Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a university professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Trump reportedly meeting with advisers to mull pulling out of Paris Climate Agreement. If it pulls out, US would be sole signatory among 196 to do so
Jeffrey Sachs: Transition to a low-carbon economy well underway, and oil companies agree. If Trump pulls out, he will look like an incompetent
President Donald Trump is expected to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, senior US officials familiar with his plans told CNN Wednesday. While not unexpected, this is a major break that would isolate the United States in global climate change efforts. Naturally, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a career-long, oil-industry shill from Oklahoma, has argued to pull out.
Yet even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, is arguing to stay. If Trump goes with Pruitt instead of Tillerson, he will immediately create a worldwide consensus on climate action: to fight the American recklessness that Pruitt epitomizes.
I happened to have been in the White House (discussing solutions to the AIDS epidemic) the day in early 2001 that George W. Bush Jr. pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The move was a predictable disaster: it delayed effective global action on global warming for another 15 years. Yet Bush used an argument then that is utterly closed off today.
The Bush administration argument in 2001 was that the US should not commit to Kyoto until China and other large middle-income emitting countries also commit to it. This attitude had been pushed by the Senate in the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Senate Resolution, passed 95-0, which had signaled that the Senate would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to which the US is a signatory, the high-income countries (so-called Annex I countries) were obligated to move first. China, a non-Annex I country, was legally correct under the UNFCCC to tell the U.S., “After you, thank you.” Nonetheless, Bush responded politically, not legally: No thanks to Kyoto, we’ll move when China and other developing countries move.
In 2017, Trump can’t pull the same stunt as Bush in 2001. Under the Paris agreement, every country in the world is obligated to act. Barack Obama, to his great credit, took great care to ensure that the US and China would agree in Paris. Indeed, every one of the 193 members of the UN have signed on to act (as well as three additional signatories, Cook Island, Niue and the European Union).
When the US pulled out of Kyoto, it could argue that most of the world was not obligated by the Kyoto Protocol. If Trump pulls out of Paris, it will be 195-to-1 against the United States.
Moreover, there are two other matters of supreme significance. Back in 2001, Bush could still feign doubt about climate science. The scientific consensus already existed then, but it was not as clear to world leaders and the public as it is today. Today, we are at the stage in “The Wizard of O” after Toto has already pulled back the curtain on the wizard.
We now see clearly that climate-denying politicians do the bidding of companies like Continental Resources (the head of the Oklahoma oil company has backed Pruitt), the Koch Brothers or other fossil fuel interests. And if the science weren’t sufficient, we have the record-breaking temperatures of recent years to make the case.
The other reality is that the transition to a low-carbon economy is already far underway. Trump may try to undo the Obama-era regulations at EPA (and may fail at it); he may approve the Keystone XL pipeline; he may dream of a resurgence of coal. Yet investors know better. Only the worst “losers” (to use a Trumpism) would invest in these miserable projects, since they are likely to fail as the world moves away from fossil fuels.
Yes, Trump can delay, prevaricate, obfuscate, annoy and even shut down federal science. But he can’t resurrect an industry that is way past its sell date. It’s no surprise that foreign oil companies Statoil, Shell and ConocoPhillips have recently sold off their stakes in high-cost, high-carbon Canadian oil sands to Canadian interests, and that Chevron is considering to do the same.
If Trump actually pulls out of Paris, in short, he will accomplish one thing: to confirm for the entire world, in a single move, that America has indeed elected an incompetent President. Even Trump is likely to figure this one out and avoid the opprobrium that would follow.