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Should we be worried about the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement?

Updated Friday, 25 August 2017
The UK government has confirmed that despite the path chosen by the US, the UK would honour the Paris Agreement. Here Shonil Bhagwat looks at the motivations and implications behind the US decision, and how international action on climate change will go on. 

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People protesting with signs that read 'system change not climate change'. 'System change, not climate change'

As the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the withdrawal of US from the Paris climate agreement comes as a setback to international action on climate change. This puts the US alongside Nicaragua and Syria, the two other UN member countries who have refused the deal. Does this withdrawal threaten to derail the international momentum on climate change and should we be alarmed? This article suggests that, even without political leadership, international action on climate change can continue. Over the last two decades since the commitment made by many countries in 1997 to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the public understanding of climate change has increased and the grassroots action on climate change is going from strength to strength.

Deal or no deal

By withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, the US joins Nicaragua and Syria. The reasons, however, for Nicaragua and Syria to refuse the Paris deal and for the US to withdraw from it are very different. Syria has been ravaged by war and is politically very unstable so it is hardly surprising that the country’s focus is currently on its internal turmoil and not on climate change. Nicaragua, on the other hand, refused the deal because it does not go far enough in halting the temperature rise. The countries who have signed the deal have committed to it on a voluntary basis and without a binding agreement. This means even if the signatories don’t meet the target, there is no mechanism to hold them to account. By contrast, Nicaragua is ahead of the game and has put in place plans to meet 90% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 and is even considered a “renewable energy paradise”. Renewable energy initiatives in most other countries are pale by comparison.

The US has very different reasons to withdraw from the Paris climate deal. Trump wants a deal “on terms that are fair to the United States” and his reason for withdrawing from the deal is that he is “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Trump compared the US with India and China and complained that under the Paris agreement these countries will continue to increase their coal-fired power plants, gaining financial advantage over the US. This misses the point that large sections of populations in countries like India have no access to electricity and many other countries are in a much worse situation than India, let alone the US. So Trump’s ‘fairness’ argument is unfounded. By walking away from an international agreement on climate change, Trump’s America will take itself back to the 20th century fossil-fuelled economy while the rest of the world charges ahead towards a greener economy of the 21st century.

Proximate vs ultimate concerns

What is interesting in Trump’s arguments is that two different kinds of concerns are being pitted against each other. Whereas jobs in the coalfields of Pittsburgh is a proximate concern to Trump’s audience, climate change is somewhat distant. For a Pittsburgh resident, 2-degrees temperature increase does not mean anything because that sort of variation in temperature can be experienced in a single day. What matters to them is to have a stable and secure job in a coal factory so they can fulfil the basic needs of their families. Trump’s argument that coal jobs will go to China and India if the US signs the climate deal chimes well with them. The scientists and climate negotiators, however, talk in terms of keeping within a 2-degrees rise in global average temperatures. For them, this is the ultimate concern, one on which the future of the planet depends. As President of the world’s second highest greenhouse gas emitter, Trump should know this, but he is choosing not to speak that language, let alone translate it to the Pittsburgh resident.

If we go back to the end of the 20th century, the resident of Paris would not have sympathised with this language either. Even though the environmental movement was very much alive in the second half of the 20th century, the concept of anthropogenic climate change was still nascent. Climate change as an idea consolidated only after the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which made explicit the links between greenhouse gas emissions and increasing temperatures. The idea of climate change gained rapid momentum during the 2000s and became a mainstream discourse during the 2010s. In the 21st century, climate change has transformed from being a distant concern to being an immediate concern for many. It has even galvanised public support for many other environmental issues including, but not limited to, agriculture and food security, biodiversity conservation, deforestation, desertification, land degradation, and even poverty alleviation. Climate change has triggered the transformation of economy in many countries and has created jobs in, for example, the renewable energy sector.

Should we be worried?

The US backtracking on climate change deals is nothing new. The country played a major role in shaping the Kyoto Protocol when Bill Clinton was President but failed to ratify it and commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. However, this did not derail international efforts on climate change. Instead, the action on climate change has accelerated since the early 2000s. Flying in the face of Trump’s backtracking, many voices have expressed continued commitment to taking action on climate change including New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. US billionaire Michael Bloomberg has even offered to pay $15 million from his private wealth to the UN’s Climate Secretariat to compensate for the money that Trump’s government will refuse to contribute.

Many world leaders have spoken out about not letting the international climate efforts derail because of the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement and members of the scientific community have added their voice too. The commitment to action on climate change shows no signs of stopping. Even if political leadership from the world’s largest economy is hard to come by, action on climate change looks set to continue at the grassroots. While the political process has been disappointingly slow and frustrating – with flip-flopping on intergovernmental agreements or legally binding targets – grassroots action has gone from strength to strength because of people’s beliefs and convictions. Perhaps at the heart of the grassroots action is the yearning for a world that is different from the established economic and political systems that Trump represents. Whether the US is in or out, the international action on climate change will go on.

Shonil Bhagwat is a Senior Lecturer in Geography. He wrote parts of the modules ‘Investigating the social world’ (DD103) and ‘Earth in Crisis: Environmental policy in an international context’ (DU311); and is currently working on ‘Environment: Responding to change’ (SDT306), tweets as @shonilbhagwat and blogs at

Originally published by The Campaign for Social Science


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