Trump’s stance on climate change turns his slogan into ‘America Alone’
On June 1 US President Donald Trump announced that his administration was withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement. The world’s largest economy is taking no responsibility for its historical emissions — a deeply immoral, reprehensible act.
The speech on the Rose Garden lawns was full of the illogical statements people have come to expect from Trump. He 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.
Rather than helping coal communities make a transition into a low-carbon economy, Trump makes fake promises. They are fake because he cannot deliver on them and because he does not really care about relatively poor Americans; his real base is the rich.
Wind and solar photovoltaic have passed parity with coal. Instead of positioning the US for a stake in the future low-carbon economy, Trump continues to promote sectors and industries that will be uncompetitive. He is urging investment in assets that will predictably become stranded. 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 a flip-flop in the next presidential tweet, but the next administration. In short, Trump misleads Americans that this move will protect the US economy and workers.
The US is still the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases every year and the largest in historical cumulative emissions (the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and a good proxy for change in temperature). But the effects of climate change depend on global emissions, not any single country’s.
Not much was going to happen during the Trump administration, as the Clean Power Plan and other domestic policies are being reduced. Strong institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are being gutted. Funding for climate science is being slashed. With these domestic measures, the US would not have met the objective of its nationally determined contributions anyway.
The rest of the world is united in their determination to implement the Paris Agreement. Trump has opened the door wide for China to take over the mantle of leadership; perhaps together with the EU. Contrary to what Trump said, China and India are taking action and shutting down coal plants. Germany, France and Italy have issued a joint statement that the agreement will not be renegotiated.
Many other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as Australia and the rest of North America will go ahead. Trump will not escape discussion of climate action. It is on the agenda of every forum in which the US does international business: the Group of Seven, the Group of 20 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
The US has isolated itself with a new club of climate pariahs: Syria and Nicaragua have not joined the Paris Agreement. The only other allies Trump has are in the fossil fuel industry. Given their vested interest, it was entirely predictable that companies such as Peabody welcomed the Trumpexit. But even in that constituency, many support climate action and the Paris Agreement, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Trump said he represented Pittsburgh, not Paris. No one has asked him to represent Paris — just to stick to the agreement made there. 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."
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 Trump administration has ended, the implementation of Paris will continue.
The agreement was shaped very significantly by the Group of Two: the US and China. Now for the US, technical work on implementing it will be a little harder in the next few years — for example, meeting commitments to climate finance. In process terms, not having Trump deployees mess with the Paris rule book may be an advantage.
The Paris Agreement remains a remarkable success of multilaterlism, with all countries working together to solve a global challenge. It remains legally binding to tackle the challenges, which remain unchanged. Ahead of his speech, some said that the climate’s fate was in Trump’s hands. That’s not true. His hands are too small.
Nothing has changed in the key challenges of the 21st century: meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris goals. The first Sustainable Development Goal 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 Trump administration seems not to understand (or wilfully ignores) is that Paris made contributions "nationally determined". Every country sets its own target and tries to do better every five years. The US could not have negotiated a better deal for itself (and the answer to renegotiation of Paris is simple: "of course not"). Action on Sustainable Development Goals is also national. SA’s National Development Plan still prioritises reducing poverty and inequality and we will continue to pursue those goals in a low-carbon and climate-resilient way.
Climate change is already happening, and even Trump is subject to the laws of physics. The climate will change because of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, with the US having "contributed" the most to that. Whether Trump believes it or not is immaterial.
The effects of climate change will hit Americans as much as everyone else, poorer communities in the US more than the rich, the poor in vulnerable poor countries even more. Tackling climate action is inescapable, both in reality and geopolitically. The withdrawal is a deeply unethical and wrong-headed move and will harm the US most of all.
• Prof Winkler is at the Energy Research Centre, University of Cape Town.