If the next U.S. President is a Republican, chances are good that he or she will be a climate change denier. After all, there’s only one candidate, Jon Huntsman, who embraces the established science of climate change. The rest have made it a central platform to openly deny the scientific consensus that human activity is heating up the planet.
So if a climate denier steps into the White House, what happens to international climate negotiations? Will the U.S. completely pull out of the process? Probably not. Chances are, that President — no matter how extreme their campaign rhetoric today — will have to face up to the realities of today’s global negotiations. (And not to mention the science.)
“I am certain that there would be members of the administration who are not isolationists on foreign policy,” says Andrew Light, a senior fellow and director of international climate policy at the Center for American Progress.
“Of course, there is always that worst case scenario that a Republican president leaves negotiations. But climate negotiations are coming close to breaking out of their silo, making climate a central driver of broader foreign policy. In that case, leaving the negotiations behind would escalate into a much bigger problem,” Light tells Climate Progress.
A recent poll of “insiders” released this week by National Journal echoed this sentiment. Once the campaign ends and reality sets in, a Republican president may find it hard to back down:
Asked how important it will be for the next (or current) president to keep America relevant in these negotiations, more than 60 percent of Insiders said that it would be either “Very Important” or “Somewhat Important.” Thirty-two percent of Insiders said this job will be “Very Important,” while nearly 30 percent said it would be “Somewhat Important.”
Despite the overwhelming anti-climate-science tone in the GOP primary, Insiders say that a Republican president would have to swallow it for the sake of international cooperation and America’s economic future.
“Regardless whether the next president believes that climate change is taking place, the rest of the world is prepared to move forward without the U.S. If we are not at the table, American business will be severely disadvantaged,” one Insider said.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” another echoed.
However, some respondents to the National Journal poll expressed skepticism that international climate negotiations are still relevant:
“Multilateral negotiations on climate are going the way of the World’s Fairs. They still hold ’em, but no one knows about it or cares,” one Insider said, echoing the words of others who argued that the United Nations climate talks have turned into “nothing more than a show.”
“After this administration’s gratuitous failure in Copenhagen, the international climate dialogue has become a farce,” one Insider said.
After the failure to reach an agreement on a comprehensive carbon-reduction treaty at 2009’s Copenhagen climate conference, some were quick to declare the entire negotiation process dead. But people who make those claims “either don’t follow the negotiations or don’t know what they’re watching,” says CAP’s Andrew Light.
Because Copenhangen was so hyped by the press and the diplomatic community, the outcome caused a major crash in expectations. But this didn’t stop progress, says Light. It allowed negotiators to try an incremental approach and move forward on smaller pieces that have major impacts in a lead-up to a possible comprehensive treaty.
“In Cancun, 193 of 194 parties bound together and agreed to a fund that would deploy $100 billion a year by 2020 for climate adaptation and mitigation programs. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you just don’t know what’s going on,” says Light.
Negotiators will be looking for the same type of incremental agreements in Durban, South Africa at this December’s COP 17 conference that would boost renewable energy deployment, efficiency and disaster-preparedness efforts.
By 2013, however, there could be a different president in the White House, potentially setting back some of the progress made in recent years. Although experts believe there’s a chance that person would be forced to recognize the importance of negotiations, there’s still a chance it could unravel — putting the U.S. in a strategically poor position.
“If the President leaves the negotiations, then we risk having being having the rest of the world decide on a set of rules that could dramatically impact our ability to compete in the world. If we walked away, we would suffer,” says Light.