On June 1, the Trump administration finally made the long-anticipated announcement that it was withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.
Make no mistake, this decision sends a very ugly message to the world.
It tells Pacific island nations threatened by sea level rise that the United States, which played a huge role in causing that rise, will not take responsibility for its actions.
It tells drought-ravaged farmers in Southern Africa that their plight is none of our concern — and that we'll keep on pumping carbon dioxide into the air to make future droughts worse.
It tells coastal communities in the Philippines struggling to recover from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan that we're turning our backs on collective global action to reduce the chances of such a disaster striking again.
And it announces that we're reneging on pledges to help poorer countries cope with the damage.
More generally, it underscores the arrogant American attitude towards the world that characterizes a lot of U.S. foreign policy — particularly, but certainly not only, under Trump.
And the world has noticed. When early rumors about a U.S. exit from the agreement were swirling, a Chinese official said that a U.S. exit would be “irresponsible.” An Ethiopian official termed it a “betrayal.” And an official from a small island state warned that such a decision would generate “ill feeling.”
More recently, in the weeks leading up to Trump’s decision, world leaders including the pope and German chancellor Angela Merkel urged the U.S. to remain in the Paris accord. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres had a blunt warning, too: “The sustainability train has left the station. Get on board or get left behind.” He didn’t name Trump or the United States, but he didn’t have to.
In short, pulling out of Paris is a colossal foreign policy mistake. Good luck to the Trump administration if it wants to get other countries to cooperate on anything it cares about in the future, if it walks away from a deal on the gravest existential threat humanity has ever faced.
But what would it mean for the climate itself if the U.S. had stayed in the accord?
It turns out that the faction of the Trump regime that wanted to stay in the accord — led by Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — was motivated not by concerns about the environment, but by a desire to undermine global climate talks to advance the fossil fuel industry's agenda.
Already, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has used an international forum, the G7 energy ministerial meeting in April, to press for language in the declaration advocating “high efficiency, low emissions coal and natural gas.”
Leaked documents show that the U.S. also attempted to water down climate change language in the declaration issued by the eight-nation Arctic Council at its biannual ministerial meeting last month.
Reportedly, major coal companies such as Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak Energy have pressured Trump to remain in the agreement. They see coal exports as their best future business prospect as the domestic market declines, so they need international climate terms that still leave space for dirty fuels like coal.
They want the U.S. to use its clout to renegotiate global climate treaties to allow for the expansion of untested technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
As an unnamed coal company official put it to Reuters, they don’t want “the most powerful advocate for fossil fuels to be away from the table.”
Given the questionable motivations of those inside the administration urging the U.S. to stay in the agreement, maybe the U.S. exit is good news for the rest of the world. After all, Trump was never going to advance the meaningful reductions at the federal level that would have fulfilled the U.S. commitments under the deal.
But many other countries have made substantially more progress in rolling back fossil fuels and expanding clean energy. And they're planning to forge ahead while the U.S. goes backward.
In Germany, 85 percent of power consumed on sunny and windy days at the end of April came from renewables, while French president Emmanuel Macron has pledged to double French solar and wind energy capacity by 2022. India added twice as much renewable generating capacity as coal-fired generating capacity last year, and is projected to become the third largest market in the world for solar panels this year.
Countries that are serious about climate action don't want the U.S. being an obstructionist in global climate change forums, trying to undermine their progress and drag them backwards. They would be quite justified in reacting to news of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord by saying “good riddance!”
Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. He's the author of the IPS report, How States Can Boost Renewables With Benefits for All.