Lorton, United States – President Donald Trump may have torpedoed the Paris climate accord as US diplomats brace for huge cuts to their environmental programmes.
But on June 5, American officials joined world diplomats wading out into the Potomac estuary to replant seagrass in a telling gesture paired with an unlikely photo opportunity.
Embassy staff from 13 countries – from great power China to tiny island nation Malta – joined helpers from the State Department to restore a small corner of the waterway.
Their grass had germinated six months ago under a previous administration that had made environmental protection a foreign policy priority.
The shoots were nurtured in foreign embassies in Washington, then wrapped in damp newspaper for the hour-long road trip to Mason Neck State Park in Virginia.
Soggy headlines in several languages recalled the political and diplomatic chaos in Washington as the Trump administration beds in.
The heading on one editorial – covering part of the grass that Costa Rica was to contribute to Belmont Bay’s underwater ecosystem – stood out: “Climate change hypocrites”.
It was an unfortunate note at an otherwise quietly positive event to help a mighty waterway.
Once badly polluted, America’s biggest estuary network is slowly recovering. Water snakes swam by and ospreys dived for fish as the volunteers waded in.
But even as the diplomats worked, a new batch of headlines was being written elsewhere.
In New York, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged countries to put aside national interests to focus on saving the oceans and prevent “global catastrophe”.
In Beijing, the senior diplomat at the US embassy, which is still waiting for its new ambassador to arrive, resigned abruptly, reportedly over opposition to Trump’s climate stance.
And a poll, conducted for ABC News and The Washington Post, found that US voters oppose Trump’s decision on the Paris pact by a margin of two to one.
Although China and Europe have vowed to increase their support for the 2015 Paris accord’s plan to cut greenhouse emissions, the US boycott leaves a gap in leadership.
Several US climate-related programmes would disappear under a proposed budget presented by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil.
The Bureau of Oceans and International and Scientific Affairs, which had several staff on hand for the event, will not suffer that fate. Its budget is slated to be cut by only $1.7 million to around $13.3 million.
Another programme dear to the previous secretary of state, John Kerry, will also continue: the annual Our Ocean summit promoting maritime conservation.
Kerry hosted the 2016 summit in Washington, and the European Union will host this year’s conference in Malta, which holds the rotating presidency.
Malta’s ambassador Clive Agius, who joined the volunteers to plant a batch of seagrass, confirmed Europe’s concern at Trump’s Paris decision.
“We cannot not feel a bit disappointed that we’re not all pulling the same rope,” he said on the muddy foreshore.
After Malta, Indonesia takes up the Our Ocean banner, and their team was also at the park.
US officials point out that Trump’s “America First” policy, while opposed to a global pact on climate change, nevertheless insists on the value of clean water and air.
Indonesia’s second secretary for economic affairs, Anggarini Sesotyoningtyas, said her country shares that goal and is working hard to collect ocean debris.
Entryway to the Americas
But climate change is also “a big issue,” she said, adding that Indonesia remains committed to an ambitious 26 percent cut in greenhouse emissions.
The fortuitously named Cliff Seagroves, acting director of the US State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions, remained upbeat.
“I think we’re all committed to doing what we can for the environment in whatever way we can,” he said of his colleagues.
He cited seagrass planting as “an example of a simple project that can be done anywhere in the world”.
The plants should reduce erosion, boost oxygen levels in once-polluted rivers and bays, help clean the water and store carbon that could fuel climate change.
But if the State Department and its foreign partners are happy to help, the US federal government as a whole may be about to back away.
The president’s budget plan abolishes the $73 million Chesapeake Bay programme, noted Rebecca LePrell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for Virginia.
An area of 64,000 square miles (165,000 square kilometres) and home to 18 million in six states, the Chesapeake basin was an entryway to the Americas for European explorers.
The states and the District of Columbia agreed in 2010 on a 15-year clean-up plan that has had some success, but was due to run until 2025.
All that, as well was Washington’s leadership role in the global climate debate, is now in question.
By Dave Clark