By William S. Becker
When Donald Trump announced last year that he wants to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, countless people around the world who invested decades of hard work to achieve that historic agreement held their breath, wondering whether other nations would follow suit.
Other nations did not; 194 of the 195 countries that approved the accord three years ago held fast.
Today, those nations are meeting in Poland for “COP24”, this year’s negotiations on how to proceed collaboratively on climate action. By some accounts, there is problem– a “Trump Effect” that’s eroding other nations’ determination to fulfill and exceed the commitments in the Paris pact.
The “Trump effect” is the topic of a study published last March, which concluded that Trump’s actions over the last two years may be slowing international momentum. Trump is undermining the Paris agreement in three ways, according to the report’s author, Joseph Curtin at the Institute of International and European Affairs. His decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement has “created moral and political cover for others to follow suit”; his plan to increase fossil fuel production in the United States has made those fuels more attractive globally; and he has damaged the sense of goodwill that nations felt in Paris.
What the rest of the world should understand, however, is that Trump is not America. He may act like a dictator in control, but our democracy is still strong enough to work around him. So are market forces. His opinions about climate change and America’s role in the Paris agreement are as temporary as his presidency. We should remember, too, that the United States remains a signatory to the agreement until 2020, a presidential election year.
Let’s look more closely at Mr. Curtin’s analysis.
Is Trump providing political cover for other world leaders who want to waffle on their Paris commitments? If so, they waffle at their own risk. There is no place to hide, politically or morally, from the extreme weather events that are accelerating around the world, like the 5.4 million people affected by flooding this year in just one Indian state, or the exceptional heatwaves in large part of Europe, or the extraordinary wildfires in California, Athens and British Columbia.
America’s commitment to fight global warming is not evident in the White House or Congress at the moment, but it exists in the nation at large. Leaders from states, cities and businesses are working through the U.S. Climate Alliance, the We Are Still In Coalition, the Under2 Coalition, the Ready for 100 Coalition, the C40 Cities initiative, the Global Covenant of Mayors, the Insure Our Future campaign, the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, the Divest/Invest Forum, and other organizations.
Every morning, nearly 3.2 million Americans go to work in solar, wind, energy efficiency, clean vehicle and other clean energy jobs. Between 2012 and 2017, solar energy jobs grew nine times faster than jobs in the overall economy. And earlier this week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the coal industry remains in sharp decline despite Trump’s efforts to prop it up. By the end of this year, coal consumption here is expected to decline to its lowest level in nearly 40 years and 44% below 2007 levels.
As a result, transportation rather than power production has become the largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S. Although Trump wants to scrap the ambitious fuel economy standards put in place by the Obama Administration, 19 states and the District of Columbia vowed to fight him. The popularity of electric vehicles is rising.
Meanwhile, the long silence in the U.S. Congress is about to change. Last month’s midterm elections sent a new wave of people to Congress who want to act against climate change. Democrats are gearing up to make climate action one of their priorities when they take control of the House of Representatives on Jan. 3
While it’s true that the House of Representatives cannot pass climate legislation alone in a bicameral Congress or while Trump is president, it can heighten voter awareness in advance of the presidential and congressional elections two years from now, and it can block legislation proposed by Trump or other global-warming skeptics.
Finally, on Curtin’s observation that Trump is undermining goodwill in climate talks, international negotiators should not take it personally. He undermines good will everywhere. But once again, he is not America. America is what we saw this week in the celebration of another American president, George H.W. Bush, a man whose character, life of service and relationships with other nations was the polar opposite of Trump’s. America is what we heard in the emotional eulogies for President Bush: courage, selflessness, devotion to duty, love of country and its people, integrity, humility. In 1992, he ratified America’s participation in the world’s first treaty on abating global warming, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In short, the leaders and negotiators gathered in Poland should inoculate themselves against the “Trump effect”, sustain their goodwill, increase their commitment to climate action, and move forward as rapidly as possible on the global transition to clean energy.
They should not lose faith in America, because we have not. We are undergoing a difficult test of our commitment to decency, democracy and our connection with the rest of the world. It may take a little time and a little turmoil, but we will pass the test.