This week, a temporary New York Times graphic showed that at least 40 Senate Democrats warned President Trump against withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. One of the reasons cited was that withdrawal would “cede climate leadership to China.” Another New York Times article is titled “Trump hands the Chinese a Gift: The Chance for Global Leadership.” Previous blog posts here have stated that China’s environmental leadership might overtake the waning powers of the Western world. But thinking about this shift in power another way could be useful.
Instead of “The United States is falling behind China,” or, “The United States has given China this opportunity,” perhaps the phenomenon is more a matter of China maturing, as part of its own green movement. China may have become a global green leader regardless of whether the US stayed in the Paris Agreement and regardless of whether Trump became president or not. While many House and Senate Republicans were also against the Paris Agreement and squabbled about whether climate change exists, Chinese entrepreneurs and central government officials were leaping into sustainable development initiatives. China has grown to taking this leadership position for itself; it was not given.
China’s environmental movement has gained momentum over the past few years, particularly in terms of grassroots action. Discourse in news today has focused on China’s top-down policies and government actions. These government actions are likely a result of the grassroots movements that have occurred across the country. “Maintaining stability,” or, “维稳” (weiwen), has been a priority for the Chinese government. Seeing the discontent erupt in society over environmental problems may have inspired top-down action.
Environmental protests in China have grown in number over the years, creating a somewhat sustained movement, while recently in the US, only a few instances have garnered country-wide grassroots protests—the Flint Michigan water crisis, which has still not been resolved, the Dakota Keystone XL pipeline, and Trump’s inauguration, spurring the People’s Climate March and the March for Science. The movement in the US seems to be gaining steam again, and citizens hopefully are becoming more aware, but we cannot allow the president’s actions (environmentally related and not) to distract from the environmental tasks at hand.
Despite Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, the green movement in the US and across the world will continue without him. Michael Bloomberg’s book “Climate of Hope” describes how cities, businesses, and citizens are taking responsibility to protect the planet. Numerous US mayors and governors have vowed to uphold the Paris Accord.
To say that the US environmental movement or that the global environmental movement will come to a halt because of Trump’s decision is giving him too much power. Saying that Trump has given China this ability is overlooking the massive steps in sustainability that businesses and the government in China have made. Trump loves drawing attention to himself and taking credit for actions that were not his. Don’t give this to him. Acknowledge the numerous individuals and groups who have worked to spur on the environmental movement across the world. Don’t let his clownish performance distract from the problems that still need solving and the solutions that are shining ahead of us. The end is not near for the environmental movement, yet. We are in many good (not tiny-sized) hands.