Sophia Zhu ’18
The 2015 Paris Agreement, ratified by hundreds of parties including the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, China and the U.S., was no doubt a landmark on the long path of global climate change negotiations. Aiming to cut greenhouse gas emission and control global warming within 2 °C of pre-industrial temperature levels, this agreement has given global environmentalists great hope of a collaborative strategy to fight climate change.
The news of Donald Trump’s election as the new U.S. president is certainly devastating for supporters of the Paris Agreement as Trump has outspokenly pledged to derail this deal and lift all the “job-killing restrictions” on fossil fuel productions on the first day of his administration. While many have been mourning the death of the Paris Agreement, Trump has proven his fickleness and unpredictability once again by announcing that he will keep “an open mind” on the issue of the Paris Agreement and climate change in general. He told the New York Times on Tuesday that he’s going to “look very carefully” at the politically charged issue of climate change.
While his real intentions are still unclear, this change of mind might be a good sign. Optimists genuinely hope that Trump’s real policies will be much different than those he campaigned on. Once the wheels hit the ground, they speculate, the political reality might remind him of the businessman like pragmatism hidden in his personality.
However, this view seems to be highly unlikely as shown by his transition team appointments. He appointed Myron Ebell, a vocal skeptic on the matter of climate change, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and Steven Groves, a strong conservative from the Heritage Foundation, to lead the State Department transition team. Actions are always more unequivocal than rhetorics, which is especially true for someone as self-contradictory as Trump.
There is another hope lying under Trump’s campaign slogan “Make the America Great Again,” which seems to be straightforward but in effect leaves “great” undefined. Whether the greatness can mean something like making America a world leader has been a highly contested topic. Obama has been suggesting he look at the Paris Agreement differently, in which case Trump might consider maintaining U.S. presence in the international community a good strategy.
But it is still doubtful that the climate change issue could pass the cost-benefit analysis of the conservative advisers currently surrounding Trump. Domestic economy, job creation and tax breaks for low-income households have always been top priorities on Trump’s campaign trail. A global commitment to the prevention of a “potential” disaster looming in an undetermined future can appear to be a typical undue worry dreamed up by so-called “bicoastal elites.” On the other hand, fossil fuels are certainly a better representation of national prosperity and perhaps also the romanticized American ideal of freedom. Revitalizing fossil fuel industry at home looks like a more promising candidate that meets Trump’s standard of American greatness.
There is another argument; whether the U.S. keeps or walks away from the Paris Agreement does not matter because at this stage the U.S. alone can’t shake the already entrenched international environmental work. Despite being the world’s second greenhouse gas emitter and largest economy, the U.S. has been renowned for its reluctance to invest in reducing the emissions, and the rest of the world has enough incentives to fight climate change with or without the U.S.’s commitment. No matter how the U.S. federal government acts, China will keep speeding up its energy transition as millions of people are dying; India will stay active as extremes in weather are causing tragedies everywhere; the U.K. and Germany will continue to be the leaders in this area. Even states within the U.S., such as California, have made tremendous amount of investments in clean energy plans and will continue to do so.
At the same time, renewable alternatives are becoming increasingly competitive in the energy market, and this trend is irreversible by Trump or any other politician or billionaire from the fossil fuel industry. Cheap solar and wind power, rather than any of Obama’s regulation policies, are what have most effectively rendered oil and coal far less profitable and pushed these polluting industries to the rim of destruction. Whether the U.S. keeps its promise or not, a new financial model is needed to fasten the process of energy transition by increasing the competitiveness of renewables, which is the only way to create universal political will to act on climate change.
In short, the Paris Agreement might be a significant political gesture, but its long life or quick demise does not necessarily determine the fortune of climate change actions worldwide. What is certain is that the U.S. withdrawal from the Agreement will be to the great detriment of our own as well as the future generations yet to come.