctic waters

  • Reverse the previous decision against the Keystone XL pipeline

  • Review marine sanctuaries for possible oil and natural gas drilling.

And the list goes on.

This remains the real problem, regardless of whether the US is inside the Paris climate agreement or outside it. As the planet’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, what the US does domestically on climate change matters a great deal.

As a result, if China and Europe are to lead the world in the US’ absence, not only will they have to ensure that other nations, such as Australia, do not follow the US – and some members of the government hope they do – but they are also going to have to think creatively about measures that could force the US to act differently at home. For example, some leaders have already mooted introducing a carbon tax on US imports, though such proposals remain complicated.

In the meantime, while these political battles play out around the world, climate scientists are left to count the rising cost of inaction, be it the bleaching of coral reefs or increasing droughts, fires and floods.

The ConversationIf only it were all a hoax.

Christian Downie, Fellow and Higher Degree Research Convener, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The US quitting the Paris climate agreement will only make things worse


Jonathan Pickering, University of Canberra

US President Donald Trump has announced that he will decide this week whether to follow through on his threat to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Some news outlets are already reporting that he has decided to leave. But would the world be better off if the US stays or goes?

An array of environmental groups, businesses and leaders of other countries are calling for the US to stay. While their reasons vary, a common theme is that the US has both a moral obligation to play its part in global climate policy, and an economic interest in doing so.

Many of these arguments rely on the US taking strong domestic climate action. But Trump has already begun dismantling a raft of Obama-era climate policies. Unless reversed, these moves will ruin any chance of the US meeting its current target of reducing emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Trump’s draft budget would also drastically cut US climate aid to developing nations.

With this in mind, the question becomes: is global climate policy better served if a recalcitrant major power stays on board or if it goes its own way?

Considered this way, the arguments for leaving become harder to dismiss. In two thought-provoking commentaries, climate policy experts Luke Kemp of the Australian National University and Matthew Hoffmann of the University of Toronto argue that the world would actually better off if the US pulls out. Two reasons loom large in these analyses: the US would be prevented from white-anting further UN negotiations, and the backlash to its withdrawal would spur on China, Europe and other nations to greater action.

But if we look closely at each argument, it’s far from clear that leaving is the lesser evil.

Sidelining US obstruction?

It is not a foregone conclusion that the US, if it stayed, would be able to hold the talks hostage or successfully water down rules aimed at preventing countries from backsliding on their targets. Granted, the UN’s consensus-based model makes this a real danger, but climate negotiations have reached decisions even in the face of opposition from a major power, as happened when Russia was overridden in 2012.

What’s more, withdrawing wouldn’t necessarily stop the US trying to play spoiler anyway. Formal withdrawal from Paris could take until late 2020. Even then (assuming a more progressive president isn’t elected shortly after that), the US could still cause trouble by remaining within the Agreement’s parent treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The “nuclear option” of withdrawing from the UNFCCC itself would create further problems. Rejoining it would be likely to require the approval of the US Senate (which, given its current makeup, seems highly doubtful), whereas a new administration could rejoin Paris through a Presidential-executive agreement.

Will other countries do more?

Major economies like China and India have their own domestic reasons for cutting emissions, not least local air pollution and energy security. Both China and India plan to stick with the agreement regardless of what the US does. There are signs that they will exceed their current climate targets, thus more than outweighing the increase in emissions resulting from US climate policy rollbacks. We can’t be confident that US withdrawal would encourage China and India to do any more than they are already doing now.

The Kyoto Protocol provides a sobering precedent: while those countries that stayed in the protocol complied with their targets, none of them raised their targets to take up the slack when the US withdrew.

Writing in The Conversation, Luke Kemp suggests that US withdrawal could trigger countries to slap carbon tariffs on US imports. Large economies such as the European Union and China could attempt to do so outside the Paris framework, but few (if any) major trading partners will be eager for a trade war with the US.

US withdrawal is just as likely to demotivate other countries as energise them. Nations with less domestic momentum on climate policy may likewise pull out, water down their current or future targets, or fail to ratify Paris. For now, Australia plans to stay in, regardless of what the US does. A greater risk is Russia, the world’s fifth-largest emitter, which doesn’t plan to ratify the Paris Agreement until at least 2019. Other reluctant countries whose stance may be influenced by what the US does include Saudi Arabia and the Philippines (which have ratified Paris) and Iran and Turkey (which have not).

Fallout for multilateralism

Neither of the two arguments I’ve discussed so far amounts to a solid case for leaving. Meanwhile, there is another key reason for the US to stay: the risk that its withdrawal would strike a broader blow to the principle of multilateralism – the idea that tough global problems need to be solved through inclusive cooperation, not unilateral action or a spaghetti bowl of bilateral deals.

The UN climate talks are firmly integrated into the bigger picture of global diplomacy, and the Paris deal itself was seen as a huge achievement for multilateralism. Both the US and Australia previously suffered significant diplomatic fallout for deciding to stay out of Kyoto.

The international reaction to withdrawal from Paris would be even harsher. US participation was a prerequisite for China and India to sign up, and key elements of the treaty were designed to enable the US to join. To pull out after all that would be an egregious violation of trust and goodwill.

Some might welcome the resulting diminution of Trump’s ability to push through his agenda globally. But ultimately the erosion of multilateralism – already damaged by Brexit and Trump’s abrasive trip to Europe – is in no country’s interest if it undermines international trust and cooperation on issues like trade, public health and security.

Treaty withdrawal is uncommon in international diplomacy, arguably much more so than non-compliance. One of the few studies on this issue found that only 3.5% of multilateral treaties had any withdrawals. As most treaty exits are concentrated in a small number of treaties, the risk of knock-on effects is a real concern. When Canada withdrew from Kyoto, for example, it cited US non-participation as a justification.

Given how badly the US is behaving on climate policy, it is tempting to argue that it needs some time out from Paris until it’s ready to play nicely with the other kids again. But the fallout from US withdrawal could last far longer than a one- or two-term Republican presidency.

Withdrawal from Paris would signal, more emphatically than domestic inaction alone, that a major polluter is ready to turn its back on the international consensus that a 2℃ warmer world should be avoided. That would be bad, not just for international cooperation on climate change, but also for the broader project of multilateralism.


The ConversationThanks to Christian Downie, John Dryzek, Mark Howden, Luke Kemp (whom the author debated at an event held by the ANU Climate Change Institute), Peter Lawrence and Jeff McGee for insightful and lively discussions on this topic.

Jonathan Pickering, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scientists are accidentally helping poachers drive rare species to extinction



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The beautiful Chinese cave gecko, or Goniurosaurus luii, is highly prized by poachers.
Carola Jucknies

Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

If you open Google and start typing “Chinese cave gecko”, the text will auto-populate to “Chinese cave gecko for sale” – just US$150, with delivery. This extremely rare species is just one of an increasingly large number of animals being pushed to extinction in the wild by animal trafficking.

What’s shocking is that the illegal trade in Chinese cave geckoes began so soon after they were first scientifically described in the early 2000s.

It’s not an isolated case; poachers are trawling scientific papers for information on the location and habits of new, rare species.

As we argue in an essay published today in Science, scientists may have to rethink how much information we publicly publish. Ironically, the principles of open access and transparency have led to the creation of detailed online databases that pose a very real threat to endangered species.

We have personally experienced this, in our research on the endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard, a startling creature that resembles a snake. Biologists working in New South Wales are required to provide location data on all species they discover during scientific surveys to an online wildlife atlas.

But after we published our data, the landowners with whom we worked began to find trespassers on their properties. The interlopers had scoured online wildlife atlases. As well as putting animals at risk, this undermines vital long-term relationships between researchers and landowners.

The endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella).
Author provided

The illegal trade in wildlife has exploded online. Several recently described species have been devastated by poaching almost immediately after appearing in the scientific literature. Particularly at risk are animals with small geographic ranges and specialised habitats, which can be most easily pinpointed.

Poaching isn’t the only problem that is exacerbated by unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species. Overzealous wildlife enthusiasts are increasingly scanning scientific papers, government and NGO reports, and wildlife atlases to track down unusual species to photograph or handle.

This can seriously disturb the animals, destroy specialised microhabitats, and spread disease. A striking example is the recent outbreak in Europe of a amphibian chytrid fungus, which essentially “eats” the skin of salamanders.

This pathogen was introduced from Asia through wildlife trade, and has already driven some fire salamander populations to extinction.

Fire salamanders have been devastated by diseases introduced through the wildlife trade.
Erwin Gruber

Rethinking unrestricted access

In an era when poachers can arm themselves with the latest scientific data, we must urgently rethink whether it is appropriate to put detailed location and habitat information into the public domain.

We argue that before publishing, scientists must ask themselves: will this information aid or harm conservation efforts? Is this species particularly vulnerable to disruption? Is it slow-growing and long-lived? Is it likely to be poached?

Fortunately, this calculus will only be relevant in a few cases. Researchers might feel an intellectual passion for the least lovable subjects, but when it comes to poaching, it is generally only charismatic and attractive animals that have broad commercial appeal.

But in high-risk cases, where economically valuable species lack adequate protection, scientists need to consider censoring themselves to avoid unintentionally contributing to species declines.

Restricting information on rare and endangered species has trade-offs, and might inhibit some conservation efforts. Yet, much useful information can still be openly published without including specific details that could help the nefarious (or misguided) to find a vulnerable species.

There are signs people are beginning to recognise this problem and adapt to it. For example, new species descriptions are now being published without location data or habitat descriptions.

Biologists can take a lesson from other fields such as palaeontology, where important fossil sites are often kept secret to avoid illegal collection. Similar practices are also common in archaeology.

Restricting the open publication of scientifically and socially important information brings its own challenges, and we don’t have all the answers. For example, the dilemma of organising secure databases to collate data on a global scale remains unresolved.

For the most part, the move towards making research freely available is positive; encouraging collaboration and driving new discoveries. But legal or academic requirements to publish location data may be dangerously out of step with real-life risks.

The ConversationBiologists have a centuries-old tradition of publishing information on rare and endangered species. For much of this history it was an innocuous practice, but as the world changes, scientists must rethink old norms.

Benjamin Scheele, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.