The U.N. Climate Summit 2019: A symbol of American environmental apathy

Annie Maley, BIPP Intern

A sixteen-year-old sailing across the ocean, hundreds of marches, inspiring speeches by climate activists — all proclaimed a global call to action on Sept. 20 for national governments and institutions to address climate change. This outpouring of support for comprehensive environmental policy made the resolutions of Monday’s U.N. Climate Action Summit all the more disappointing. Going into the summit, there was great hope from the environmental community that the meeting would push world leaders to take stronger action on the issue of climate change. However, the results of the summit were mixed, and some leaders were unwilling to take action on a matter for which citizens have quite literally been rallying in the streets.

One would be hard-pressed to have a conversation about global climate policy without immediately calling out the United States. Not only has the Trump administration vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but it has also actively dismantled emission-reducing environmental standards. Worse still, neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the 2019 summit in New York about the United States’ plans to confront climate change — even as 60 world leaders traveled thousands of miles to discuss their own countries’ plans to reduce their carbon emissions. By this reticence, the Trump administration has once more demonstrated its apathy toward the climate crisis.

Yet even the conduct among the more participatory countries has been called into question; critics of the Summit argue that major emitters of greenhouse gases, who were all present at the summit, did not make any pledge to stop the usage of fossil fuels. But while major emitters such as India and China have been slow to reduce their dependence on nonrenewable energy from coal, a key difference between the United States and other high-emitting countries is the uniquely American denial that a problem exists at all. Both Asian countries, by contrast, spoke in support of fighting climate change on Monday; this mere acknowledgment by leadership that a climate problem exists provides promise that future energy policy will strive for reduced emissions. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi exemplified this in an announcement Monday outlining a plan to increase the country’s use of renewable energy by 2022. Additionally, unlike the United States, both China and India are on track to uphold their 2015 Paris Agreement commitments.

Trump’s refusal to accept environmental preservation as a legitimate cause should come as a surprise to no one. Silence from American leaders at the 2019 summit is simply one instance in a long line of indifference, or even active antipathy, by the current administration. Since taking office, the Trump administration has rolled back — or is in the process of rolling back — over 80 environmental regulations; of these deregulations, 10 air pollution and emissions rules, four toxic substances and safety rules, and five water pollution rules have all been completely eliminated. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), helmed by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has seen some of its most substantial budget cuts to date.

While the results of this year’s U.N. Climate Action Summit are not surprising, they should serve as a wake-up call. Before we even reach global consensus, country-wide change is imperative; the United States needs policymakers and policy enforcers that accept climate change as a problem in the first place. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate, and some of our most vulnerable communities are already facing the brunt of ecological collapse. It is crucial that public policy action is taken soon at the highest levels of government to fix this crisis before it spirals out of human control.

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