Trump’s climate move was inevitable – but not necessarily fatal

Decision to quit Paris Agreement may harm the US but others are quietly forging ahead

Climate change was the issue that repeatedly surfaced during Donald Trump’s first trip to Europe as US president. The isolation facing the US on the geopolitical stage if he chose to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was starkly spelt out at every bilateral meeting Trump had with EU leaders.

In spite of repeated indications from those closest to Trump that he would pull out of the agreement on curbing global warming, US officials at the G7 meeting of leaders from the biggest economies on the planet in Sicily last weekend seemed to suggest he was open to staying in the pact signed by 195 countries in 2015.

Instead the US became "the lone holdout" as a declaration expressing strong commitment to the agreement was announced. The world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases has now taken the final, provocative step of withdrawing from the deal to reduce carbon emissions, and so a major economy becomes a notorious lone denier within the international community. Syria and Nicaragua are the only other non-participant countries.

In the process, dissenter Trump has brushed aside the pleas of Pope Francis and UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, who declared "climate change is undeniable. Climate action is unstoppable."


The decision comes after months of indecision. One of his most senior advisers, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, said this week that Trump's "views are evolving". Those close to Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt indicated Trump privately agrees with him and other sceptics. There was no indignant presidential tweet to deny the latter.

Trump’s attitude to the Paris Agreement is easily summed up: he believes climate change is largely a “hoax” and “job destroying” for those in US fossil fuel industries, particularly coal. During the presidential campaign he repeatedly said he would “cancel” the deal. It would undermine US competitiveness, he insisted.

He was always unlikely to abandon such a belief, which – like so much of his politics – is driven in the main by gut instinct. His resolve was probably compounded by hectoring from those waving scientific evidence that global warming is caused primarily by human activity.

Bad news

In one critical aspect, the decision to pull out, or not, is irrelevant. The Trump presidency is bad news in either scenario. It has already wreaked untold environmental damage. His appointments to key positions were an early indication of intentions. Pruitt was made head of the EPA, an agency he has sued 14 times and from whose website he has since removed climate change information. Former Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson was made secretary of state, although he was in the White House camp in favour of sticking with the agreement.

In March, Trump signed an executive order seeking to dismantle Barack Obama’s climate legacy with a determination that was only out-matched by his assault on Obamacare. This order started a process of unwinding Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants.

It overturned a previous moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, and sought to downplay consideration of future costs of carbon emissions in policymaking. In addition, he has given permits for major oil pipeline projects. Massive cuts are being imposed on regulatory agencies and those conducting climate research.

Trump took the more considered route of a three-year exit process, as stipulated under the Paris deal, but retained the option of renegotiation – unlikely to be realisable given his denial stance on climate change. He could have triggered the nuclear option of withdrawing from the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that underpins the entire regime of international climate negotiations, which would apply immediately.

Pulling out goes against the wishes of some of the country’s largest businesses, states, cities, environmental and public health groups, and some senior Republicans. It goes against public opinion as most Americans accept the need for climate action. It runs counter to the expert view that upheaval in global energy markets, combined with fundamental shifts in the viability of key sources of renewable energy (notably solar power), is seismic – so the economic case for reopening US coal mines does not add up.

His announcement is cheered within industrial heartlands and by conservatives who urged him to deliver on his campaign promise; those including chief strategist Steve Bannon who believe the accord was a key part of "Obama's war on America's most affordable energy – coal, oil and natural gas".

Widespread political condemnation

There will be much diplomatic fallout. Already there is widespread political condemnation and outrage. Angela Merkel has done little to hide her disappointment over Washington's failure to commit to the agreement. Other signatories in Europe may call on the EU to impose sanctions or carbon taxes on the US on the basis of what the Green Party called its "reckless disregard for international co-operation and our common future security".

Speaking in Dublin recently the European Commission's main adviser on international climate policy, Jacob Werksman, said the big risk was that a US pullout would prompt others to do likewise. It could undermine a critical tipping point reached in 2015 which meant "no leader could go on the global stage and deny climate change was occurring and their country's responsibilities in addressing it".

There are valid concerns that Trump’s decision will profoundly undermine the agreement. But Werksman believed so much had been achieved since 2015 that it would not unravel. It meant, he said, that if a country accepted the need to reduce CO2 emissions it had to pursue a path of decarbonisation to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

Galvanising messages

A positive "Trump effect" has meant climate change is on top of the political agenda and has prompted big countries to send out galvanising messages saying, "We are sticking with Paris". A tangible consequence of this will be evident on Friday when China and the EU come together to fill the vacuum caused by Trump's retreat by forging a new "green alliance" to combat global warming.

They have agreed to accelerate what they call the "irreversible" shift away from fossil fuels. Details will be outlined at an EU-China summit in Brussels. India, the world's fourth-largest emitter, will be another country to dramatically reduce fossil fuels in power generation, sooner rather than later.

That “unstoppable” move to embrace climate action is reflected in the decision taken by ExxonMobil shareholders who voted this week to require the world’s largest oil and gas company to report on climate change impacts on its business – defying management, and marking a milestone in a 28-year effort by activist investors.

In 2001, president George W Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto treaty, a predecessor to the Paris Agreement. "Back then, the European response was swift and united," Prof Diarmuid Torney of DCU has noted. "The EU pledged to forge ahead with Kyoto despite US withdrawal and, to the surprise of many observers, succeeded in bringing the protocol into force."

The 2017 scenario is different because the rest of the world is forging ahead with clean energy investment, meaning the cost of new technologies is being driven down. The US is no longer the world’s largest carbon emitter. The US share of global carbon emissions has declined from 22 per cent in 2001 to 14 per cent in 2015; still significant, but not as central as it was.

So collective action on a global scale is still realisable without the backing of the world’s biggest economy, which may have damaged itself with Trump’s latest isolation play. Whether it will be enough to stop accelerating global warming is another matter.