Yesterday, President Trump announced his attention to withdraw from the Paris Accord on Climate Change. In doing so, he carried his nationalist, “America First” thinking to a new extreme.
The Paris Accord represented a breakthrough in international cooperation to address the most pressing global issue of our time, dramatic climate change due mainly to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Countries can continue to argue and negotiate over their relative contributions to a solution. But the important thing is that almost every country–Syria and Nicaragua were the exceptions–agreed to join in the effort, each setting targets for the reduction in fossil fuel emissions. Even if some of the targets were more ambitious than others, and some will not be met, the world will be better off because of the agreement. The United States can be proud of its leadership in bringing the nations of the world together in this cause.
Donald Trump views such agreements through the eyes of a businessman accustomed to driving hard bargains. Each deal is a zero-sum game, where each side’s gain is the other side’s loss. Trump’s speech reveals that he is narrowly focused on the costs to the American fossil fuel industry, not the benefits of controlling climate change or creating cleaner energy industries. That makes his economic analysis flawed from the start. He counts only jobs lost but not new jobs to be created. He claims that our large fossil fuel reserves are “sufficient to lift millions of America’s poorest workers out of poverty,” but fails to mention that developing those reserves would, according to scientists, send climate change out of control and produce dire economic consequences. New York’s attorney general is currently investigating the possibility that Exxon Mobil may be defrauding its investors by placing a higher public value on its reserves than it knows to be realistic.
Because he looks at the world from a narrow “America First” point of view, President Trump tries to minimize the American responsibility for the problem while placing as much blame as possible on poorer countries, especially China. True, China is currently the world biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but that’s partly because it’s so big, and it has only recently been developing its fossil fuels. China is only sixth in per-capita emissions, and it is now making large investments in clean energy. The United States is still first in per-capita emissions, and “with just over 4% of the world’s population, is responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide that is heating the planet” (New York Times). Developed areas like North America and Europe have been filling up the atmosphere with carbon emissions for a long time, while poorer countries have only joined them recently. It’s only fair that developed countries should lead the way in energy transformation, and they are starting to do so. But one reason they have been reducing emissions is that they have been exporting their problem by offshoring a lot of their manufacturing operations to poorer countries.
Trump claims that even without the accord, “the United States…will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally-friendly country on earth,” That is simply not true. An Environmental Performance Index developed at Yale ranks the United States 43rd in air quality, 22nd in clean water, and 44th in climate and energy policies. The Trump administration’s efforts to roll back environmental regulation certainly won’t help. But by denying we have a problem, Trump can claim that we have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the proposed solution. “The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States, to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” One could argue the opposite, that Trump is disadvantaging the U.S. by withdrawing from the fight for clean energy, which may allow countries like China to assume leadership in developing the industries of the future.
Trump is especially critical of the Green Climate Fund, the United Nations fund through which richer countries help poorer countries transition to cleaner energy. Without it, very poor countries like India say they cannot afford to leave their coal in the ground. Trump claims that the fund “is costing the United States a vast fortune.” In fact, we have pledged only $3 billion, about $10 for each American, which Trump now refuses to pay. But 5.5 trillion in proposed tax cuts? No problem.
Most experts believe that the world will continue to progress toward cleaner energy with or without the support of the U.S. government. But the pace of change is already too slow, and may now slow further. The world needs every country doing as much as it can to avoid a costly environmental disaster. The last thing it needs is the withdrawal of the United States from its longstanding role of international leader at this critical time.