Fintan O’Toole: Paris accord exit signals end of US global leadership

China grasps opportunity to be at the forefront of epic battle for planetary survival

Perhaps history was telling us something when Donald Trump's inauguration as US president happened almost 1,000 years after the coronation of Cnut the Great as king of England in January 1017.

Cnut is better known as King Canute and the one thing everybody knows about him is that he had his flunkies carry him to the shore on his throne, where he ordered the rising tide to retreat.

A millennium later, King Donald, in pulling the US out of the Paris accord on climate change is ordering the rising seas to fall and the earth to, well, just cool it. The seas and the earth and the atmosphere have been engaged in one big hoax aimed at hurting America – but he has their number.

In itself, climate-change denial is not stupid. It is much more evil than that

Actually, King Canute gets a bad press. His infamous gesture was not an expression of megalomaniacal delusion. On the contrary, it was a piece of theatre intended to instruct his fawning courtiers on the limits of human power. See, he was saying, even I can’t issue commands to nature and expect to be obeyed.


Trump is not the modern Canute – he is much, much more stupid. In future, if there is a future for our species, children should be told the story of his fatuous gesture as a cautionary tale about the madness of narcissists in power.

In itself, climate-change denial is not stupid. It is much more evil than that. It is a concerted, lavishly funded, highly organised campaign by corporations that profit from pollution and carbon emissions.

The people who actually believe it may be ignorant or desperate or both. But the people who create it are sleek and slick, highly paid and highly educated. They know it’s a lie. They know at the very least that they are taking huge risks with the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the habitability of the planet.

Right bank accounts

In one of history’s most cynical acts, they decide that those risks are worth taking so long as the dollars keep flowing into the right bank accounts and funding the right politicians.

Trump is not himself one of these people. He doesn't have the discipline or the intellectual capacity to engage with the issue at all. But he knows his lines – those, that is, that got the crowds roaring during his campaign. One of them was that climate change is a hoax devised by the Chinese to cripple American industry and throw coal miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania out of work. And the more his presidency has imploded, the more he has fallen back on his old showman's schtick.

In this sense, there was an inevitability about the announcement on the Paris accord – unable to do anything positive, Trump can exert his power only in destruction.

The announcement shows that Trump is definitively opting back into the extremist nationalist agenda that got him elected. But it also shows that this nationalism is self-defeating. Pulling out of Paris is an enormous self-inflicted blow to the power, prestige and economic might of the US. If two fingers are being raised to the rest of the world, another three are being jammed in America’s own eyes.

First, the decision defines the US as a rogue nation and marks the end to the long period since 1989 when it had seemed to be the world’s undisputed leader. On the single most important issue facing humanity, America First actually means America Last.

The US is turning its back on the very thing that makes its economy so strong: its lead in science, technology and innovation

Most of the rest of the world will stick with Paris. We are about to enter a period in which geopolitical power is shifting towards China. The Chinese, who understand the idea of the long term, have seen the opportunity to take the high ground and place themselves at the forefront of an epic battle for planetary survival. For the US to cede that role to them is breathtaking.

Second, the US is turning its back on the very thing that makes its economy so strong: its lead over the rest of the world in science, technology and innovation. The Paris accord is, among other things, a statement that political leaders across the globe accept the validity of a long-held and deeply-tested scientific consensus that human activity is a crucial contributor to a potentially catastrophic rise in global temperatures.

In turning his back on this science, Trump is shredding the US’s reputation as an advanced culture in which evidence is the basis of policy. This is, of course, highly consistent with Trumpism’s taste for “alternative facts” but it places the US for the first time in its history as an anti-scientific polity.

Success story

Third, the decision is economically self-destructive. What is the fastest growing sector for employment in the US economy? Renewable energy. Both solar and wind power have been an astonishing success story for what Trump claims to be all about – real American jobs for real American workers. Just last week, new data showed that solar power jobs expanded 17 times faster than employment in the US economy as a whole in 2016.

The number of jobs in the sector rose to 260,000 – a 24 per cent increase in one year alone. And the fastest-growing job description in the US? Wind turbine technician.

Meanwhile, the mythic coal mining jobs will not come back because the US is pulling out of the Paris accord. They have been in long-term decline because of automation and competition from cheaper forms of energy. The embrace of backward economics is utterly pointless.

This decision is the ultimate expression of the way self-delusion leads to self-harm. Americans, though, elected Trump and have to take responsibility for him.

The tragedy for the rest of us is that, precisely because we only have one planet, their self-harm also harms the rest of us.