Trump exit from Paris will hurt America most

By Harald Winkler, ACDI research chair and director of the Energy Research Centre

On 1 June 2017, Donald Trump (DT) announced that his administration was withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement.  The world’s largest economy is taking no responsibility for US historical emissions, and instead  reneging on what his country had previously agreed. Trump’s exit is a deeply immoral, reprehensible act.

The speech on the Rose Garden lawns is full of the illogical statement one has come to expect from DT (see good analysis in The Guardian). It continues to astound how unethical and irrational a man holds such powerful office.

DT is entirely mistaken in the belief that pulling out of the Paris Agreement will “make America great again”.  It will do quite the opposite. The trend away from fossil fuels is irreversible. No matter what campaign promises were made to rust belt states, the decline will continue. Jobs will continue to grow, not in the coal industry, but in the sustainable energy industries: Renewables and energy efficiency employ more than 3 million people in the US, compared to some  50 000 in the coal industry. Rather than helping coal communities make a transition into a low-carbon economy, Trump makes fake promises. Fake, because he cannot deliver on them. And because he does not really care, I don’t think, about relatively poorer Americans – his real base are the rich. The trend to a low-carbon economy and society are unstoppable. Wind and solar PV have passed parity with coal. Instead of positioning America for a stake in the future low-carbon economy. Trump is continuing to promote sectors and industries that will be uncompetitive. He is effectively urging investment into assets that will predictably become stranded in future. He will harm the US economy, discouraging investors in renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies. The uncertainty is compounded by the expectation that this policy cannot last – maybe it will not be the next Presidential tweet that does a flip-flop, but the next Administration quite likely.  In short, the current US President misleads Americans that this move will protect the US economy and workers.

The US still the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) on an annual basis, and the largest in historical cumulative emissions (which are what determines the stock of GHGs in the atmosphere and a good proxy for change in temperature).  But the impacts of climate change depend on global emissions, not any single country’s – whether the US or China. But the US would not have done much under the DT administration anyway.

Not much was going to happen during the DT administration, or at least not due to its policies. DT is trashing the Clean Power Plan and other domestic policies. Strong institutions like the US EPA, NOAA and others are being gutted. Funding for climate science is being slashed. With these domestic measures, the US would not have met the objective of its NDC anyway. It seems likely that the next administration will reverse the decision, while the rest of the world moves ahead

The rest of the world is united in their determination to implement the Paris Agreement. Ahead of the announcement, China made very clear its continued commitment to Paris. Trump has opened the door wide for China to take over the mantle of leadership; perhaps together with the EU.  German chancellor Merkel had previously said that “the times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over ”. The Trump exit from Paris cements this rift in the trans-Atlantic relations, and points to a shift in geo-political patterns, as the US abandons a leadership role.

A China-EU summit in the next days will very likely reaffirm Paris. Already Germany, France and Italy have issued a joint statement that the Agreement will not be renegotiated. Contrary to what Trump said, China and India are taking action, shutting down coal plants. Many other countries – in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Australia and even the rest of North America, will go ahead. DT will not escape discussion of climate action – it is on the agenda of every forum in which the US does international business, from the G7, G20 to NATO. The US has isolated itself – the only others who have not joined the Paris Agreement are Syria and Nicaragua. The only other allies DT has are a small part of the fossil fuel industry. Given their vested interest, it was entirely predictable that companies like Peabody welcomed the Trumpexit.

But even from that constituency, many support climate action and the Paris Agreement – people like Rex Tillerson, and the CEOs of many US energy companies, as well as US business more broadly. What is really striking is the level of support which staying in the Paris Agreement has in the US – in a recent survey, 70% of US citizens, and a majority in every US state, expressed a preference for the US to stay in the Agreement; 68 mayors of great US cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston to committed to sticking to the spirit of the Paris Agreement immediately after Trump’s announcement. Several US states followed, and CEOs of major US companies took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal to express their preference for staying in.

The ‘Berliner Kurier’ headline put it rudely “Earth to Trump: Fuck you”. Trump said that he represents Pittsburgh, not Paris. No one has asked him to represent Paris – just to stick to the Agreement made there, together with the US. The best response was from Bill Peduto, who tweeted: “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”  Clearly, DT is not everyone’s president.

With wide support, the Paris Agreement will survive. It will also survive because it has been designed to be durable and flexible. Long after the DT administration has ended, the implementation of Paris will continue. The Paris Agreement was shaped very significantly by the G2 – the US and China. Now the DT administration is reneging on the US part; the second time it has rejected a climate agreement which it had a central role in shaping. Meanwhile China makes the smart move, positioning itself for climate and geopolitical leadership. With the US, technical work on implement the PA will be a little harder in the next few years, for example on meeting commitments to climate finance. In process terms, not having DT deployees mess with the Paris rule-book may be an advantage (assuming the constructive member of earlier US delegations will be replaced). The Paris Agreement remains a remarkable success of multi-lateralism – all countries working together to solve a global challenge  – and probably the most ambitious instance of international co-operation ever. Ahead of DT’s speech, some said that the climate’s fate was in Trump’s hands. It’s not true. His hands are too small.

Nothing has changed in the key challenges of the 21st century – meeting the SDGs and Paris goals. The first SDG is to end poverty in all its forms, everywhere; Paris sets goals for temperature, mitigation and adaptation – and the financing pathways to make those happen. Action will be at the national level. What the DT administration seems not to understand (or wilfully ignores) is that Paris made contributions “nationally determined”. Every country sets its own target, and then tries to do better every five years. The US could not have negotiated a better deal for itself (and the answer to renegotiation Paris is simple: “of course not”). Action on sustainable development is also national. SA’s national development plan still prioritises reducing poverty and inequality – and we will continue to pursue those goal in a low-carbon and climate-resilient way.

Well, perhaps he can argue, given the idiotic things that he does. But he will not win the argument. Climate change is real, already happening, and even the Donald is subject to the laws of physics. The climate will change due to GHGs already in the atmosphere – with the US having ‘contributed’ the most to that. Whether DT believes it or not is immaterial. The impacts of climate change will hit Americans as much as everyone else. Poorer communities in the US more than the rich (the base DT is playing to), the poor in vulnerable poor countries even more. Which brings me back to that start. Addressing climate action is inescapable, both in reality and geopolitically.  The withdrawal is a deeply unethical move, wrong-headed and will harm America most of all.