Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook or subscribe to his email newsletter.
Will he or won’t he?
That’s the question every policy wonk who cares about climate change has been asking since election night in November. With the he, of course, being Donald Trump. And the topic being the Paris Agreement on climate change – and whether the US President plans to bail.
For weeks, Trump and his administration have been taunting the media and global leaders with possible deadlines – which then are retracted – and with meetings of senior Cabinet officials, which have been postponed. First, the decision was going to come before the G7 meeting in Europe. Then, on Saturday, Trump tweeted during that meeting that he will make his “final decision” on this all-important climate accord “next week!” (Punctuation his).
This eternal back-and-forth prompted John Upton, a writer at Climate Central, to say Trump is drawing all of us into his “game show.” Narrative tension, set. Tune in for the showcase showdown – except instead of cash or cars the question here is whether the all-important Paris Agreement will survive and, consequently, whether the planet is likely screwed.
Of course, it’s not new for the reality TV host-turned-president to be critiqued for using cliffhanger TV production techniques to keep the American public craving new episodes in his presidency. But it’s worth stepping back for just a moment to remember exactly how much is at stake in what Trump calls his forthcoming “final decision” on this matter.
The Paris Agreement could literally save the planet
I don’t want to sound alarmist, but there is simply no overstating the stakes here: The Paris Agreement is critical to the survival of life on Earth as we know it.
Humans are pumping massive amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, primarily by burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation, and by relying on high-pollution agricultural practices. (Want to lower your carbon footprint? Eat less beef and lamb.) All of these activities are warming up the atmosphere and oceans, and the consequences of inaction are unthinkably steep. Rising seas could drown low-lying island nations and flood cities from New York to Shanghai. Scientists expect runaway warming would help bring about a mass-extinction event in which three-quarters of all species could be lost in coming centuries. And warming creates deadlier heat waves, more intense drought and so on. It’s bad-bad. Really.
The Paris Agreement isn’t enough on its own to stop all of that, but it is our best shot at moving in the right direction. The accord was adopted by 195 countries in December 2015 and has been signed or ratified by 147 of them, including the United States, according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Decades in the making, the Paris Agreement is seen by policy experts as the “north star” for climate progress. It sets the important goal of limiting warming to at most 2 degrees Celsius. And it calls, essentially, for an end to the damaging era of fossil fuels, hopefully by about midcentury or soon after.
Yes, the Paris goals are still possible without the US
Two weeks ago, I attended international negotiations about the Paris Agreement in Bonn, Germany. There was optimism in the air at that conference despite extreme lack of clarity – the will he or won’t he? – from the Trump administration. The reasons for all the hope? Part of it is raw determination. People who know climate science also understand the urgency of this crisis – and that there’s no time for waiting or idling. A host of countries – from China to Germany – have committed to stay with the Paris Agreement regardless of whether the United States, the world’s second-largest annual polluter, dumps it. They’re moving forward.
The other reason for hope: A new report from Climate Action Tracker, a scientific analysis project of three research groups, says China and India – the top and third-biggest climate polluters, respectively – are doing much better at curbing pollution than expected. China’s use of coal has flat-lined, and India is talking about a massive transition to electric cars. These changes, and others, many of which are linked to deadly air pollution in both countries, are expected to offset additional pollution created as a result of the Trump administration’s pro-fossil fuel policies. The new data leave open the possibility that even if the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement there is still the chance – and it’s just a chance – the rest of the world could rally to meet the Paris goals.
“In the long run the US has to be in the game and has to reduce emissions, otherwise we won’t get to the Paris goals,” Bill Hare, CEO and senior scientist of Climate Analytics, a nonprofit that worked on the report, told me in Bonn. “But in the short run, it’s not a catastrophe.
“It’s not insignificant, but it’s not a catastrophe.”
But it would be delusional for Trump to go it alone
“Not a catastrophe” is not a scenario anyone should be happy with, though.
The reality remains: Each year, the United States does more than almost any other nation to pollute the atmosphere and warm the climate. Those carbon emissions – all emissions – matter at this point. Imagine reading this news from Shishmaref, Alaska, a community I visited in December that in 2016 voted to relocate because warming in the Arctic has been so dramatic it’s causing the coast there to crumble.
In denying climate science (97% of climate scientists agree the world is warming because of humans, according to peer-reviewed research and NASA) this US administration is going it alone on one of the most critical issues of our time. Like, alone-alone. Spicer-in-the-shrubbery alone. Even North Korea has a climate change plan. ExxonMobil urged Trump to remain in the Paris Agreement. So have tons of other major US corporations, including Apple; 75 mayors; the Republican governors of Massachusetts and Vermont; and a whole bunch of colleges.
Much has been made of the potential diplomatic fallout of Trump withdrawing from this accord. Those arguments are compelling but are less likely to convince American conservatives than this: The United States also risks being left out of a new and changing economy if it walks away from Paris. Clean energy is the future – corporations and governments are betting on it. Plus, it’s the only viable future. By abandoning Paris, Trump would risk ceding international leadership to China, which appears ready to become (irony of ironies) the leading voice for climate action and clean energy policy. The United States also would be ceding de facto leadership in the future economy. Trump needs to recalibrate. Instead of only thinking about making America great again, he needs to ensure American can be great in a changing global economy.
He can think America first and planet first simultaneously.
Trump’s decision on Paris is a choice between an existential crisis, including a burden on future generations, rising seas and mass extinction – and clean energy jobs here and now.
The choice should be obvious.
But which future will Trump choose? Tune in later this week.