Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 5 June 2017

Continuing the climate battle, without the US

With President Trump pulling the United States from the Paris agreement, the US has lost not only leadership but membership of the community of nations that subscribe to humanity’s fight for survival against climate change


So in the end President Donald Trump decided to pull the United States out from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Just as disturbing as the withdrawal was Trump’s speech justifying it.  He never acknowledged the seriousness or even the existence of the global climate change crisis, which poses the gravest threat to human survival.   He lamented that Paris would displace US jobs, mentioning coal in particular while ignoring the jobs in renewable energy that would increase manifold if the US tackled climate crisis seriously.

His main grouse was that the Paris agreement was “unfair” to the US vis-à-vis other countries, especially mentioning China and India.  And he grumbled that the US would have to contribute to the Green Climate Fund.

The speech was riddled with so many misconceptions and factual errors. 

For example, Trump said the Paris agreement would only produce a two-tenths of one degree Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100, a “tiny, tiny amount”.

But scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology said Trump badly misunderstood their study. “If we don’t do anything, we might shoot over 5 degrees or more and that would be catastrophic,” said the MIT’s programme co-director John Reilly.

Condemnation came fast and furious from within the US and around the world.  Said John Kerry, former Secretary of State:  “He’s made us an environmental pariah in the world….It may be the most self-defeating action in American history.”

The Trump decision to leave Paris may well be a milestone marking an immense loss to the US of international prestige, influence and power.   In a world so divided by ideology, inequality and economic competition, the Paris agreement was one rare area of global consensus to cooperate, on climate change.

For the US to pull out of that hard-won consensus is a shocking abdication not only of leadership but of its membership of the community of nations in its joint effort to face up to its gravest threat of survival.

The lack of appreciation of this great challenge facing humanity and the narrow-mindedness of his concerns was embarrassingly evident when Trump made his withdrawal speech.  He was more interested to revive the sunset coal sector than in the promise of the fast developing renewable energy industries. 

He was convinced reducing emissions would cost millions of jobs, ignoring the record of other  countries that have de-coupled emissions growth from economic growth.  He was miserly towards poor countries which are receiving only a fraction of what they were promised for climate action, while celebrating hundreds of billions of dollars of new armaments deals.

He complained that the US is asked to do more than others when in fact the US has the highest emissions per capita of any major country and its pledges are significantly lower than Europe’s.  

He saw the speck in everyone else’s eyes while totally oblivious to the beam in his own.

With or without the US, the negotiations on how to implement the agreement will continue in the years ahead.

A complication is that the US has to wait four years before the announced withdrawal can come into effect.

The US will thus still be a member of the Paris agreement for the rest of Trump’s present term, although he announced he will not implement what Obama had committed to, which is to cut emissions by 26-28  per cent by 2025 from 2005 levels.   This defiance will likely have a depressing impact on other countries.

By also being still a member, the US could play a non-cooperative or disruptive role during the negotiations on many topics. 

Since the Trump has already made clear the US wants to leave Paris, and no longer subscribes to its emissions pledges, nor will it meet its US$3 billion pledge on the Green Climate Fund, it would be strange to enable the country to still negotiate with the same status as other members that remain committed to their pledges.   How to deal with this issue is important so that the UNFCCC negotiations are not disrupted in the four years ahead.

Finally, the Trump portrayal of developing countries like India and China as profiting from the US membership of the Paris Agreement is truly unfair.   China is the number one emitter of carbon dioxide in absolute terms, with the US second and India third.   But this is only because the two developing countries have huge populations of over a billion each.

In per capita terms, in 2015, carbon dioxide emissions were 16.1 tonnes for the US, 7.7 tonnes for China and 1.9 tonnes for India.  It would be unfair to ask China and India to have the same mitigation target as the US, especially since the US has had the benefit of using or over-using more than their fair share of cheap fossil-fuel energy for over a century more than the other two countries.     

A recent New York Times editorial (22 May 2017) compared the recent performance of India and China with the recent actions of the US under President Trump.  It states:  “Until recently, China and India have been cast as obstacles…in the battle against climate change.   That reputation looks very much out of date now that both countries have greatly accelerated their investments in cost-effective renewable energy sources -- and reduced their reliance on fossil fuels.  It’s America – Donald Trump’s America – that now looks like the laggard.”

President Trump has taken the US and the world many big steps backwards in the global fight against global warming.  It will take some time for the rest of the world to figure out how to carry on the race without or despite the US.  Hopefully the absence of the US will only be for four years or less.