Trump’s sabotage could be what climate change movement needs

Unilateral US withdrawal from Paris deal will mobilise major opposition forces

US President Donald Trump announces his decision that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.


In an act of self-sabotage President Donald Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. This will achieved nothing, and cost himself, his administration, his country, and all of us who share the planet a great deal.

This White House had four climate options to choose from. The first was responsible global citizenship, which involved staying in the agreement and working to achieve the US pledge to reduce emissions.

This was never truly considered by the new administration, stacked as it is with fossil fuel lobbyists. It has worked to dismantle the Obama climate legacy piece by piece, slashing many sensible and moderate protections.

For example, an order preventing coal companies dumping waste in streams was rescinded, as was a law preventing drilling on sensitive habitats and public land. New vehicle efficiency standards for cars were reversed, even though they put money in the pockets of motorists, improved air quality, and were achieved at a fraction of the anticipated costs. Also binned was the flagship Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from electricity generation.

The second was the nuclear option. Trump could have withdrawn from the UN’s overarching treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, under which all climate negotiations take place. From the administration’s perspective, the great advantage of this option is that it could have been achieved within one year. But it was too radical, even for this White House.

The third option was the fig leaf. This involved staying in the agreement, but doing nothing to meet the pledge. All pledges are voluntary, and this could easily have been achieved with minimal fuss and no staged events in the Rose Garden. Many favoured this option, including the “angels” in the White House such as the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

International leaders

Others such as many American CEOs, countless international leaders, a cadre of international diplomats, and even religious leaders effectively favoured this option by opposing withdrawal but staying quieter on the dismantling of domestic climate policy.

There were serious problems with this option. It would have muddied the waters and seduced US citizens into thinking that they remained part of the global effort to combat climate change, when this was clearly no longer the case.

This brings us to option four: telling it like it is. This is where the US tells the truth, that it has become a global pariah with no intention of tackling climate change, and withdraws from agreement.

This was the option chosen by Trump.

From an international perspective it has a major potential downside compared to the third option. The Paris Agreement is built on peer pressure: while the pledges are voluntary the main reason to implement is that your neighbours are looking over your shoulder. Given that the biggest historical polluter and the wealthiest country has now withdrawn, this could provide coverage for other laggards to do likewise, ultimately destabilising the whole agreement. It is worth keeping an eye on the likes of Australia, Saudi Arabia and Russia in this respect.


Yet this fear does not appear to be playing out. The international community has been united and forthright in its condemnation of the decision. For example, Japan’s environment Minister was “angry”, New Zealand’s climate minister said it was “wrong”, while the Vatican described it as a “huge slap in the face”.

Almost every country has reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement, including Russia and Australia, while China and the EU have promised to redouble their efforts.

Domestically, within the US the decision has had the same effect. There has been a mix of anguish, embarrassment and constructive efforts to resist. These have included commitments to drive decarbonisation from mayors of cities, citizens groups, CEOs, environmental groups, universities and others.

A United States Climate Alliance of progressive US states has been formed with the intention of honouring the agreement. California is leading, and has just announced one of the most ambitious targets for renewables anywhere in the world.

So what exactly has been achieved?

Three years

Trump may have mobilised his base, although this is a decision that a majority of American citizens oppose. Well, at least he delivered on his campaign promise to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, right? Well, no, not exactly: a country cannot withdraw for three years, and the process itself takes another year. In a not entirely coincidental twist of fate, this means that the US cannot leave the agreement until November 4th, 2020, the day after the next presidential election.

The decision is hugely frustrating for the majority of people on planet Earth who realise the urgent nature of the climate crisis. Nevertheless, it will ultimately be counterproductive because it will mobilise powerful forces in opposition. Now is not a time for hopelessness, bit for positivity, patience and persistence.

Joseph Curtin is a research fellow at UCC and the Institute of International and European Affairs, and a member of the Government’s climate change advisory council.

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