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Memo to Trump: US interests in the era of climate change

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During the US presidential campaign, President-elect Trump argued that global efforts to address climate change, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, were a “bad deal” that posed an unnecessary burden for business. Although he initially indicated he could withdraw from the Paris Agreement, he has more recently suggested that he has an open mind. I would urge him to reconsider his opposition to climate change cooperation. As more than 300 US businesses recently argued in an open letter, failing to invest in a more energy efficient and green future will be a “bad deal” for long-term US interests.

The global economy is undergoing profound changes. It is moving, inexorably, toward a green economy. Last year’s Paris Climate Agreement, while by itself far from enough to limit the increase in global warming to a desired target, has become an important catalyst for global economic cooperation and integration regardless of whether or not one believes in global warming. The 21st century economy, including America’s very own, will be rebuilt on a new, high-tech, climate-safe, and low-carbon system.

The United States is already invested in this new system—it cannot disconnect from the new rules of the game. As we saw during the 2016 COP22 Conference in Marrakesh, regardless of the claims of climate change deniers, the overwhelming majority of countries on the planet are marching on toward a more green and sustainable economy. Ultimately, US businesses and the economy will lose by disengaging from this progress. And, in turn, US disengagement means that everyone loses—even China is warning the United States against abandoning the Paris Agreement.

President-elect Trump may also find that climate change is not just an economic issue, but an important national security agenda. The consequences of climate change, such as storms, extreme heat, droughts, and floods, impose serious threats to the United States and other countries. Domestically, the effects of climate change can overwhelm disaster-response capabilities; internationally, they cause humanitarian disasters that contribute to political violence affecting multiple countries. Beyond these threats, there is also a strategic dimension to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Working together with countries such as China and India to reduce emissions can help the United States integrate those countries into the global rules-based order; it can also help facilitate a more stable development trajectory for countries such as Indonesia. It can potentially be applied in facilitating changes in deadlock situations like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Asian region is still dealing with volatile economic, military, political, and demographic transitions, from China’s economic slowdown and increasing tensions over the South China Sea to environmental degradation and demographic problems throughout the region. Climate change affects almost all of these problems, both directly and indirectly. It serves as a threat multiplier that significantly intensifies the region’s instability.

Asia will need bold actions and closer partnerships with other countries to tackle these complex challenges. Partnership on climate change and environmental issues can provide a relatively safe entry point for political cooperation that can keep bilateral channels open even in the midst of ongoing friction. In some cases, such cooperation may provide a way out of conflict or may even offer ideas for innovative institutional and governance mechanisms. As we recently saw, China’s partnership with the United States on the Paris Agreement helped to keep open a channel for both nations to work together regardless of intensifying tensions on issues such as the South China Sea.

Unlike many other global threats, in terms of climate change, we have a clear understanding of the limited time frame for intervention. The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity for global leaders to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic consequences. The broad international consensus that is building around this issue is helping to generate concrete policy proposals to prevent these outcomes. President-elect Trump and his administration should harness this growing cooperation, and the opportunity it provides to advance US political and economic purposes. The march toward a greener future is underway; I hope the United States will continue to stay on this path.

This post originally appeared in The Asia Society Policy Institute briefing book, Advice for the 45th US President: Opinions from across the Pacific.

Magdalena J. Seol
Magdalena J. Seol is Founder and Managing Director of GDA, a strategy advisory group based in Seoul dedicated to global development and private sector innovation. She previously served as an Assistant Secretary to the President of the Republic of Korea, managing the globalization arm of key agendas related to climate change and low-carbon economic development.
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