Following Donald Trump’s announcement to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Green Alliance is publishing a series of blog posts from different voices in response.
On the morning of 12 December 2015, I found myself cycling around Paris, not really knowing where I was going but definitely glad to be part of something that felt momentous. As part of the Climate Kilometre group, 53 cyclists from 13 nations had made the three day, 320 kilometre journey from London to the French capital. Our intention, in coming to Paris, was to take part in a demonstration marking the conclusion of the COP21 negotiations, which were aiming to achieve “a legally binding and universal agreement on climate” for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations.
France was still in a state of emergency following the November terrorist attacks, making it unclear if the demonstration would go ahead, and this, added to fatigue from a 15 hour ride the day before, meant I was tempted not to get up for the morning protest. But I did, and I’m very glad for it. The Eiffel Tower saw the convergence of activist cycling groups who’d come from all around Europe, and, following a tour of the city, we arrived to cheers from many other demonstrators at the “red line protest”. We were part of something big.
Despite concern that the commitments in the final Paris accord lacked an enforcement mechanism and wouldn’t be enough to achieve the stated ambition of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, the protest was a joyous occasion, with most pleasantly surprised that 195 world leaders had come to any sort of agreement. The general feeling seemed to be that the deal was a great start, and it was encouraging to see President Obama aiming for a legacy of “strong, principled American leadership” on climate change.
Any claim that the US government has ever provided climate leadership has to be taken with a large pinch of salt, of course. Even under Obama, the world’s largest historical emitter and biggest economy was not offering its fair share of emissions reductions, or funding to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change. Indeed, a November 2015 civil society review calculated that the US’s intended contribution to emission reductions as part of the Paris climate deal was only a fifth of what it should have been.
But of course, this was much better than under Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, who effectively killed the legally-binding Kyoto protocol, which required industrialised nations to reduce emissions, by refusing to ratify it in 2001. The reasons he gave were that it “would have wrecked [the US] economy” and it wasn’t fair on the US because it didn’t require other “big polluters”, including India and China, to cut emissions.
Kyoto withdrawal, part two?
If you’re getting a feeling of déjà vu, it will be because it chimed with last week’s announcement from current US president Donald Trump, who said that he would withdraw the US from the “very unfair” Paris accord and the “draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country”.
Despite the striking similarities in presidential logic, this second instance of the US withdrawing from a major climate change agreement isn’t playing out in the same way. When Bush wouldn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the move was strongly condemned, but mainly by the usual suspects – environmental groups, but also heads of states from the EU, China, Japan, South Africa, Pacific Islands – who provided ‘diplomatic flak’ that the president was prepared for.
A growing movement
Sixteen years on, the response is much stronger and from many more corners, some of them unexpected. It’s not only the world leaders who hammered out the deal and the environmental activists who took to the streets that are expressing dismay; outrage and criticism are much more universal.
Immediately following the announcement, 61 mayors of US cities said that they would uphold the Paris commitments, and that figure quickly rose to 211 cities, representing 54 million Americans. One of the first to respond was Bill Peduto, the Democratic mayor of Pittsburgh. In his announcement, Trump had paired Pittsburgh with Paris, saying he was elected to represent the former steel-manufacturing hub of America, and not the French capital. In actual fact, more than twice as many Pittsburgh locals now work in renewables compared to traditional steel and iron manufacturing. Peduto immediately tweeted in response to Trump, “Fact: Hillary Clinton received 80% of the vote in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh stands with the world & will follow Paris Agreement.”
And while the “#ClimateMayors” represent less than a fifth of the total US population, a recent study by Yale University indicated that a majority of Americans in every state believe their country should participate in the Paris agreement, indicating that Trump is out of touch with his citizens (only 13 per cent of people overall and 26 per cent of Republicans agreed with the president’s position). One American in particular has stated on behalf of the nation: “Americans are not walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement. Just the opposite – we are forging ahead.” That’s a quote from former mayor of New York, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropic organisation has offered to pull together the $15 million the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change stands to lose from Trump’s withdrawal.
Perhaps most significantly for Trump, who prides himself on his business acumen, the move is also out of touch with much of the corporate world. Plenty of high profile business figures have strongly condemned his decision, including major technology corporations like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter and, perhaps most surprisingly, fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron. The financial world, too, is expressing opposition: Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein was so outraged by the withdrawal that he sent out his first ever tweet to condemn the move: “Today’s decision is a setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world. #ParisAgreement.” And the criticism has already taken on a form the president will feel personally, as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Disney’s Robert Iger have withdrawn their advisory services to him, both stepping down from his council in protest at the move.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord might, at first, have felt like a major blow to global efforts to avert catastrophic climate change, but the Paris pushback has been inspiring. For those monitoring the world’s reactions, the feeling might be something similar to that I experienced on the streets of the French capital when the agreement was first signed. Despite the US government’s stance and the shortcomings of the agreement itself, those fighting climate change are increasingly galvanised and unified. We still might not know exactly what the future holds, but we are part of a momentous worldwide movement that cannot be stopped by one man’s recklessness.