Stockholm (NordSIP) – Basking in a sun-bathed Rose Garden, President Donald Trump unilaterally and unequivocally pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord Thursday, making it one of only three countries in the world alongside Syria and Nicaragua no longer slated to ratify the accord (Nicaragua believes the agreement doesn’t go far enough to address climate change). The process of withdrawal is expected to take up to four years following the process outlined in the Paris agreement itself, reflecting the president’s decision not to treat the Paris agreement as a treaty, which would have compelled him to submit it to a ratification vote in the U.S. Senate. Mr Trump claimed he would be willing to “enter negotiations” to either rejoin the Paris accord on terms more favourable to the United States or engage in the inception of another climate treaty altogether, but stopped short of explaining what, if anything, he had in mind.
The Paris climate agreement was entered into by 195 countries including the United States in 2015, with each committing to take steps designed to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increases even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The agreement also aims to strengthen the resources of individual countries to deal with the impact of climate change through the establishment of appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework, transparency frameworks and an enhanced capacity building framework. Each government submitted its own voluntary pledge outlining steps to reduce its carbon footprint in 2015, with former U.S. president Barack Obama committing to reduce U.S. emissions to 27% below its 2005 level by 2025 through initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan and fuel-efficiency requirements. The United States is the second-largest carbon emitter in the world (after China), accounting for roughly 15% of global carbon emissions in recent years.
Among his objections to the agreement, Mr Trump excoriated the “bad deal” for the U.S. by comparison to measures agreed upon by countries with less mature economies, such as China and India, who have pledged to level off emissions only after allowing them to rise until 2030. The president also claims U.S. coal, oil and manufacturing companies are disadvantaged at the global playing level by efforts to reduce carbon emissions. But Mr Trump’s reactionary climate scepticism is well known, having pledged to withdraw from the Paris agreement throughout his explosive campaign as a pillar of his populist pitch, and designating man-made climate change, among other things, as a “hoax perpetrated by China” to undermine U.S. manufacturing (one of an endless string of unfounded conspiracy theories). Indeed, Mr Trump’s decision should come as no surprise, though signals had been mixed amid tensions within his cabinet and his postponement of a decision several times, lending allies the marginal hope that the president might reverse himself, as he had been forced to do on a number of other issues.
“Pittsburgh, not Paris”
In the end, Mr Trump opted to continue playing to his political base, claiming, among other things, that his decision would help to save jobs in the coal industry, but which more specifically represented a political victory for hard-line nationalists in his cabinet such as Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and bizarrely appointed Environmental Protection Agency Head Scott Pruitt. The decision came over the objections of Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, among other high ranking Republicans, on the sound basis of wishing to maintain U.S. influence in international climate change negotiations and broader diplomatic efforts. Major U.S. and global energy companies, including ExxonMobil, top U.S. coal producers and major tech companies like Apple and Google all sought to persuade Mr Trump to remain in the deal, with 62% of Americans supporting the agreement, according to a Politico-Harvard poll. Support for the agreement on behalf of many U.S. businesses, for example, stems from the fact that they have already been implementing climate-friendly adjustments due to shareholder demands and state rules in recent years. None of this swayed Mr Trump, who said his pledge was “to the voters in Pittsburgh, not Paris”
International and domestic condemnation was swift, if predictable. Tesla CEO Elon Musk immediately announced his resignation from the Presidential advisory council. “Climate change is real,” he wrote on Twitter. “Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.” “It’s not possible to leave this climate agreement overnight, as some in the U.S. think,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker said Thursday. “The vacuum… has to be filled, and Europe has aspirations for a natural leadership in this whole process.” The deal, he said, is “not only about the future of Europeans but, above all, the future of people elsewhere. 83 countries run into the danger of disappearing from the surface of the earth if we don’t resolutely start the fight against climate change.” And, following a letter sent to Mr. Trump by all five Nordic Prime Ministers urging him to “show global leadership” and “make the right decision”, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen told Denmark’s TV2: “This is uncommonly sad and completely incomprehensible. All of Donald Trump’s arguments are wrong. He is painting a picture of the U.S. as a victim, which is simply not applicable to the world’s largest economy. I am saddened on behalf of the world and the United States.”
Cutting Off The Nose…
Climate change skeptics and the Trump wing of the Republican party may be crowing – the counterargument on the American far right amounting to protectionism, anti-globalism and nationalist capitalism draped in climate change denial (though some of the practical objections to the treaty itself merit consideration)– but the decision is nevertheless likely to have severe implications for the United States itself, assuming it is not reversed within the next four years. It is, or course, open to question whether the Paris agreement itself can survive the loss of its most consequential member. The EU and China immediately issued a joint statement to coincide with their summit in Brussels pledging deeper cooperation on the Paris climate agreement and promotion of clean energy technologies. “The EU and China consider climate action and the clean energy transition an imperative. Stepping up action will provide both sides with significant opportunities,” the statement read, also stressing the importance of “developing global free trade, investment and multilateralism.” China has clearly seen the opportunity to reverse its own image on climate change and to assume a mantle of global leadership now ceded by the United States by moving into the vacuum created by its withdrawal, with Europe seeing an opportunity to reassert its own leadership following a resurgence of confidence after the defeat of Trump-style populism in Europe (to some degree). But the implications go beyond climate change itself.
Natural resources are crucial to international relations and how relationships between nations are forged, impacting every area of human activity from health to economic growth and development. Previous U.S. leadership on the issue of climate change itself was inextricably bound up in economic opportunity and diplomatic leverage, and was a crucial component in both American moral and practical global leadership in areas extending well beyond the environment. This is hardly to mention the economic benefits accrued in the advancement of clean energy and its burgeoning industry, which have added hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs in the U.S. alone (by contrast to those jobs in the coal industry and elsewhere being lost to automation and other things unrelated to climate change that Mr. Trump is promising to save). As opposed to regarding climate regulations as a threat to economic competitiveness, a trope that is demonstrably changing by the day across evermore industries and businesses, the U.S. should have considered its leadership on the environment not as a cost but as an investment – and one primarily in the United States itself. Instead, it has now put itself at a considerable political, diplomatic and practical disadvantage for what can most charitably be described as a calculation for short-term domestic political gain.
…To Spite The Face?
Time will tell exactly what President Trump’s decision entails, and whom it will harm the most. Will the Paris accord survive, or perhaps gain even more momentum? Or will it flounder, a number of American economic and geopolitical interests with it? Either way, this Sun King may have practically shut down a global climate treaty singlehandedly, but the palace of wildcards he is building is not likely to be sustainable.