Donald Trump has carried out his campaign pledge to pull the United States out of the Paris accords on tackling climate change negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The rest of the world’s response has ranged from disappointment to outrage. How seriously will the President’s decision effect efforts to prevent the world’s temperature rising dangerously? And how much does it add to the impression of an America determined under Donald Trump to go its own way whatever anyone else thinks?
The Paris accords were painstakingly agreed in December 2015 after decades of effort devoted to tackling what almost all experts regard as dangerously rising global temperature caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity, notably the burning of fossil fuels. One hundred and ninety five countries signed the accords.
Their aim is to keep rising temperatures ‘well below’ two degrees centigrade (2C) above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century and to ‘endeavor to limit’ the rise to 1.5C. The goal is to keep human emissions to a level that can be absorbed safely by trees, the oceans and the soil and so create a sustainable climate. The accords also provided for five-yearly assessments of how each country was managing to live up to its commitments and set up a fund for rich countries to help poorer ones achieve their own targets.
But throughout last year’s presidential election campaign, Donald Trump denounced the accords which he said unfairly penalised America. In particular he argued they sounded the death knell of America’s coal industry. Many voters in the rust belt rallied to his call and, in effect, voted to put him in the White House.
Nonetheless, there was real doubt as to whether or not he would carry out his promise. Several leading figures in his administration, including his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson (perhaps surprisingly as a former CEO of Exxon Mobil), and his influential daughter, Ivanka, urged him not to. So did other world leaders he met at the G7 summit in Sicily last week. But on Thursday he announced to a gathering at the White House that the United States would indeed pull out.
He said: ‘In order to fulfil my solemn duty to the United States and its citizens, the US will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accords or a really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States. We will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine’.
Mr Trump claims that the accords in their existing form would cost the US $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6.5million jobs. He said: ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’, and in a typically Trumpian remark he added: ‘We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us any more – and they won’t be.’
They certainly weren’t once they heard of his decision. The UN general-secretary, Antonio Guterres, called it ‘a major disappointment’. The EU said it was ‘a sad day for the world’. In a phone call with the President, Theresa May expressed her disappointment and former president Obama accused his successor of ‘rejecting the future’. As for the idea of renegotiating the accords, it was thrown out of hand. Leaders of France, Germany and Italy put out a statement saying: ‘We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.’ Many leading American corporations also condemned the decision.
Meanwhile, on Friday the European Union and China signed an agreement to ‘significantly intensify political, technical, economic and scientific cooperation on climate change and clean energy.’ Nigel Purvis, one of President Obama’s climate change negotiators, said: ‘Trump just handed the 21st century to China. It’s an opportunity for China to rebrand itself as a global leader’.
So how damaging will it be that the United States, the second largest producer of greenhouse gases, amounting to just under 20% of the total, has turned against Paris? Some are arguing that it will not be as damaging as might initially appear. In the first place, they say, the accords were never likely to be as effective as they were made out to be. The US think tank, Climate Interactive, reckons that with the United States on board, the rise in global surface temperature by the century would not have been the ‘well below’ 2C target set out but more like 3.3C. Without the US, that figure rises to 3.6C and that is still below the 4C figure that would cause really serious damage to the climate.
Part of the reason for this predicted relative failure is that the accords enshrine a voluntary approach to the problem of climate change rather than one enforced through international law. That was always regarded by campaigners against climate change as a severe weakness in the accords. But the flip side of that is that the curbing of rising temperatures may happen irrespective of the decisions of national governments. America is a good example of this. Several Democrat-controlled states, such as New York, California and Washington State have, in effect, told President Trump to get stuffed: they will carry out the Paris accords whatever the White House says. So too have several Democrat-controlled cities.
Perhaps even more to the point, the market itself may help reduce emissions and therefore rising temperatures. Even though Mr. Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress who support him dismiss the accords because they want to help the beleaguered American coal industry and the miners who work in it, it’s very unlikely that that industry will see a renaissance as a result of the President’s decision. That’s because the price of renewable energy has fallen so low that it is likely to contribute more and more to the total energy supply of the country, meaning that America may end up fulfilling the demands of the Paris accords even after it has walked away from them. As the Times put it on Friday: ‘The Paris accords are not about to unravel, but they are not going to save the world either. Technology and markets stand a much better chance’.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump’s decision has symbolic power in undermining the international community’s resolve to do something about climate change before it is too late. And beyond that, it is a further indication of the President’s willingness to isolate America and ‘put America first’ no matter what the rest of the world thinks. This follows his readiness last week to rough his G7 colleagues up the wrong way and refuse to endorse NATO’s basic tenet of guaranteed mutual defence.
So how troubled should we be about Donald Trump’s decision on the Paris accords? Do you worry about the effect it may have on our ability to curb rising global temperatures? And do you think America can still be relied upon to be the internationalist ally it once was?
Let us know what you think.