Ready to ride out the storm?The question is not whether Trump will pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement but whether the world is prepared to deal with it if he does
A standoff between the US and Europe on climate change policy is not something new. But it normally used to happen during UN climate negotiations, often behind closed doors. The “differences” began to disappear during the final months of Obama’s presidency when Washington made some major commitments to cut down carbon emissions. Last week, however, the face-off resurfaced—and this time it was almost out in the open. During the G7 meeting in Italy, climate change was one of the most contentious issues between the US and other members of the rich countries’ club.
According to BBC reports, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the discussion on climate change had been “very unsatisfactory”, adding “we have a situation of six against one”.
The G7 communiqué issued after the Taormina meeting clearly showed that division. “The US is in the process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris Agreement and thus is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics,” it read, adding, “Understanding this process, the Heads of State and of Government of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom and the Presidents of the European Council and of the European Commission reaffirm their strong commitment to swiftly implement the Paris agreement, as previously stated at the Ise-Shima Summit.”
Just before that statement, US President Donald Trump tweeted, “I will make my final decision on the Paris Accord next week!” That Trump parted ways with the rest of the G7 members on climate change did not come as a surprise. He has called climate change a hoax in the past and one of his election campaign pledges was to pull the US out of the Paris deal. He had made it clear that the global climate treaty was bad for US businesses and that his main mantra would be to keep America first.
One of the first things the White House did after Trump took over was to remove the term ‘climate change’ from its website. Trump even held a photo session with coal miners, proudly telling them that they were going back to work. All of his actions focus on undoing what his predecessor Obama had aimed to accomplish: to cut carbon emissions and to “get the US to lead the world in the fight against climate change.”
What happened at the G7 was just the international manifestation of what was already happening in the US’s home front. The US media reported that Trump was poised to pull the country out of the Paris accord. “President Donald Trump plans to follow through on a campaign pledge to pull the United States out of a global pact to fight climate change,” Reuters reported quoting a source briefed on the decision.
“White House officials cautioned that details were still being hammered out and that, although close, the decision on withdrawing from the international accord—agreed to by nearly 200 countries in Paris in 2015—was not finalised.”
Meanwhile, Trump tweeted: “I will be announcing my decision on the Paris Accord over the next few days. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
After all this, do questions like whether Trump will pull the US out of the treaty or how he would do it matter?
Let’s assume that he chooses to stay in. Will that change things? Particularly now that we know what he and his administration think of climate change and carbon cuts. The Kyoto Protocol is the first international treaty signed in 1997 that aimed to cut down carbon emissions. It saw several signatory countries not doing what they
had committed to. While the US never ratified it, some other countries pulled out in later years. Where the Kyoto Protocol stands today, more than 20 years down the line since it was signed, no one knows. Some may give it credit for introducing the clean development mechanism and the concept of carbon selling market—but again there are questions how successful these ideas have been.
Meantime, the earth has become around one degree warmer than what it was before the industrial period began. Scientists say this is mainly because of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that humans emit through activities such as energy production, manufacturing, and forest clearing, among others.
They have warned that the rise in temperature will have to be kept below two degrees to avoid irreversible climatic changes.
The Paris agreement was reached between nearly 200 countries to attain that goal but it was a vague deal, not even legally binding. Its rule book on how to verify whether countries have actually cut the carbon emissions down to what they have committed remains to be prepared.
With that Herculean task, the world now has to deal with the US, the second largest carbon emitter that is currently not a fan of the Paris deal.
By the time you are reading this, perhaps we will know what Trump decides about the Paris aggrement. In either case, the key question will be if the world will be able to fight climate change.
There are two fears: The first is that the Paris deal might unravel with other major emitters not actually cutting down their carbon emissions despite what they say. Because, at the end of the day, they too will consider what is best for their immediate businesses. Particularly, if the US economy booms with the continued use of fossil fuels while others struggle because they have to cut down on carbon emitting energies—unless renewables really spur their economies.
The second is who fill the huge hole if the US exits. Already, there is a major issue between big emitters over who should cut down the carbon emissions by how much—mainly between developed countries and fast emerging economies like China and India.
And it isn’t just about carbon reduction. If the US’s climate policy really makes an about-turn and, say, for instance, NASA scientists are unable to pursue their climate-related research, there will be a major setback in the science of what is being described as the biggest crisis of this century. Will the European Space agency, for example, be able to rise up to the challenge?
What will be the attitude of international aid agencies funded and supported by the US? How will that impact aid politics?
And what will all this mean to the most vulnerable communities in poor countries like Nepal?
In its statement after the Taormina meet, the G7 said: In this context, we all agree on the importance of supporting developing countries.
But the question is: will such support mean anything once the climatic changes reach the point of no return?
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London