The first few months of Trump’s presidency have been marred by the highest levels of unrest seen in the US in decades. Division and opposition are especially high when it comes to Trump’s stance on climate change and the environment. Having barely passed the mark of 100 days in office, Trump has already made significant progress in dismantling the environmental and climate legacy left by Obama.
This has included giving the green light to coal mining on public land, reviewing fossil-fuel rich areas offshore for drilling, and notably appointing Scott Pruitt (a climate change denialist) as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the wake of these actions, which prompted a 600-city strong march for science, the latest environmental action being debated by Trump and his administration is whether the US should remain in the Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement is the first global, legally-binding climate deal in history, and as of April 2017 has been ratified by 144 of the 195 UNFCCC countries that signed the initial agreement, including all major economies and greenhouse gas emitters. Having met the minimum requirements of the agreement (which required at least 55 countries that covered at least 55% of global emissions to ratify the agreement), the Paris Agreement entered into force on October 5th 2016 and is now legally binding.
Due to the truly global level of cooperation and commitment required to make this agreement a reality, how Trump decides to proceed in his decision to remain or leave the Paris Agreement will have profound ramifications for the how the global community perceives the US.
Trump has been clear about his negative opinion of the Paris Agreement and made leaving the agreement one of his campaign promises when seeking election.
This stance is not hard to understand when you consider that Trump, like Scott Pruitt, is a climate change denier that has previously stated that global warming is a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. By this logic, the Paris Agreement is simply hindering the US by preventing it from benefiting economically from its fossil fuel resources, and by spending US funds on climate change adaptation and mitigation.
For Trump, the priority is to protect the US’ economic and national security interests. Central to this is Trump’s energy plan which aims to exploit the US’ untapped shale oil, natural gas and coal resources, which the White House estimates to a value of $50trn. Trump has frequently defended this stance as being good for the US economy, providing thousands of high-paid American jobs, and reducing the US’ dependence on foreign oil.
Many of these points regarding the American economy have merit and many Americans will view a reducing dependence on foreign oil and decreasing involvement abroad as a positive.
The Cost of Trump’s Attitude
However, there has been no mention of the costs that will be incurred to the environment, such as damage to ecosystem services (which are often impossible to assign a value to), increased risk of oil spills and environmental pollution.
It is not difficult to see how Trump’s stance directly opposes the aims of the Paris Agreement, under which the US is currently under an obligation to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
Under Obama’s administration, this was expected to be fulfilled by implementing the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to double renewable energy generation by 2020 and increase funding for clean energy to $7.9bn. Even with these and other measures outlined in the Clean Power Plan, the US was not expected to fulfil its Paris Agreement aim.
With Trump now dismantling the Clean Power Plan and moving forward with his regeneration of the US fossil fuel industry, there is no chance of the US fulfilling its Paris obligations.
With Trump firm in his priorities for the US economy, the debate is now a matter of whether the US is willing to risk the negative international perception that would undoubtedly follow a decision to leave.
Leaving an international agreement of this magnitude would reflect poorly on the US’s willingness to commit to international cooperation. Those in Trump’s circle that are in favour of remaining within the Paris Agreement (such as secretary of state Rex Tillerson) are more often than not taking this opinion to ‘keep a seat at the table’, and not for climate change management.
While Trump may decide to remain in the Paris Agreement, his current position and outspoken dislike for the agreement has already been condemned by the international community, with some countries raising the possibility of a ‘carbon tax’ on US goods.
Trump believes that the way to economic prosperity is fossil fuels, his position could also undermine the American clean energy industry, which, globally, forms a $1.3trn annual market. Since Obama’s first term as president, renewable energy generation doubled while the US economy grew, proving that economic growth is not tied to fossil fuels.
Trump’s plans to allow drilling in coastal regions previously protected by Obama run the risk of polluting thousands of miles of fragile coastlines and ecosystems. Many fear another occurrence of a Deepwater Horizon magnitude oil spill disaster, the environmental effects and economic ramifications of which are still being felt today.
These plans may not be viewed positively by the American people, most of whom do believe that climate change has an anthropogenic cause and that climate science should play a role in policy. Furthermore, ignoring the well-documented health risks associated with the consumption of fossil fuels simply passes the economic burden to the average American in terms of health costs.
While not fulfilling the Paris Agreement obligations is not punishable, leaving it will mean that there will be no accountability for the US’ environmentally detrimental agenda. Therefore, giving Trump a carte blanche to undo the progress made in the fight against climate change and environmental decimation – a position that is not only irresponsible but will more than likely reduce his standing in both the international community and his own country.