On the wrong side of history and science
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Ever since climate change-sceptic Donald Trump won the US presidential election, the international community has held its breath—wondering whether Trump would fulfil his campaign promise to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, and if so, when and how. After months of dithering, and despite mounting international pressure, or perhaps as a peevish reaction to it, Trump returned from the G-7 meeting, where he was isolated on climate change, and promptly announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
Many factors contributed to this profoundly wrong decision, not least, a disturbing lack of knowledge about the Paris Agreement. Trump’s contention that the Paris Agreement hamstrings the US while allowing India and China to increase their emissions is baffling, given that it allows every country to choose its own “nationally determined” contribution (NDC), tailored to its national circumstances. And, it contains no obligations of result in relation to these NDCs. The Paris Agreement’s facilitative approach is a sea change from the Kyoto Protocol’s binding targets and timetables approach, yet Trump’s remarks echoed the arguments the US had used 16 years ago to reject the Kyoto Protocol. Equally baffling is Trump’s assertion that he would renegotiate a fair deal for the US. The Paris Agreement is remarkable for the extent to which it privileges sovereignty and national autonomy. The perceived “unfairness” Trump alludes to stems not from an internationally prescribed target—the Paris Agreement contains none—but a “nationally determined” contribution chosen by the previous US administration of its own volition.
Another factor at play is personality politics. Trump harbours, by all accounts, a disdain for international law, a dislike of being lectured to by other world leaders, and a churlish desire to dismantle Barack Obama’s legacy. What better way to thumb a nose at Obama and the world, while playing to his dwindling fan base, than to withdraw from the hard-won, painstakingly crafted and widely ratified Paris Agreement. That the US has yet again rejected a climate agreement that it played a central role in negotiating is unfortunate. But once the international community emerges from the understandable pall of gloom that this decision will cast, Trump’s decision will be seen for what it is—the deeply misguided act of a man on the wrong side of history, science, politics and the planet.
The exit of the US will doubtless leave a gaping hole in the international climate change regime. The world will suffer for it, in particular if the US remains outside long term. The Paris Agreement, however, will endure, and may, with some hiccups, even stay on track to meeting its goals. Negotiated over several years in a truly multilateral process, the Paris Agreement is a finely balanced instrument that has near universal buy-in. The Agreement will remain a bulwark against climate change, and continue to trigger the transition to clean energy and technological innovations needed to address climate change, while leaving the US and its corporations behind.
Unlike in 2001, when the US withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the US is no longer the world’s largest greenhouse gases (GHG) emitter, and action is not restricted to developed countries. China and India, the world’s largest and fourth largest GHG emitters, respectively, are cancelling plans to install new coal plants, reducing emissions faster than predicted, and are likely, by some accounts, to compensate for slower emissions reductions in the US. Also, unlike in 2001, climate action is not the preserve of states alone. There is a proliferation of actors, initiatives and networks across and within states. The business community, including multinational corporations, investors and insurance groups, is constructively engaged in climate action. Non-state and subnational actors, not least American states like California and cities like New York, helped shape the Paris Agreement, and will continue to implement it.
Any perceived leadership vacuum too will be filled quickly. The lingering threat of US withdrawal these past months has fostered unlikely alliances and a strong sense of solidarity among other nations. The BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries reiterated their “unwavering commitment” to the Paris Agreement in April, as did the other G-7 countries last week. The European Union has also committed to forging ahead to implement the Paris Agreement.
In some respects, the US withdrawal could even lead to a stronger Agreement over time. Ahead of a decision on the Paris Agreement, Trump had begun the process of dismantling Obama-era domestic regulations to address US GHG emissions. The US would thus likely have fallen short of its NDC, and downgraded it. Such downgrading would have wreaked havoc with the normative foundations of an Agreement built on good faith expectations of “progression” and “highest possible ambition” from states. As it is, with the normative foundations of the Agreement secure from opportunistic manipulation by the Trump administration, the ongoing rule-making processes can proceed unhindered. If and when the US decides to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the international community will be waiting. Until then, Trump’s narrow-minded and self-serving agenda, which ignores the needs of the planet and its inhabitants, will be trumped by strengthened multilateralism.
Lavanya Rajamani is professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.