As President Donald Trump weighs whether to keep U.S. in the Paris Agreement on climate change, leaders across the globe are preparing for the potential fallout.
Top White House aides are expected to meet this week to debate the new administration's position, and a decision is expected before the end of May. During the campaign, Trump promised to pull the U.S. out of the landmark 2015 accord to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Since taking office, several influential advisors have urged him to reconsider. The potential impact of Trump's decision has led officials from some of the nearly 200 other nations in the pact to play an awkward waiting game, lobbying both privately and publicly for the U.S. to remain while insisting that they're positioned to take up its mantle should the country withdraw.
"We are ready to continue to provide the leadership on climate change," Maroš Šefčovič, vice president of the European Commission and the chief energy policymaker for the European Union, tells TIME. "We are are going to clearly pursue our goals in Europe, but we also want to continue our strong role in helping, especially in the developing world."
Šefčovič met with U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and White House advisors in the weeks after Trump's inauguration to lay out the economic argument for staying in the deal and supporting renewable energy. Last month, Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna reportedly raised the issue in a meeting with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Within the White House, the divisions tend to break along increasingly-familiar lines: Pruitt and chief strategist Steve Bannon favor pulling out, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn and senior advisor Jared Kushner are all reportedly in favor of staying in. Withdrawal would allow Trump to fulfill a campaign pledge and may appeal to supporters of his inward-looking, "America First" platform. But policy experts warn of the potentially significant downsides, including ceding global leadership on climate policy to China and Europe.
Trump could also adopt a third option. Since many of the nation's commitments to the Paris Agreement are voluntary, there are no concrete penalties if the U.S. fails to meet them. As a result, Trump could change U.S. commitments, preserving its role at the table while adopting less-stringent greenhouse gas reduction targets than those set under the Obama administration. Trump has already said that he will cancel U.S. payments to a UN fund dedicated to supporting climate change initiatives in the developing world.
No matter what, the rest of the world will continue to implement the accord—weakened as it may be. The science of climate change is far less controversial in most parts of the world and the Paris Agreement, the product of decades of negotiation, is largely viewed as the last best hope to address it regardless of U.S. involvement.
"I don’t think the Paris Agreement is going to fall apart even if the U.S. walks away from it," says Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate change negotiator under Obama. "They wouldn’t want to give the Trump administration the satisfaction of being able to kill Paris."
Still, China and the EU in particular have shown a readiness to step up. Money continues to flow from the EU, which appears on target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% from 1990 levels by 2030, to clean energy projects in the developing world, particularly Africa. In China, stemming carbon dioxide emissions is seen as part and parcel of reducing air pollution more broadly. Observers expect the country will easily meet its goal of sourcing 20% of its energy from clean sources by 2030. In the meantime, China is expected to continue to expand its clean energy industry, including its role as the leading manufacturer of solar panels.
Indeed, the growth of natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar have many climate experts striking a bullish pose. "I don’t see anyone in a waiting pattern whatsoever," says Christiana Figueres, the former head of the UN climate change program and a key architect of the Paris Agreement. "They know this is the path toward the future and this is actually a much better investment."
Even under Trump those market trends will continue in the U.S., says Figueres, who now runs the climate initiative Mission 2020. Operating coal-fired power plants, the heaviest polluter in the electricity sector, has become more expensive as the cost of natural gas and clean energy sources like wind and solar has declined. The International Energy Agency expects coal consumption to peak globally in the next five years, while renewable sources account for a greater share.
"There is no way to have a to get to any solution on climate change that’s not global," says Stern. "It’s a global problem."
For Trump, the decision will partly come down to how involved he wants the U.S. to be in the rest of the world.