Environment

Trump Pulls Out of Paris Agreement, Endangering Future Generations and the Planet

Can the global climate be stabilized without American participation?

Photo Credit: top: Jeff Zehnder; bottom: a katz / Shutterstock

President Trump announced Thursday that he is withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, signed by nearly 200 nations to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

In his exit, Trump has likely put the accord into jeopardy, as the U.S. is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world next to China. Per capita, the U.S. is the seventh biggest emitter, after major oil- and coal-burning nations like Qatar and Australia. But cumulatively speaking, the U.S. is the country that has pumped the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the decades.

These facts, environmentalists argue, mean that the U.S. should shoulder the biggest responsibility for mitigating the effects of climate change. But Trump has shirked that responsibility, a move that could weaken other nations' commitment: If the world leader in carbon emissions won't curb its own, why should other countries, which emit far less?

By withdrawing from the Paris agreement, Trump has managed to fulfill at least one of his campaign promises (his plans to build a wall on the Mexican border and repeal Obamacare have faltered so far). He has also gone against the will of the American people: By more than 5 to 1, voters have said that the U.S. should stick with the agreement. A nationally representative survey conducted last November by George Mason and Yale universities found that seven in 10 registered voters say the U.S. should keep its pact. Only 13 percent said the U.S. should quit it.

The Paris agreement has received strong support not just from environmentalists and the majority of American voters, but also many Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Morgan Stanley and Unilever, which signed a full-page ad in the New York Times supporting the deal. In addition, Pope Francis urged Trump to stay in the agreement, giving the president a copy of his papal encyclical on climate change when the two men met recently at the Vatican.

Ceding clean energy sector to China

Trump's decision is a win for the White House's nationalist camp: Chief strategist Steve Bannon and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt both contended that the Paris agreement would hamper the president's goals for domestic energy. Their hopes may be misplaced, as the coal industry, which Trump strongly supported during the campaign, is experiencing an irreversible decline.

"Across the decades that energy investments stretch, the global move is clearly towards low-carbon and around the world coal is in freefall," writes the Guardian's environment editor Damian Carrington. "A Trump blip is highly unlikely to see companies make billion-dollar bets on coal. Furthermore, with the costs of solar and wind power plummeting by 85 and 66 percent respectively since 2009, many U.S. states and cities see clean energy as the future, whatever the current federal administration thinks."

Meanwhile, the president is risking ceding renewable energy dominance to China, which has overtaken the U.S. as the number-one spender on clean energy, attracting more that $65 billion in investments in 2012, a 20 percent increase over the previous year, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"When George W. Bush announced in 2001 that the United States would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it led to a lost decade of U.S. action on climate change," said Noah Sachs, a member scholar of the Center for Progressive Reform and a law professor at the University of Richmond. "Now, President Trump’s decision will lead to a lost century on climate change, where the U.S. will give away the store to the Europeans and the Chinese, who are eager to lead the clean energy revolution."

Paris accord: job-creator or job-killer?

In his announcement today, Trump argued that abandoning the agreement would be a victory for the U.S. economy, but many economists disagree.

"Withdrawing from the Paris agreement is hardly going to create jobs in the U.S.," Cary Coglianese, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of the book Does Regulation Kill Jobs? told ABC News. ''While specific environmental regulations can sometimes lead to job losses, they also can and do lead to job gains—with the result being roughly a wash."

“The Trump administration is buying a fallacy that responding to climate change will hurt the economy,” said Ben Lilliston, director of climate programs at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “In fact, it is the cost of not responding that will hurt the most. In the U.S. and elsewhere we are seeing emission reductions combined with economic growth."

Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which has 2 million members in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, said Trump's decision is essentially "killing the creation of new industries and jobs that could give communities the boost they need to thrive in favor of corporate polluters who want to pad their bottom line on the health of our communities." She noted that in the U.S., "clean energy jobs vastly outnumber fossil fuel jobs, with solar and wind energy at the forefront."

It should be noted that Trump did mention reentering the agreement: "In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we're getting out, but we will start to negotiate and we will see if we can make a deal that's fair."

Trump's withdrawal 'verges on criminal'

The response from supporters of the agreement was harsh and swift.

"President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord is a stunning abdication of American leadership and a grave threat to our planet’s future," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "In walking away from this agreement, the president is denying scientific truths, removing safeguards that protect our health and our environment, protecting polluters and their dirty energy agenda, and threatening our national and global security."

"By abandoning the Paris Agreement, Trump continues on a reckless path of pretending that the dire threat posed by climate change is no more lasting than a tweet," said Sachs. "It’s one thing to campaign on a know-nothing platform on climate change that denies scientific reality, and another altogether to govern that way. If ever there was a moment for Donald Trump to listen to the consensus of scientists and 195 parties to the Paris Agreement, this was it, and he failed."

Given the powerfully harmful impacts the withdrawal could have on current and future generations, Nigel Sizer, president of the Rainforest Alliance, said that Trump's decision is tantamount to criminal action. "Climate change is one of the greatest threats to human civilization," he said. "That is not in question. To tear up the U.S.’ commitment to climate action ... is more than irresponsible—it verges on criminal, and will be noted as one of the low points in U.S. policymaking for decades to come. It also does not reflect the views of the American people—70% of Americans believe global warming is happening right now."

Trump's decision is a blow to farmers and rural economies already battling increasingly extreme weather due to climate change. "Perhaps no sector is more vulnerable to climate change than agriculture," the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Lilliston said. "The president’s decision to turn his back on global efforts to address climate change will hurt farmers in the U.S. and around the world. It is inexplicable and in willful denial of the urgent challenges already facing farmers and rural communities."

The withdrawal is also bad for human rights. Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement:

"Let there be no doubt, President Trump’s expected decision to withdraw the USA from the global climate deal is an assault on a range of human rights putting millions of people’s lives and wellbeing around the world in severe jeopardy. By refusing to join other nations in taking necessary steps to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, the President is effectively saying: ‘Let them drown, burn and starve.’"

Climate-Denier-in-Chief could ruin global climate fight

There is an even more sinister aspect of Trump's withdrawal, as the U.S. will remain part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty adopted in 1992 to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations, and could play the role of spoiler.

Kelle Louaillier, president of Corporate Accountability International, said that Trump's withdrawal doesn't mean the U.S. is simply walking away from the global climate table. "In fact," she said, "this move [will] almost guarantee that the Trump administration will exploit the rules of the Paris Agreement, which allow the U.S. to stay at the table for the next four years, to continue to undermine and block climate progress." She added, "This decision will have far-reaching implications for people, the planet and the future of the Paris Agreement."

While the focus in the coming days will undoubtedly be on the specific impacts Trump's decision will have on the future of the agreement, the environment is on the president's chopping block in myriad other ways, from announcing a budget that would slash the EPA by nearly a third, to eliminating the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program and opening up the pristine Arctic Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

Redoubling efforts: Environmental movement 

One upside to Trump's decision may be the further galvanization of the environmental movement, from activists on the ground and green-minded corporate leaders to elected officials like California governor Jerry Brown, who delivered a stern rebuke to Trump in his State of the State speech earlier this year, during which he cast the Golden State as a "beacon of hope to the rest of the world."

Brown pointed out that "whatever they do in Washington, they can’t change the facts. And these are the facts: The climate is changing, the temperatures are rising, and so are the oceans. Natural habitats everywhere are under stress." Just minutes after Trump's inauguration, California regulators released a proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

"President Trump cannot stop the growing local movement toward clean energy or the broader international effort to stabilize our global climate," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "Locally, states are moving faster toward clean energy than ever before because of Trump’s criminal rejection of climate science and sound policy." He pointed out three recent, major pro-climate moves made by state and district governments: Virginia's announcement of the state’s first-ever carbon cap on power plant pollution, Washington, D.C.'s moved toward a citywide carbon fee that cuts pollution while boosting individual incomes, and Maryland's fracking ban and approval of the nation's largest offshore wind farm.

If Washington won't fight climate change, the battle lines will be redrawn along regional, state and local community lines. Perhaps Trump's withdrawal from the Paris agreement will redouble efforts outside the Beltway. "If we don’t stop him now, there’s no telling how much harm he will do," said Gene Karpinsky, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

"Trump has made his decision and we’re making ours—the rest of the world and the majority of Americans who support the Paris Climate Agreement will stand by it," said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org. "We won’t be dragged back by a shortsighted and destructive fossil fuel puppet in the White House. ... We can use the next four years to show that everywhere across the country the transition to renewable energy is underway and creating tens of thousands of good paying jobs in the process. This was always up to us, and we must ensure we meet the challenge."

Reynard Loki is AlterNet's environment, food and animal rights editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at [email protected].

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