President Trump’s Epic Fail on Paris

June 1, 2017 | 3:38 pm
The sun sets on Paris, where international climate negotiations are set to take place.Photo: Adrian Scottow
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

When the Paris Agreement was adopted on December 12th, 2015, it was hailed as a triumph of multilateral diplomacy, offering real hope that the nations of the world could come to grips with the climate change crisis and leave our children and grandchildren with a habitable planet. While France’s superb team steered the Agreement through to completion, it was the ability of the United States and China to put aside their differences and the joint leadership of Presidents Obama and Xi at several key moments that was seen by many as the critical factor to the success of the negotiations.

Both of these presidents recognized that climate change poses a severe threat to the security and well-being of their citizens, and understood that effectively addressing this crisis is much less costly than coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.

In sharp contrast, President Trump’s announcement today that he intends to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement demonstrates that he comprehends exactly none of this. Ignoring the advice of other world leaders, the CEOs of hundreds of major corporations, Pope Francis, and many other important voices, President Trump took an action that jeopardizes the health and prosperity of every American as well as people all over the world.

Pulling out of Paris will diminish the standing of the United States in world affairs, and make it harder for other leaders to collaborate with President Trump on trade, terrorism, and other critical issues, as it reinforces the belief of an increasing number of their citizens that he cares not a whit for their interests and concerns.

And contrary to what President Trump says, his action today will do absolutely nothing to boost the economy or create jobs; instead, it will harm the ability of U.S. companies and workers to compete in the rapidly growing global market for climate-friendly technologies.

But the deed is done. Now attention turns to the impact of this irresponsible move on the future of the Paris Agreement and the overall drive to decarbonize the global economy as is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

We’ll always have Paris—won’t we?

With his move today, President Trump puts the United States in elite company, joining Nicaragua and Syria as the only other nations of the world not supporting the Paris Agreement. There are no indications that any other country intends to follow President Trump out the door. In fact, just the opposite has occurred in recent weeks, as other countries have reacted firmly to President Trump’s rollbacks of domestic climate action and the prospect of US withdrawal from Paris.

Here are just some of the notable statements:

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Lu Kang: “No matter how other countries’ policies on climate change, as a responsible large developing country China’s resolve, aims and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change.” And in a clear reference to President Trump’s infamous claim that climate change is a “hoax” made up by China, Premier Li Keqiang said this: “Fighting climate change is a global consensus, it’s not invented by China.”

European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete: “The continued leadership of the EU, China and many other major economies is now more important than ever. We see the Paris Agreement and the transition to a modern, more innovative economy as the growth engine of job creation, investment opportunities and economic prosperity.”

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks: “Whoever tries to change into reverse gear is only going to harm themselves when it comes to international competitiveness.”

Indian Minister for Power and Coal Piyush Goyal: India is “pursuing religiously” its goal of developing 225 gigawatts of clean energy by 2022, which is “not subject to some other country’s decision.”

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland: “We believe climate change is one of the greatest threats facing Canadians and the world and it is a threat which is a global threat and which needs global solutions.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: “President Putin signed this convention in Paris. Russia attaches great significance to it.”

Perhaps most eloquent was Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, who said: “A President’s job is to protect their citizens, grow the economy and pave the way for future generations. Acting on climate change is the best way to do all of this. While we are extremely disappointed to see the United States seeking to roll back its efforts to reduce emissions, we are heartened to see the rest of the world remains firmly committed to the Paris Agreement and to reaping the enormous economic opportunities that come with it. My country’s survival depends on every country delivering on the promises they made in Paris—our own commitment to it will never waiver.”

As these comments make clear, other countries see fulfillment of the commitments they have made under the Paris Agreement as not just their responsibility to the global community, but as squarely in their own national interest. Developing country leaders understand that the mounting impacts of climate change endanger their ability to achieve their economic development objectives, and both developed and developing country leaders are eager to share in the massive economic and job creation opportunities created by the clean energy revolution.

Other countries did not sign up for the Paris Agreement to please the United States, and President Trump’s abdication of leadership will not cause them to leave it.

The geopolitical consequences of today’s action

When President George W. Bush announced in March, 2001 that the United States was abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, he and his foreign policy team didn’t anticipate how negatively the rest of the world would react. As his Secretary of State Colin Powell said two months later, “when the blowback came I think it was a sobering experience that everything the American president does has international repercussions.”

The blowback to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is likely to be even worse, given the much higher profile of the climate issue now compared to 2001, and the fact that some 120 world leaders participated in the opening high-level segment of the Paris climate conference in 2015.

As Nicholas Burns, deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, said earlier this year, “I think it would be a major mistake, even a historic mistake, to disavow the Paris deal… I can’t think of an issue, except perhaps NATO, where if the U.S. simply walks away, it would have such a major negative impact on how we are seen.”

In a letter to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt earlier this month, Germany’s Environment Mnister Barbara Hendricks was quite direct about the consequences of today’s decision: “I am very concerned that a US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would cause lasting damage to the long-standing mutual trust and close cooperation between our two countries and between the US and other countries in Europe and elsewhere,” she wrote.

As Todd Stern noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed, withdrawal from Paris should be seen as “an act of diplomatic malpractice. Countries large and small, rich and poor, are deeply invested in Paris because they understand the peril of climate change and know the Paris agreement cannot be truly effective without U.S. engagement.”

Stern predicted other countries “would see withdrawal as a slap in the face, disrespecting their fundamental interests and, in turn, eroding the United States’ diplomatic capital. This matters. In diplomacy, as in life, if you tell someone, ‘to hell with what you care about,’ don’t expect open arms when you come calling with your own needs.”

The repercussions of President Trump’s action today, which some are calling his “biggest middle finger to the world yet,” will only fully play out over the coming weeks and months. But it will clearly add to growing concerns about the ability of the United States to be a responsible actor on the international stage.

What comes next?

In Paris, countries set an aggressive temperature limitation goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels,” and acknowledged that to meet this goal, countries must aim “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”

They also explicitly acknowledged that the initial commitments put forward under the Paris Agreement fall well short of what’s needed to constrain temperature increases to below 2 degrees C, much less to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees C, and they included provisions in the agreement to ratchet up their individual and collective level of effort over time, as needed to close that “ambition gap.”

As a next step, countries agreed to hold a “facilitative dialogue” at the climate summit that will take place in Poland at the end of next year, in order to “take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal…and to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.” They also requested the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to prepare a special report on these issues to inform the dialogue.

The expectation was that by the end of this decade, countries that had taken on 2025 emissions reduction commitments under Paris, such as the United States, would put more ambitious 2030 commitments on the table. At the same time, China, India, the European Union and other countries that had made 2030 commitments would be expected to review those commitments and as appropriate, revise them upwards. It’s already clear that many of these countries are on track to overachieve their initial commitments, partly as a result of continuing dramatic reductions in the cost of solar, wind, and other clean energy technologies.

So the feasibility of increasing ambition is not in question; it’s a matter of political will.

But it’s also clear that President Trump is not going to come to his senses, rejoin the world in the Paris Agreement, and put a more ambitious US commitment on the table for 2030. It will be up to others—starting with China and the European Union—to put their own stronger commitments on the table and challenge others to join them. It should be noted that the 48 countries making up the Climate Vulnerability Forum have already set a high standard here, by committing themselves to achieve net carbon neutrality and obtaining 100% of their energy from renewable resources—despite the fact they have a lower level of economic development than most of the world’s major emitting countries.

In that regard, the EU-China summit being held today and tomorrow in Brussels represents a significant milestone in the shift in global leadership on this issue away from the United States. Reports are that European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will issue a joint statement tomorrow saying that “The increasing impacts of climate change require a decisive response,” and that “the EU and China consider climate action and the clean energy transition an imperative more important than ever.”

Translating those strong words into collective action—not just by the EU and China, but others as well—is essential if the Paris Agreement is to not just survive, but thrive, in the wake of the at least temporary withdrawal of the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter.

Back here in the land of the free and the home of the brave

President Trump’s action today flies in the face of public opinion; fully seven in 10 Americans support US participation in the Paris Agreement. Gallup’s tracking poll shows that concern about the global warming threat have reached an 8-year high; a majority of Americans say they are worried it will pose a serious risk to their way of life. And a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of people do not support President Trump’s policies to rollback action on climate change.

While there are partisan differences on these issues, polls show that 57% of Republican voters support US participation in the Paris Agreement and 55% of Trump voters support current policies on climate change. Another poll shows that Trump supporters overwhelmingly support renewable energy, with 84% supporting the further expansion of solar power in the US.

The business community also strongly supports climate action and the Paris Agreement. In the run-up to today’s announcement, more than 1000 American companies and investors with over $1.2 trillion in annual revenues signed a statement to President Trump urging him to stay in the Paris Agreement and to strengthen, not roll back, low-carbon policies at home to meet the US Paris commitment.

Major energy companies, including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell, Total and Statoil support the Paris Agreement; even Peabody Energy and Arch Coal told the White House they believe remaining in Paris serves US interests.

As former US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said in his recent Washington Post op-ed, “The reasons for this support are clear. Business leaders are fact-based. There is no room for ideological nonsense in the ‘C-suite.’ Whatever their political party, corporate executives get that climate change is real and most are actively planning business strategy to manage its consequences and limit their own emissions. They see Paris as a balanced agreement they can work with.”

He also notes that “corporate leaders understand that the transition to clean energy presents one of the biggest economic opportunities of this century, that climate change is a major driver of this transition and that the United States is perfectly positioned to lead it with our unmatched culture of innovation. They also know, conversely, that opting out on climate change will undermine this chance to create jobs and wealth.”

Just a few quick facts to reinforce his last point: Over three million people work in clean energy in America, far more than work in the motor vehicles, oil and gas extraction, and coal mining industries combined. The solar and wind industries are creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the US economy, with employment in the solar industry alone growing by 25% in 2016 to 260,000.

State and local leaders also support the Paris Agreement: Governors from twelve states accounting for one-third of the US population and nearly 40 percent of America’s GDP recently sent President Trump a letter urging him to stay in the Agreement, as did fourteen Attorneys General. Mayors from 75 cities representing over 41 million Americans wrote to the president, saying that “Climate change is both the greatest single threat we face, and our greatest economic opportunity for our nation. That is why we affirm our cities’ commitments to taking every action possible to achieve the principles and goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, and to engage states, businesses and other sectors to join us.”

These governors, mayors, and business leaders are doing much more than just sending letters to the president. They are making commitments to significantly cut or even eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, to get 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, to upgrade the resilience of their infrastructure and supply chains, and to take other actions to deal with the reality of climate change.

While it is deeply unfortunate that President Trump is trying to take the federal government in the opposite direction, his actions won’t cause these leaders to reverse course; if anything, his head-in-the-sand approach is leading many of them to step up even more forcefully on the issue. As my colleague Rachel Cleetus noted in her post earlier today, these actions, combined with the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy, mean that progress towards creating a US clean energy economy will continue, despite President Trump’s efforts to slow it down.

So there it is. While President Trump’s action today is misinformed, harmful to the real interests of Americans, and will do real damage to the standing of the US in the world, it will not derail the Paris Agreement, nor should it lessen the commitment of other countries, state and local leaders, companies, investors and others to take the actions needed to decarbonize the global economy and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.