Can the rest of the world save itself from climate breakdown without the US?

(The Guardian, 16 Sep 2019) With Trump expected to skip the UN climate summit, the question will be: what’s possible if the most powerful nation is pulling away from action?

This story originally appeared in the Nation. It is republished here as part of the Guardian’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

As world leaders converge on New York City for the United Nations climate action Summit on 23 September, they enter what may be the most consequential week in climate politics since Donald Trump’s surprise election as president of the United States in 2016. Trump, of course, announced soon after taking office that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement, the landmark treaty signed at the last big UN climate summit in 2015. António Guterres, the UN secretary general, convened this week’s summit precisely because the US and most other countries remain far from honoring their Paris pledges to reduce heat-trapping emissions enough to prevent catastrophic climate disruption.

The events of the coming days – including a global climate strike on 20 September by the activists whose protests in the past year have pushed the term “climate emergency” into news reports around the world – may help answer a question that has loomed over humanity since Trump’s election: can the rest of the world save itself from climate breakdown if the richest, most powerful nation on earth is pulling in the opposite direction?

Adopted in December 2015, the Paris agreement stands as the strongest achievement of climate diplomacy since governments first debated the issue at the UN Earth Summit in 1992. In a shock to climate insiders, the agreement not only committed signatory governments to limit temperature rise to the relatively less dangerous level of 2C. It also obliged governments to keep temperature rise “well below” 2C and, in a major victory for the most vulnerable countries, to strive for 1.5C. That half-degree may not sound like much, but it spells the difference between life and death for low-lying coastal nations such as Bangladesh and island states such as the Maldives – two of many places that, science says, would literally disappear beneath the waves with more than 1.5C of warming.

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The Guardian, 16 Sep 2019: Can the rest of the world save itself from climate breakdown without the US?