There is no denying that the withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement is a blow to international action to combat climate change, but it is not as catastrophic as the world community fears – or as the Trump administration hopes.
In June, President Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the accord, saying it was unfair to American businesses and workers. He framed it as a bad business deal and a surrender of US sovereignty – a violation of his “America First” platform. He cited a discredited report claiming the climate agreement would cost 2.7 million jobs by 2025.
The Paris accord was completed in December 2015, with 195 nations committing themselves to reduce carbon and other emissions sharply enough to prevent global average temperatures from surpassing 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). In addition, signatories pledged to help develop new technologies to meet these goals and aid the most vulnerable developing countries.
The Paris climate agreement is simply that – an agreement, not a treaty. Everyone knew any climate treaty negotiated by President Obama would never be approved by a Republican Senate, so the Paris accord avoids the icon-clad responsibilities found in treaties in favor of “nationally determined contributions.” This is diplomacy-speak for “this is what we plan to do, but don’t hold us to it.” The US pledge was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels within 20 years and commit $3 billion in aid over 3 years to the most vulnerable countries.
[The US withdrawal] threatens to damage humanity’s ability to solve the climate crisis in time.
The agreement’s withdrawal mechanism mandates that the earliest any country can leave the agreement is November 4, 2020. (Coincidentally, the next US presidential election is set for November 3, 2020.) So the immediate impact of Trump’s decision is nil.
Condemnation of the move was swift and vigorous. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the US decision “a major disappointment.” France, Britain, Germany, and Canada immediately rejected Trump’s suggestion that a better deal could be negotiated. And former vice-president Al Gore called it reckless and indefensible. “It undermines America’s standing in the world and threatens to damage humanity’s ability to solve the climate crisis in time,” Gore said. The New York Times quotes Miguel Arias Cañete, the European Union’s commissioner for climate, as saying that Trump’s decision to withdraw had galvanized, rather than weakened, the climate accord’s signatories. The vacuum caused by the US pullout would be filled by “new broad committed leadership,” he said.
He makes no secret of his love for the fossil fuel industries
It turned out that this was not a hollow brag. The immediate fear was that other major polluters, notably China and India, would also pull back on their commitments. Not only did this not happen, but these countries publicly committed themselves to pushing ahead. France, Germany, and Italy jointly reaffirmed their commitment to swiftly implement the Paris agreement, including its climate finance goals, and urged others to speed up action to combat climate change.
The greatest danger to the Earth from the Trump administration is not withdrawing from Paris, but its vigorous campaign to increase the use of fossil fuels in the United States. Not satisfied with rejecting the tools for combating climate change, the administration is promoting policies to make the situation worse. Government databases are being scrubbed of any information about climate change. Federal agencies, including the Interior Department and NASA, are being staffed with climate science deniers. And the State Department has plans to eliminate 36 special envoys, including those for climate change and the Arctic (both posts are currently empty) and will downgrade other climate-related offices.
We face the very real prospect of total warming.
But it is the Environmental Protection Agency that has been the vanguard of Trump’s concerted attack on climate science. Led by Scott Pruitt, an Oklahoma politician who makes no secret of his love for the fossil fuel industries (and their campaign contributions), the agency is turning its mandate on its head by working to loosen regulations on polluters and undermine clean energy technology. The White House proposed budget would cut the budget of the environmental watchdog by 31 percent.
“Climate science is a big target,” wrote Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone, “The program for reporting on greenhouse-gas emissions would be zeroed out, and the office responsible for drafting climate regulations would see its funds cut by nearly 70 percent.” The Washington Post reported that the EPA is rejecting grant applications for clean energy projects if “climate change” is mentioned. Writing about a new study by scientists from 13 federal agencies, Joe Romm at the Think Progress blog noted, “With the policies President Trump has embraced – where we don’t even meet the initial Paris targets and we return to promoting fossil fuels – then we face the very real prospect that total warming will be 4°C (7°F) or higher.”
The counter-weight in the US to this destructive agenda is basically anyone who doesn’t get paid by the fossil fuel industries. California is by far the leader in combating climate change through both pollution controls and promotion of clean energy. This past August, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who used to be known for his garage full of Hummers) launched a “digital environmental legislative handbook” to help legislators at all level promote climate change laws. “The message to legislators with the project is now ‘you have the power to do it yourselves,”’ Schwarzenegger told POLITICO, “The reality is each state now goes to work and passes great legislation that helps them…make great decisions.”
Leading environmental groups including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council are bombarding the Trump administration with lawsuits challenging the new rules and how the rules were drafted.
The UN and the rest of the world know what needs to be done. [It] comes down to Trump and the fossil fuel industries.
While the EPA’s Scott Pruitt insists that states can pick up the slack from the federal government, Goodell noted in his Rolling Stone essay that Pruitt “failed to point out that the budget also cuts a set of state grants by 45 percent.” That isn’t stopping states from pushing ahead. After Trump’s announcement, California, New York, and Washington launched the United States Climate Alliance, committing their states to the goals of the Paris agreement. The Alliance now includes up to 14 states, representing one-third of the US gross domestic product. A pledge by more than 1,400 companies and institutions called “We Are Still In” blasted Trump’s decision as “a grave mistake that endangers the American public and hurts America’ economic security.” The US Conference of Mayors (which includes both Democrats and Republicans) passed a resolution in June pledging support for the climate agreement’s goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.
Even corporations not known for their sensitivities about almost anything – General Electric, Nestle, Apple – are opposing Trump.
The UN and the rest of the world know what needs to be done. Therefore, it comes down to Trump, Pruitt, and the fossil fuel industries on one side; and states, communities, and businesses on the other side, fighting over whether the United States will help save or destroy the planet.
FURTHER READING: The United Nations Paris Climate Agreement (full text)