Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)
Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump sneers at climate

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement threatens the US strategic alliance with Europe and is not just about climate change

Trump sneers at climate
Trump sneers at climate

World leaders were not taken by surprise when US President Donald Trump announced a week ago his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, considering that this was one of his election campaign’s pledges in which he insisted that he would always put “America first”. However, considering that the decision came only days after Trump met with European and world leaders in Belgium and Italy on his first foreign trip since taking office, during which they delivered a clear warning of the possible consequences of pulling out of the Paris accord, the move posed a serious threat to seven decades of strategic alliance between the United States and Europe. 

“In order to fulfil my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord,” Trump said at the White House to a carefully selected audience who cheered his decision.

The move puts the United States in rare company, and was a significant blow to a serious international effort that extended over years and was considered one of the key achievements of former US president Barack Obama. The only countries that aren’t part of the Paris agreement are Nicaragua and Syria. 

Trump’s move is likely to have long standing effects on America’s international influence and credibility as a world superpower. US analysts warned that isolating the US in this fashion sent an extraordinarily strong signal to other major powers that the US cannot be trusted to act on its international commitments, or even to work within international organisations at all.

“Trust takes a long time to build — and you can lose it very quickly,” Paul Musgrave, a scholar of US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said.

This historic Paris accord, that brought many to tears of joy following its approval, wasn’t just an international treaty. It was a non-binding agreement that obliged world countries, including China, that tops the list of world countries in polluting the atmosphere by toxic emissions, followed by the United States, to keep global warming below 2°C.

The agreement was designed to shame and prod countries into at least making a good faith effort to seriously reduce their CO2 emissions and build up their green energy capabilities. The part that Trump seemed to criticise most was linked to contributions in billions that rich Western countries were going to pay in order to help other countries, including some of the poorest in Africa and Asia, to reduce their toxic emissions. He also claimed that abiding by the agreement would sacrifice up to six million jobs in the United States.

However, those arguments were quickly refuted by the many supporters of the agreements, who pointed out that the dangers of global warming were much bigger, and might even threaten the existence of entire nations. Furthermore, investing in green energy and new sources of clean fuel would compensate for the jobs lost in air polluting industries such as coal, cement and automobiles.

The Obama administration played a major role in writing the original text of the Paris agreement, shaping it such that its terms were acceptable to American interests. Pulling out of the agreement at this point suggests that the US doesn’t care about climate change anymore, or about the potentially catastrophic consequences for the planet.

“We’re talking about undoing something that was the project, the signal accomplishment of a whole group of countries — on more or less on a whim,” Musgrave added.

Germany, along with France, were most critical of Trump’s decision, and hinted that consequences won’t be limited to climate change. At a much-commented-on speech last weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany needed to take a more assertive role in global politics, because “recent days have shown me that the times when we could rely completely on others are over to a certain extent.” 

Merkel also noted her failed effort to persuade Trump not to withdraw from the Paris accord when the two leaders met in Brussels two weeks ago while attending a NATO summit.

“We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands,” she said. “It became clear at the G7, when there was no agreement [on climate] with the US, how long and rocky this path would be.”

However, the US president’s decision seemed to pander most to his own supporters. The rejection of the global consensus on fighting climate change and Trump’s view of NATO and transatlantic trade as transactional agreements that add up to a bad deal for US taxpayers, rather than guarantees of US power and global influence, were hailed by his fans as the key reasons why they backed his election. 

Most seriously, diplomats, experts and former US officials said that European allies may be potentially less willing, or less able, to fulfil their decades-long role of having Washington’s back in the world arena.

While in Europe two weeks ago, Trump lectured allies, rebuked Germany, physically shoved another leader, failed to endorse core security commitments and played coy on the Paris climate accord while his G7 counterparts unanimously lined up to reaffirm it.

Obama quickly issued a statement criticising Trump’s decision. “The nations that remain in the Paris agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created. I believe the United States of America should be at the front of the pack. But even in the absence of American leadership; even as this administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.”

While Trump claimed in his Rose Garden statement that his decision to withdraw from the agreement was aimed at protecting American jobs, governors of several key US states said they strongly disagreed. “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, ahead of Paris, France,” said Trump.

The mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, immediately issued a tweet, announcing that, “as the mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris agreement for our people, our economy and future.”

Former US vice president Al Gore, considered a pioneer in the battle for protecting the environment, also denounced Trump’s decision. “Removing the United States from the Paris agreement is a reckless and indefensible action. It undermines America’s standing in the world and threatens to damage humanity’s ability to solve the climate crisis in time,” Gore said.

China and the EU also pledged to fill in the vacuum that’s been created by Trump’s unilateral decision.

Fareed Zakaria, the prominent journalist talk-show host, declared that Trump’s decision marked “the day that the United States resigned as the leader of the free world. It is nothing short of that.”

According to US media outlets, Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris agreement resulted from pressing environmental concerns, recommendations by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, business leader and public opinion. These and other groups believe that it would have been more prudent to remain within the Paris agreement and keep a prominent seat at the table as future decisions are made.

Instead, Trump followed the advice of a small group of people led by adviser Stephen Bannon and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, but also supported by 22 Republican senators. Those who wanted to leave argued in favour of a more inward-looking approach and narrow nationalistic reasons for exiting the Paris agreement.

The 2014 US-China bilateral agreement was instrumental in overcoming longstanding differences between industrialised and developing countries over who needed to take action. It helped pave the way for the Paris agreement, which was possible to conclude only because of US leadership and its willingness and ability to fruitfully engage other countries.

This leadership has now effectively been abandoned by the Trump administration. Having anticipated that such a decision may happen, other countries, including China, began to move in to fill that vacuum, and sought to increase their influence over the implementation of the Paris agreement.

In a symbolic act, China and the European Union, one day after Trump announced his decision, agreed that they will increase their collaboration to address climate change and move towards a low-carbon economy.


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