“I REPRESENT PITTSBURGH, NOT PARIS”
It came as no surprise when Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, announced earlier this year that he intends to pull his country out of the 2015 Paris agreement, joining just Syria and Nicaragua as countries unhappy with the deal’s terms. Since that time, both Syria and Nicaragua have now accepted the deal, leaving the US as the only nation not supporting the international agreement.
Although announcing rejection, Trump said he and his team would ‘begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accords or a really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the US’. He went further to say
‘We will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine’.
I hope it is not only me who is shocked by the last sentence there. The president seems to be implying action on climate change is somehow optional, that it doesn’t really matter. Trump is well known for being sceptical of and misunderstanding climate science. In a speech last year to the Republican National Convention in the run up to his election, Trump managed to make an entire speech without mentioning climate change, whilst still managing to get his facts on the matter wrong. For instance, he said ‘Excessive regulation is costing our country as much as $2 trillion a year, and we will end it.’ The source of this statistic was the National Association of Manufacturers, which is known as being very much against regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The estimate covers only the compliance cost, and does not mention any financial benefits of regulations, such as savings on sick days and health issues. Other studies found that the economic benefits of EPA regulations massively outweigh the costs.
On the face of it, Trump’s claim that the Paris climate agreement treats the US unfairly seems reasonable. For instance, the US emissions reduction pledge accounts for 20% of those global emissions to be cut by 2030, which poses a potential strain on a country so far not particularly geared up for lowering its fossil fuel usage. However, the lack of such an emission reduction in the form of a US regression to ‘business as usual’ scenario would warm the world by an extra 0.3ºC by 2100, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. That is a substantial obstacle to avoiding the 2ºC ceiling imposed by the Paris agreement, and this is to be expected since the US is the second largest polluter in the world.
That the 2ºC ceiling is even achievable under current circumstances has been thrown into serious doubt as of late, as I flagged in a recent blog post. Indeed, it has so often been the case in recent years that top-down attempts to act on climate change have failed miserably, and there is no clear evidence to suggest the Paris accords will not simply follow this trend. It is for these reasons, amongst many others, that I usually advocate bottom-up action as an alternative, and will continue to do so.
The US think tank ClimateInteractive claims if the pledges made in late 2015 are met, a total average warming of 3.3ºC will result by end of century. In this scenario, the US’ rejection implies a heightened total average warming of 3.6ºC. Either case would have dire consequences for millions of people across the world, meaning any replacement of the Paris agreement must only take a stronger stance on emission control. It is for this reason Italy, Germany and France issued a joint statement in response to Trump’s withdrawal, stating that the treaty is non-negotiable. Regardless of whether the remaining signatory countries who haven’t ratified the deal yet do so, or whether any country at all meets its target, it is important at least that there is a cap which is intended to be met. The presence of a cap provides a goal for governments to work towards, meaning at least some effort should be made to reach it. This is not to say any cap will do. I would argue much smaller and stricter emissions caps are required.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE?
Despite all Trump’s talk, there is a chance he will never even get to withdraw from the Paris agreement at all. Sneakily, the small print of the Paris agreement dictates a time delay on exiting until 2020, which just so happens to be a US presidential year. In addition, Trump is coming under pressure from businesses, activists and even his own family to change his mind. His daughter, Ivanka, compels him to reconsider, alongside influential business leaders such as Elon Musk and Michael Bloomberg.
If one was disappointed that Exxon Mobil’s ex-CEO Rex Tillerson was given the position of Secretary of State in Trump’s cabinet,* one should now rejoice that shareholders of the oil giant have backed a motion requiring the company to reassess risks of climate change. The motion was supported by 62% of investors, including the Church of England. This comes as welcome news, especially since Exxon’s alleged concealment of information from shareholders regarding climate science in the past. Another business which has made a statement despite its deep involvement with the climate problem is General Electric. The chair and CEO Jeff Immelt recently said both that ‘climate change is real’ and that
‘industry must now lead’.
There seems to be an interesting variation on the top-down action theme arising. It seems is no longer about governments, but about companies and self-declared billionaire philanthropists. If politicians can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the environment (and, indeed, in the interests of their populace) then industries must step up to the plate, they say. How great that fossil-fuel-burning megacorporations suddenly care about the public and the natural world. How convenient for them that we should feel they are now acting altruistically on a matter which they have ignored for decades.
If you can’t tell, I am not convinced high polluting companies are going to change their tune quite so quickly. (What exactly does a oil company sell when its policy turns against the use of oil?) This is not to say I do not think industry plays a role in progress towards a green economy. Industry certainly must play a role, for instance in developing low emission, efficient vehicles, finding new ways to capture and store carbon dioxide and in encouraging lifestyles which have less of an impact on the planet. Due to limited resources of rare earth materials and fusion power still not being fully operational, amongst a plethora of other issues, there need be continued industrial involvement, alongside that of research establishments and universities, in taking steps forward.
Liberal poster boy Justin Trudeau and self-declared climate messiah Al Gore at COP21 in Paris.
Recently watching Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Sequel, I was interested to see just how much the political dimension of the climate problem was focused upon, and how rarely Gore considered the looming crisis through the prism of business or personal lifestyle. It is this aspect which is the common focus of environmental discussion, in particular the issue of green energy generation. This is despite the fact energy generation methods rarely enter the average person’s daily life, while transport choices, diet and waste habits certainly do.
WHAT DO WE WANT? CLIMATE JUSTICE!
Two years ago, I travelled to Paris with my partner Georgia for the COP21 conference at which the so-called Paris agreement was made. Travelling with Friends of the Earth, we were to attend a mass protest on the streets of the French capital to insist that real change be demanded – something which was very much lacking in previous congress conclusions. The slogan ‘Never trust a COP’ was visible on many signs and t-shirts to mark this.
Just a few weeks before the protest, the terrorist attacks of November 2015 shook the city (and world), and led to a banning of all major outdoor gatherings within the city. (Or, to be more precise, banning of all major political gatherings outdoors in the city, as I later discovered.**) This meant Friends of the Earth were forced to put on an indoor event where we made signs and banners and heard speeches from people we agreed with. The following day, they put on a ‘geolocation’ event as a major protest to mark the end of the conference and make clear the dissatisfaction of many activists. Along with thousands of other activists, we were given specific locations across Paris to rendezvous at a particular time and tweet photos of our protests. When overlaid onto a city map, our collective tweet locations spelt out the words ‘Climate, Justice, Peace’, as shown opposite.
As inspiring as it was to be part of such a mass, coordinated demonstration, the words were only really written over the Parisian map on the Twittersphere. At the end of the indoor event prior to our geolocation, the organisers suggested a few other events to go to in Paris during our stay. One in particular they stressed they were not at all involved in (for legal reasons), but was happening. This event was one of significant civil disobedience – thousands of protesters marching from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower against the crossing of red lines by governments and corporations affiliated with the COP. After two weeks of bureaucratic nonsense and cross-governmental back-patting, this was not a happy crowd. All but two countries had signed up to keeping average global warming below 2°C, despite staggering evidence suggesting doing so will require extreme measures unseen in political history… Needless to say, such measures are still far from even being considered for implementation in most of these countries.
Following the end of the conference, climate scientist James Hansen was quoted in The Guardian as follows:
“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2º C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”
In and amongst the negative summaries and comments, however, there were some positives. Jagoda Munic, chairperson of Friends of the Earth International said:
“Instead of acting with ambition and urgency, our governments are acting in the interests of powerful lobbies and corporations, but people are taking back the power. History will not be made in the convention centre, but on the streets of Paris and round the globe. The climate justice movement is unstoppable and will continue to expand in 2016 and beyond. A handful of politicians will not stop the energy revolution.”
Two years on and another follow-up conference is here, this time held in Bonn: COP23. Will it just be a case of same-old, same-old? Or will Trump’s declaration of rejection cause delegates to make real, necessary progress on these important issues deciding the future of both the planet and humanity?
*: In a recent interview, Naomi Klein said, ‘In any other moment, the very fact that the CEO of Exxon Mobil is now the secretary of state would be the central scandal. Here we have a situation where there is so much else to concern us it is barely a footnote.’
**: The Paris christmas markets, amongst other non-political but potentially terrorist targetable gatherings still went ahead that year, throughout the ongoing ban on explicitly political events. Naomi Klein documents this in her book No is not enough, as an example of the Shock Doctrine, whereby political leaders use the panic surrounding a shocking event to sneakily push through unpopular laws and to gain political footing.