Should we be worried about the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement?

The UK government has confirmed that despite the path chosen by the US, the UK would honour the Paris Agreement. Here Shonil Bhagwat looks at the motivations and implications behind the US decision, and how international action on climate change will go on.

Deal or no deal

By withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, the US joins Nicaragua and Syria. The reasons, however, for Nicaragua and Syria to refuse the Paris deal and for the US to withdraw from it are very different. Syria has been ravaged by war and is politically very unstable so it is hardly surprising that the country’s focus is currently on its internal turmoil and not on climate change. Nicaragua, on the other hand, refused the deal because it does not go far enough in halting the temperature rise. The countries who have signed the deal have committed to it on a voluntary basis and without a binding agreement. This means even if the signatories don’t meet the target, there is no mechanism to hold them to account. By contrast, Nicaragua is ahead of the game and has put in place plans to meet 90% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 and is even considered a “renewable energy paradise”. Renewable energy initiatives in most other countries are pale by comparison.

Proximate vs ultimate concerns

What is interesting in Trump’s arguments is that two different kinds of concerns are being pitted against each other. Whereas jobs in the coalfields of Pittsburgh is a proximate concern to Trump’s audience, climate change is somewhat distant. For a Pittsburgh resident, 2-degrees temperature increase does not mean anything because that sort of variation in temperature can be experienced in a single day. What matters to them is to have a stable and secure job in a coal factory so they can fulfil the basic needs of their families. Trump’s argument that coal jobs will go to China and India if the US signs the climate deal chimes well with them. The scientists and climate negotiators, however, talk in terms of keeping within a 2-degrees rise in global average temperatures. For them, this is the ultimate concern, one on which the future of the planet depends. As President of the world’s second highest greenhouse gas emitter, Trump should know this, but he is choosing not to speak that language, let alone translate it to the Pittsburgh resident.

Should we be worried?

The US backtracking on climate change deals is nothing new. The country played a major role in shaping the Kyoto Protocol when Bill Clinton was President but failed to ratify it and commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. However, this did not derail international efforts on climate change. Instead, the action on climate change has accelerated since the early 2000s. Flying in the face of Trump’s backtracking, many voices have expressed continued commitment to taking action on climate change including New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. US billionaire Michael Bloomberg has even offered to pay $15 million from his private wealth to the UN’s Climate Secretariat to compensate for the money that Trump’s government will refuse to contribute.

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