By Sue Landau
There are only two real surprises in Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement: the strength and immediacy of the global counter-reaction, and the prospect that damage to the environment may be outweighed by damage to the United States itself.
Instead of undermining the 2015 accord under which 195 countries committed to try and limit average global warming to under 2°C by 2050, the U.S. president’s move may have galvanized support for it.
“President Trump has managed to turn America First into America Isolated,” the New York Times said in a news analysis.
Leaders worldwide lost no time in condemning the move. Captains of U.S. industry tweeted their disagreement. Elon Musk of Tesla and Robert Iger of Walt Disney resigned from the presidential councils they were serving on.
Mayors of U.S. cities piled in to commit their urban patches to clean air and energy. And French President Emmanuel Macron made a short TV address in both French and English, saying the accord will not be watered down.
So now Trump has no way back. Any idea of working from within to weaken the accord, as some feared he would try and do, is dead in the water.
Economists don’t see environmental and economic progress as contradictory.
His move is based on false arguments. Increasingly this century, climate studies across the world have supported the view that humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions are hastening our planet towards climate disaster.
Economists now acknowledge progress in renewable energies and electric mobility, and no longer see environmental and economic progress as contradictory.
“The point is that while tackling climate change in the way envisaged by the Paris accord used to look like a hard engineering and economic problem, these days it looks fairly easy,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times.
Trump’s decision will no doubt hinder the quest to rein in rising temperatures through a shift away from fossil fuels because the United States is by far the biggest per-capita polluter on the planet.
In 2011, it belched out 17.6 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per inhabitant, nearly triple China’s 6.5 billion and India’s tiny 1.5 billion. By 2014, U.S. emissions had dipped to 16.2 billion tonnes while China’s had risen to 7.5 billion and India’s to 1.7 billion. Yet Trump complained these countries get off easy under the Paris accord.
Over the short term, the absence of the United States may have no effect if China and India continue to surpass their targets for cutting carbon emissions, which is looking likely, Ronald Jumeau, Seychelles Ambassador to the United Nations, told the BBC.
The U.S. pullout facilitates China’s global ascendancy.
Perhaps what is most surprising is how much damage this could do to the United States itself.
In abandoning leadership in this area, Trump is precipitating a global realignment of power that leaves the Washington on the sidelines, many commentators say.
“We have been anticipating this. We see climate leadership moving from the U.S. and China to an alliance between the European Union and Asia,” Jumeau said.
The U.S. pullout facilitates China’s global ascendancy. “It is the relative power balance with China that absorbs anyone who studies the dance of great powers,” the New York Times wrote, noting that hours before Trump spoke, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, stood alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and described China as a champion of the accord.
The U.S. move undermines the competitiveness of American companies in emerging energy and transport technologies, which doubtless explains the opposition of a wide range of CEOs.
And it casts doubt on the value of a U.S. signature on any accord – something Trump the businessman must understand. “He has weakened American leadership and perhaps the strength of giving its word,” said Nicolas Doze, economics and business commentator, on France’s BFM TV.
So paradoxically, Trump may have injured the United States while doing environmentalists a favor. Pulling the U.S. out could cement a potentially fragile Paris Accord and place climate change at the center of the world political scene.
A final irony: the details of the accord mean the United States cannot withdraw until November 4, 2020. The next U.S. presidential election falls on November 3rd.
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development..