Donald Trump and Xi Jinping
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Every day in the Trump administration brings such new immediate outrages and crises that must be addressed in the short term, that it can be difficult to maintain focus on the long-term damage it is doing to America and the world. That said, since no amount of journalism seems to be making a dent in what is now a very divided nation, we should probably talk about the extended term more often among those with a modicum of responsibility for the future.

By far the most devastating impact of the Trump administration on the medium and far future is the four years we have lost in the battle to address the climate crisis, as the president and his cronies have not only failed to move the country forward, but in fact taken hundreds of steps backward.

This is primarily a global humanitarian and ecological crisis, of course, but it also has national security and foreign relations implications for those who still care about such things. Trump has spent much of his presidency posturing against China for the purported purpose of maintaining America’s premier position as a world power. But by failing to take the lead on climate change, Trump is allowing the United States’ top geopolitical rival to set the leadership agenda for the future:

China will scale up its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions by adopting more vigorous policies and measures. We aim to have [carbon dioxide] emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”

Xi Jinping’s speech via video link to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22 was not widely trailed in advance. But with those two short sentences China’s leader may have redefined the future prospects for humanity…

Toward the outside world, the significance is no less momentous. Hitherto the only big bloc fully committed to neutrality was the EU. The hope for this year was an EU-China deal that would set the stage for ambitious new targets to be announced at the COP26 U.N. climate conference planned for Glasgow in November. Rather than a summit in Leipzig, the Sino-EU meeting took place via videoconference. The exchanges were surprisingly substantive. The Europeans wanted China to commit to peak emissions by 2025 and made menacing references to carbon taxes on imports from China if Beijing did not raise its ambition. They have given a cautious welcome to Xi’s U.N. statement. They can hardly have expected more.

The future will not be written in coal, natural gas and oil. Fossil fuel sources are on the decline even if climate change were not the crisis that it is. Pollution remains an enormous health and economic problem, and clean renewable energies are getting cheaper every day. Whoever takes the lead on green energy will be the global leader in energy supply, as well as the beneficiaries of a healthier, more productive citizenry.

Now, of course, the preceding paragraph sounds much like a center-right analysis from The Economist, as well as an America-first quasi-imperialist great power realism based on competition between nation-states rather than cooperation. Why should a liberal or leftist care? Well, in part because a China-centered polarity would have serious negative consequences for liberal democracy and, by extension, leftism. China is currently operating concentration camps to erase Uighur culture, oppresses journalists, dissidents and the flow of information through a mass surveillance state and total control of the Internet, conducts its own economic imperialism abroad, and constitutes a worst-of-all-worlds marriage of corporate plutocratic capitalism with ethnostate totalitarianism under single-party rule that gives only lip-service to leftist ideals. Nor has increased economic power in China led to a more liberalized society; rather, it has influenced Western corporations to bend to acceptance of Chinese standards of oppression. It is important for the left generally speaking that liberal democracy continue to maintain a strong presence in world affairs.

Allowing China to take the lead on the most important issue for the future of humanity is doubly concerning, then, given that both East Asian democracies and the European Union will increasingly be forced to take China’s side in a polarity battle between China and the United States:

Though Europe will cheer Xi’s commitment, in strategic terms it underlines how awkward the EU’s position is. On the one hand, the Europeans increasingly want to stake out a strong position on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, human rights, and any geopolitical aggression in the South China Sea. Europe’s residual attachment to the United States is real. But China has now underscored how firmly it aligns with a common agenda with the EU on climate policy. The contrast to the Trump administration could hardly be starker.

By focusing the United States on fossil fuels, Trump and the GOP are not strengthening American interests. They’re trapping us in dead-end technologies while forcing our allies to strengthen friendships with illiberal authoritarians. Even if the world weren’t in serious peril from the climate crisis, this is a big problem for both the United States and the future of both democracy and the social democratic project.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.