by: Kevin W
In December of 2015, after years of negotiations, the Paris Agreement was adopted as a historic effort to curb climate change. In the following months, the agreement was signed by 195 countries across the globe, including the world’s largest polluters: the United States, China, and India. The signing was a major win for environmentalists as well as a positive example of international cooperation.
Yesterday, Donald Trump undid that victory, announcing that the United States would begin its withdrawal from the accord, calling the agreement “draconian” and unfair to U.S. interests. In doing so, Trump hurt not only the environment, but the United States’ standing as a world leader.
Why the Paris Agreement Matters
Today a coworker asked out of genuine curiosity how this specific agreement was “both beneficial and fair” to the United States. After all, part of Trump’s argument for leaving was that the agreement hurt the US more than any other country. Surely it couldn’t be fair to the U.S. then, right?
From an environmental standpoint, the Paris Agreement was beneficial to the United States in its attempt to curb greenhouse emissions and, by extension, rising sea levels that have the potential to devastate many of the country’s coastal areas. We’ve already seen the damage flooding can do during recent hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy; Sandy alone caused over $65 billion in damages. What happens when storms like those (which are strengthened by warmer ocean currents) work in conjunction with higher average sea levels?
It’s not just the cost of damage repairs either. Many of these coastal areas happen to be major economic centers as well, which affects the entire country. Any costs associated with being a member of the pact would be offset by the savings from these preventable disasters. So if not for the environment, then a financial argument for participation in the agreement can also be made.
That said, thinking of the agreement in terms of “fair” or “unfair,” as Trump has, sidesteps the point. The Paris climate accord is a truly global agreement: almost every country on the planet, including America’s allies, rivals, and adversaries, understood the need for environmental issues to transcend politics. Few issues can work to unite such different nations, but these countries worked together for a greater good: a habitable planet.
As one of the largest carbon emitters on the planet (about 17% of the global total at the time of its signing), the United States owed it to the world to take action and reduce its emissions. And as the largest economy in the world, we’re a country that has the resources to make those cuts. We were set to lead by example, until yesterday.
Unfortunately instead of leading the way, Trump would rather have America sink into isolation and risk relinquishing our global influence. After all, when one of the world’s leading polluters pulls out, what is to stop other countries from doing the same?
Make no mistake: we’re not going to destroy the Earth. The planet will be here long after human beings are gone. But we can certainly make the Earth less habitable for ourselves.
Where do we go from here?
Lest this post be entirely downbeat, there are reasons to be hopeful:
- Already a coalition of mayors, governors, and industry leaders is forming with intentions to maintain their commitment to the Paris Agreement, even without support from the White House. Some states are even promising more aggressive emission reduction goals.
- As technology advances and cleaner energy alternatives become more cost efficient, the environment will benefit from the phasing out of fossil fuels. Until then, companies that operate globally will still have to adhere to the stricter emission standards put in place overseas by more level-headed minds.
- Let’s also remember that in a rare display of bipartisan agreement, public opinion remains firmly against the withdrawal, meaning political pressure can be put on our representatives to support efforts to curb climate change.
- Withdrawing fully from the Paris Agreement will take four years, and a new administration has the ability to re-enter the agreement, making the 2020 presidential election even more important.
Part of the belief in America exceptionalism has always been the nation’s ability to lead. If Trump’s White House won’t lead the charge against climate change, then we will from within.