Opinion

What climate surrender means globally

  • Burning issue: wild fires raged in many parts of California last month, highlighting concerns about climate change (Jose Carlos Fajardo/San Jose Mercury News via AP, File)
  • Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York

This week, Donald Trump made it official. He confirmed his country’s plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accord in a year’s time — that is, a day after the 2020 presidential election. The action was initiated on Monday, which was the first possible day to exit the accord with a one-year waiting period under rules set out by the United Nations.

“Should a Democrat win the White House, the nation could re-enter the agreement after a short absence — as numerous candidates have pledged,” reported The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis. “But if Trump prevails, his re-election would probably cement the long-term withdrawal of the United States, which was a key force in helping forge the global effort under Barack Obama.”

Trump makes no secret of his distaste for the Paris agreement, which he has branded a “total disaster” and a supposedly unfair constraint on American business.

Beyond pulling out of the accord, the White House has set about dismantling Obama-era environmental regulations at home: these include launching a fight with California’s state government over the stringent fuel efficiency standards it demands of automakers and a federal move announced this week to relax rules on how power plants store waste from burning coal — an effort, my colleagues reported, that fits into “Trump’s broader goal of bolstering America’s coal industry at a time when natural gas and renewable energy provide more affordable sources of electricity for consumers”.

Trump’s hostility towards collective global efforts to curb emissions — and progressive environmental policy writ large — puts him at odds with some of America’s leading companies, which recognise the long-term effects to their own bottom line posed by climate change. Recent polling also shows that a significant majority of Americans believe Trump is doing too little to tackle climate change, while about 8 in 10 Americans now believe that human activity is fuelling global warming.

The Trump Administration is trying to present itself as a sensible actor. “In international climate discussions, we will continue to offer a realistic and pragmatic model ... showing innovation and open markets lead to greater prosperity, fewer emissions, and more secure sources of energy,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement on Monday.

The rest of the world, though, has lost patience. As the President fiddles in Washington, a vast army of experts warn of a world on fire.

On Tuesday, a new report by 11,258 scientists from 153 countries declared that the planet “clearly and unequivocally faces a climate emergency”.

It called on governments to “implement massive energy efficiency and conservation practices” and to leave the world’s remaining untapped fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, in the ground. (This summer, Trump pointedly declared that he didn’t want “to lose that wealth ... on dreams, on windmills.”)

These radical measures are necessary, argue many scientists and climate policy advocates, because of the enormity of the peril facing the planet.

Just this year, we have seen a cavalcade of new studies laying out the already apparent effects of man-made global warming, including rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather events that will cost untold funds and disruption in the years to come. By the middle of this century, swelling oceans may force about 150 million people to leave their homes.

The Paris agreement set as a goal to keep the planet’s warming “well below” 2C and ideally not above 1.5C. But the emissions-cutting pledges promised in 2015 are now all widely viewed as insufficient for the crisis at hand.

A recent Washington Post analysis of multiple temperature data sets determined “numerous locations around the globe” had already warmed by at least 2C over the past century. “That’s a number that scientists and policymakers have identified as a red line if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences,” my colleagues wrote. “But in regions large and small, that point has already been reached.”

Trump’s move only sharpens the spotlight on an upcoming major global climate summit next month in Madrid.

On the heels of meetings last month in New York, world leaders are expected to unveil further steps to reduce emissions, even in the absence of US leadership.

“If we want to be in compliance with the Paris agreement, we will need next year to enhance our commitments to reduce emissions, and we must confirm new commitments for 2030 and 2050,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday while on a visit to China.

He nodded to the significance of potential European and Chinese collaboration on climate policy. “The co-operation between China and the European Union in this respect is decisive,” Macron said. “Next year, we need, in the agenda of enhancement, to be collectively up to the task.”

Trump’s critics in the United States say that, beyond his dangerous dismissal of the science, he is spurning a chance for America to be an industry leader on wind, solar and other renewable energies.

“By putting up roadblocks to the necessary transition to a low-carbon global economy, Trump is making American businesses less competitive and leaving new jobs and economic opportunities up for grabs to other countries,” wrote former secretary of state John F. Kerry and former defence secretary Chuck Hagel.

It has also become clear that Trump’s rejection of the global climate consensus has paved the way for other nationalist sceptics to follow suit.

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has appointed climate sceptics to key positions in his cabinet and it’s doubtful that his government will seek to meet the ambitious emissions pledges made by its predecessors. This week, right-wing Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, another advocate of big coal, proposed criminalising forms of climate activism.

“When the world’s biggest economy and a significant emitter says we don’t care about [climate change], that’s a signal for others to not to do so much,” said Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, in an interview on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings last September.

Speaking to Today’s WorldView in her capacity as a member of the Club de Madrid, a gathering of democratically elected former world leaders, Clark hailed the work done by American governors and mayors “to manage around” Trump’s intransigence and enact climate-minded reforms in their jurisdictions.

But Trump’s position remains an obstacle for progress. “The biggest cost is subsidising a dying fossil fuel industry,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in September, “building more and more coal power plants and denying what is plain as day — that we are in a deep climate hole, and to get out, we must first stop digging.”

The American President, though, seems determined to hold on to his shovel.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York