Under brilliant sunshine and blue skies one year ago today, President Donald Trump stood at a podium in the Rose Garden to announce the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. With Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt beaming in the front row, Trump described the pact, signed by every single other nation on Earth, as “an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”
A year on, there are three key questions remaining about our nation’s choice to leave the accord: First, what drove Trump’s decision? Second, what have been the impacts of the U.S. announcement of withdrawal, both here at home and around the world? Finally and most importantly, what are the steps forward for policies aimed at combating climate change, given the administration’s conflicting agenda and the Paris withdrawal? That’s to say, what are the most productive avenues for action?
WHY THE US WENT ROGUE, AND ITS IMPACTS
What led Trump to withdraw from Paris? On the campaign trail, Trump’s position against U.S. participation in multilateral actions of any sort, and of climate accords in particular, grew more strident. In line with his early tweets that climate change was the greatest hoax, perpetuated by the Chinese to hamstring our economy, Trump developed a posture that asserted American dominance and unwillingness to be influenced by foreign governments.
Coal miners were a frequent and willing prop in his campaign, a symbol of how American workers were being neglected by President Barack Obama and the coastal elites. The dying coal industry bet heavy on Trump, and his administration has responded with rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan and other Obama-era efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. We now know how closely radical right-wing organization funded by the fossil fuel industry influenced his campaign, transition into the presidency, and now the first 16 months of his administration. Trump’s campaign was not in need of large amounts of oil and coal industry cash (it had support from elsewhere), but they paid huge amounts for his inauguration, and his cabinet, top advisors, and appointees are direct transplants from fossil fuel companies and the think tanks organizations they fund. Given the Republican Party’s 2016 platform against action on climate change and its posture largely denying the reality and urgency of the problem, Trump’s position aligns the two leading branches of government against science-based policy on this issue.
Since Trump’s Rose Garden announcement last year, two major negotiating sessions have taken place in Germany at the headquarters of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, to hammer out a “rulebook” for the Paris agreement. At each, the U.S. State Department continues to show up, and so far the positions of the negotiating teams have not been disruptive. Mostly, the negotiations are plodding forward, made somewhat more difficult by the leadership void left by the United States, which had finally become a constructive presence in Obama’s second term.
The U.S. team shows up because formally there is no way for the U.S.—or any other country who signed it—to withdraw from Paris until four years after it went into effect. By coincidence or design, the process of withdrawal can only begin the day after the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. So the fact that Trump’s Rose Garden announcement has not led to our actual withdrawal is not surprising. It is crucial that if the U.S. is likely to stay in or re-enter the agreement that it be present to keep things going in a direction it can live with.
Meanwhile at Bonn in November, a group of business and political leaders in the U.S. showed up to support the message that “We are still in!” The effort hoped to show the world that there are determined Americans who are working to meet the Paris goals without federal government leadership. But to me, it rang hollow, reminding me that we need to get back to Washington, D.C., and our state capitals to do the hard work of making our nation a leader on the necessary transition off of fossil fuels. In all, the federal government is increasingly MIA on dealing with this critical issue. What’s more, the hamstringing of our agencies’ ability to protect America leaves us at a great and unnecessary risk.
DIRECTIONS FORWARD POST WITHDRAWAL
Speaking for myself, it’s been a demoralizing year since Trump’s Rose Garden announcement last June 1, but I find inspirations for redoubled action. Opinion polls show that concern about climate change is rising, as Americans are finally seeing that climate change is not an issue in the future, but is here now. The issue, unfortunately for the development of effective policy, has become deeply partisan.
An international research team puts out a thermometer estimating where we are headed in terms of global warming, given national pledges under the Paris Agreement. The U.S., sadly, is in the worst category, ranked “critically insufficient.” That is the bad news, since defenders of the Paris agreement are protecting an unproven voluntary approach, which relies on fear by nations of being “named and shamed” by civil society and other parties. This is unlikely to be effective, but given the Paris agreement is the only pact we have, the hope is that it can be strengthened over time, with or without the United States.
Action, though, will need to come at the local and state levels, and with efforts by major corporations, small businesses, universities, hospitals, and households. Pledges by cities and institutions to go to net zero emissions could make a big difference, as long as they are accompanied by realistic plans and durable resource-allocation decisions. Fortunately, the technology is finally here that makes this transition cheaper and easier.
The simple thing that must be done is to get off fossil fuels, as soon as possible. In my household, it’s been exactly a year since we leased the electric Chevy Bolt. This one change has been fairly transformative in our fossil fuel purchases and emissions. We are purchasing 100 percent renewable wind power from the grid through a local nonprofit called People’s Power and Light, and so our car is literally running on the wind. Even simpler are making behavioral changes, ones that require no purchases, such as cutting back on air travel for work and leisure, and reducing consumption of meat and dairy products.
Climate efforts at statehouses are advancing and can benefit state economies in similar ways. There are glimmers of hope for federal and state or regional carbon taxes, if they can be part of the solution to bigger problems. For example, there is the upcoming California Climate Summit in September, extended carbon pricing and emissions trading among certain states, and climate-related financial disclosures being endorsed by cities and states. Investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy produced locally could keep billions of dollars at home and create thousands of jobs. Grassroots and nationally supported efforts to stop the construction of all new fossil fuel infrastructure are making the building of pipelines, power plants, mines, and ports far from routine and assured. Lawsuits and shareholder initiatives are advancing, especially those targeting firms that actively suppressed understanding and action on the overwhelming scientific consensus about the risks of climate change.
And this brings us to one last productive avenue for action: identifying and acting against those who abetted an active suppression of public knowledge and public policy to address the grave risks of climate change. Between campaign contributions, public relations and lobbying firms, think tanks, scientists- and universities-for-hire, and the gas, petroleum, and coal industries, billions have been poured into slowing and stopping policies adequate to solve the problem at hand. Knowing the mechanisms of this coordinated effort is the key to understanding why Donald Trump stood up in the Rose Garden one year ago today and made our nation the only one in the world to reject a treaty to address what may be the most pressing issue of our day. Understanding this same climate misinformation apparatus is fundamental to making sense of the announcement, the responses we are seeing and not seeing at the federal and state levels, and what we must do now to save ourselves and our children.