Trump is expected to pull out of the Paris climate accords when he makes his announcement on the subject this Thursday, June 1. A U.S. withdrawal from the agreement would be significant on multiple fronts. First and foremost, it would be catastrophic for the planet— it is impossible to overstate the multiple crises we already face, from from mass extinctions and the loss of arable land to rising sea levels displacing major cities, the spread of disease, and huge areas becoming uninhabitable due to increased temperatures. At stake is literally nothing less than the decent survival of the human species. But Trump famously called climate change a ‘Chinese hoax’, and campaigned on the popular position that international agreements have been bad for the U.S., and that he would renegotiate them or remove the U.S. from them.
In addition to the ruinous environmental effects this move will likely cause, there are a number of other consequences, both nationally and internationally, that this will likely trigger. Before addressing them, it’s worth putting into perspective both the Paris accords and the U.S. government’s position.
To begin with, critics ranging from Greenpeace to the Sierra Club have decried the weakness of this agreement. One objection is that it is an ‘agreement’, not a treaty with any kind of legal binding or mechanism for enforcement. Compliance is left up to the polluters, which is why even fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil have favored this deal. Another major weakness was that it only commits governments to attempting to keep temperatures from increasing by 2 degrees, instead of 1.5 degrees, which the science shows is minimally necessary to avert irreversible damage. The United States insisted on both of these crippling compromises. James Hansen, the scientist who initially sounded the alarm on climate change decades ago, has been a vocal critic of United States climate policies. Expressing common sentiment, he called the agreement “a fraud really, a fake,” pointing out that “there is no action, just promises.”
But even given these and other problems, the agreement is far better than nothing, and at least leaves in place the chance to reevaluate and update targets. It also has moral and symbolic significance. Trump’s expected decision to withdraw (in keeping with his sabotage of key scientific and environmental agencies like NASA and the EPA) does great harm to the planet, but also to the United States. The fallout will likely be both geopolitical and economic. Earlier this week, Martin Wolf of London’s Financial Times articulated the concern, stating that “if the U.S. withdrew from the Paris accord, the rest of the world must consider sanctions.” It is especially significant that these words were published in an influential paper that reflects the views of the international financial community. Sanctions against the U.S. may be unlikely, but that they are considered in such a venue is extraordinary.
Trump’s decision will have serious consequences inside the U.S. as well as internationally. Domestically, many states and municipalities will rebel: they have already committed themselves to even more dramatic climate goals than signatories of the Paris agreement. This includes large and powerful states like California and New York (if California were a separate country, it would rank as the world’s sixth largest economy), which on their own can significantly move the U.S. ahead in fighting climate change, despite the Trump administration’s damage and intransigence. Also, shareholders in fossil fuel companies and banks (who finance climate-destroying projects) may make it difficult for these institutions to continue plundering in the same ways. This week in Texas, 62% of shareholders compelled openness about the reality of climate change from the world’s largest oil company, ExxonMobil (who’s former CEO, Rex Tillerson, is now the U.S. Secretary of State). And as solar and wind power continue to grow cheaper, the financial incentives for fossil fuel projects become less viable.
Internationally, the economic and geopolitical fallout from Trump’s policies is already significant, and will likely accelerate if and when Trump withdraws the U.S.. Recently, for instance, China and India have displaced the United States as the best places to invest in renewables, which analysts attribute to Trump’s support for coal and petroleum. And even two of the U.S.’s staunchest European allies, Germany and France, seem to be stepping away from the U.S.. At a beer tent rally in Munich several days ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,” and added, “we have to fight for our own future ourselves.” Political science professor Juan Cole has called this “the end of the American century”. The U.S. relies on NATO to enforce its interests. If France and/or Germany were to withdraw from the military alliance, it would undermine the U.S.’s ability to project power.
Meanwhile, strategic and economic accords between Germany and China continue to grow, accelerating the North Atlantic drift. Economic deals between China and the EU have been increasing for nearly two decades, so it can not be attributed solely to Trump’s policies, and whether or not the U.S. remains part of the Paris agreement. These ties are real and consequential. With a bilateral trade volume of €170 billion, China was Germany’s most important trading partner in 2016. Germany has announced that the two countries have formalized cooperation in air travel technology, electronic mobility and recycling technology, as well as artificial intelligence, involving industrial giants like Airbus, Daimler, VW, and Bosch. Deutsche Bank signed a €3 billion contract with the China Development Bank (CDB) to finance projects on China’s New Silk Road initiative, which aims to revive the trade route of the Middle Ages with massive investments in infrastructure that link China’s major economic centers with Europe and Africa. And Germany, along with the rest of the EU, intends to cooperate more closely with China on climate protection measures. As major producers of solar technology, Germany and China stand to benefit from further cooperation, and from the U.S. stepping away as a competitor in these new and rapidly growing industries.
India, as well, will benefit from further producing and adopting climate friendly technology, which the Paris agreement encourages. Climate activists recently celebrated India’s decision to cancel the construction of multiple coal plants set to produce 14 gigawatts of power. Not only would this have made it impossible for New Delhi to meet it’s emissions reduction goals under the Paris accords, but it would have caused untold damage as well. Still, abandoning the coal plants was primarily an economic decision, since coal plants are no longer competitive with solar. India can now generate electricity by solar panels for 4 euro-cents a kilowatt hour without any subsidy, undercutting not only coal but all other sources of electricity generation. The country seeks to be a global leader in solar technology, and has taken important steps in this direction— for instance, India has built the world’s first solar-powered airport in the state of Kerala, which serves nearly 4 million passengers per year. And solar’s share of India’s electricity output continues to astound, increasing by 80 percent in 2016, adding 10 gigawatts of power. In Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, construction is underway of a 750 megawatt project, one of the world’s largest, which will double the state’s solar capacity, and will avoid one million tons per year of CO2 emissions. Plants like this can be completed in a year and a half.
The necessary path forward to sustainable civilization is both clear and excitingly achievable. Trump’s flamboyant and baneful attempts to block that path notwithstanding, the rest of the world marches on in a positive direction.