Last week, Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement reached at the COP 21 climate summit sponsored by the United Nations in 2015. Though long anticipated, Trump’s statement was greeted with outrage and opposition, reaching into the U.S. ruling class, as the heads of major corporations like Disney, General Electric, Tesla and Goldman Sachs criticized the move. But how can this opposition head off Trump’s planetary death wish?
We asked Communist Manifesto and a featured speaker on the environmental crisis at the Socialism 2017 conference in Chicago on July 6-9, to explain what Trump’s decision means and the implications for the struggle to save the planet., editor of an authoritative new edition of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’
DONALD TRUMP announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement? What’s the content of that agreement?
THE PARIS agreement was signed in December 2015 by almost every country in the world, facilitated by the United Nations, after an international summit meeting.
The agreement is a recognition that human-caused climate change is an urgent crisis, and there has to be a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times.
Each signatory country agreed to develop a plan to reduce emissions over the next several decades–with the countries that have historically done most to accelerate global warming, including the United States and those in Western Europe, agreeing to move the fastest.
The agreement also involved the more advanced economies agreeing to contribute billions of dollars to the Green Climate Fund in order to finance the adoption of sustainable energy sources in the developing world.
There’s no doubt that action of this kind is desperately needed, but the Paris Agreement is also highly problematic. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol that it replaced, the new agreement has no enforcement mechanisms. Countries agree to various targets, but if they fail to meet them, nothing happens.
The agreement also puts most of the emphasis for reducing emissions on a variety of market mechanisms, which experience tells us don’t work. Worse, even if every target that has been adopted is actually met, it’s not enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees.
Similarly, contributions to the climate fund have so far been tiny–around $10 billion, compared to the $100 billion promised by 2020, and for each of the five years following that. And even amounts promised are not nearly enough.
Of course, that amount of money sounds vast, but the grand total is still less than the U.S. military budget for just one year–even before Trump proposed increasing it by another $55 billion a year. So the funds aren’t unattainable.
IN THAT case, does it make any real difference that Trump has withdrawn from the agreement?
YES, IT makes a difference. A tiny step in the right direction is better than a big step in the wrong one. The Paris accord needs to be strengthened enormously, not abandoned entirely.
Trump has stuffed his administration with climate-change denialists, including Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Secretary of State (and former ExxonMobil CEO) Rex Tillerson.
These people either claim climate change is a total myth, or that human actions aren’t the main cause, or that its impact won’t be significant. Or they pretend there’s no scientific consensus on the issue, and more study is needed.
Trump has already announced his intention to roll back regulations on coal plant emissions that were a central part of the Obama administration’s plans to meet its Paris targets. If he wanted to, Trump could have kept the U.S. in the agreement while failing to implement it in practice. But instead, he decided to give the rest of the world his middle finger.
Now, instead of at least some reductions in emissions, we are likely to see the U.S. moving in the opposite direction.
Incidentally, while Trump makes Obama look good by comparison, the Democrats don’t really deserve any praise on the climate issue. Obama took steps to regulate some emissions and to encourage the wider use of renewable energy resources, but he also presided over the biggest increase in fossil fuel extraction in U.S. history, driven by cheap natural gas made available by the fracking boom.
HOW DID Trump explain his decision?
TRUMP GAVE an awful speech announcing the U.S. withdrawal in which he claimed the rest of the world is taking advantage of the U.S., and that he was acting to save jobs.
The idea that the U.S., the world’s biggest bully–which per capita is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases–is the victim of anybody is frankly absurd. It’s because the U.S. has played such a big role in creating the problem that it should play a big role in solving it.
As for jobs, Trump cited a study funded by the Chamber of Commerce and by another pro-business group that claims the U.S. will lose 2.7 million jobs if it attempts to reduce its emissions by 28 percent in the next eight years.
However, that study admits in a footnote that it “does not take into account potential benefits from avoided emissions.” Those benefits would include new jobs from investing in green technology, as well as avoiding the huge economic costs of climate-related floods, droughts, hurricanes, disease, and so on.
Trump claimed that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” But ironically, as the Washington Post pointed out, the majority of people in Pittsburgh support regulations to reduce carbon emissions. The same is true in the U.S. as a whole.
WHETHER IN the medium or long term, climate change is a major threat even to the interests of U.S. capitalists. So why have so many Republicans chosen to ignore the science and become climate-change denialists?
AT TIMES of major crisis, you often see the growth of irrationalism. I think that has a lot to do with it.
The role of the capitalist state is to protect the long-term survival of the system. When there’s a major crisis, the system will only survive if the short-term interests of some sectors of capital are sacrificed for the good of the system as a whole.
But the capitalists who benefit from fossil-fuel production don’t want to sacrifice their short-term interests, and they are powerful enough to influence a large part of the state apparatus.
That’s the Republicans, but like I said before the Democrats aren’t much better. They recognize there’s a problem, but they’re not prepared to take the steps necessary to deal with it, because they, too, aren’t prepared to challenge the fossil-fuel industry.
TIME IS running out to prevent the devastating consequences that will result from unchecked climate change. Is it realistic to think that they can still be avoided?
THE FIRST thing to note is that the problem is mainly political, not technological. We could transition the United States and most of the rest of the planet to renewable energy sources by 2050 if there was the political will.
There are a lot of things that need to be done in terms of conservation, less waste, expanding public transit, reconfiguring our cities and living spaces, and also developing new technologies that can remove carbon from the atmosphere. We have the resources to do these things, but we have an economic and political system, based on private property and profit, that is preventing them from happening–or at least happening fast enough.
The only thing that can change this is a powerful enough political movement that can force whoever is in power to make the immediate changes we need–and that can eventually grow strong enough to pose an alternative to the entire system.
Building that kind of movement is a daunting task, but Trump is radicalizing a lot of people. We have to take advantage of that. As the writer Eduardo Galeano once said, “Let’s leave pessimism for better times.”