On the value of clarity: US withdraws from the Paris agreement

People’s climate march, Washington DC. April, 2017

Given the urgency of responding to accelerating climate change, the announcement by Donald Trump that the US was withdrawing from the Paris climate framework is a potential disaster for the future of humanity. For many in the US and around the world, it is also dismaying to see the US revert to the role played by the George Bush administration as spoiler–but in this case, times ten.

On the other hand, sometimes clarity is helpful. One of the arguments of the “stay” camp in the Trump administration was that, by remaining in the accord, the US could weaken or prevent binding commitments in ongoing negotiations.With the withdrawal, there can no longer be any doubts about the stance of the Trump administration or the hoped for moderating influences of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

In addition, any constraint on the international community has now been lifted, prompting Europe  and other countries–especially major emitters China and India–to reaffirm their commitments and pledge to go even farther. Thus, the US withdrawal from the agreement and global leadership on climate issues in general seems to be producing a positive global reaction in climate policy and commitments.

It is important not to overstate the case at this stage. The reaction to the US step has mostly been rhetorical. Many European countries, China, and India have already been investing heavily in renewable energy production and energy conservation, increasing their commitments on a steady basis for the past few years. This would not have changed no matter what the US decision was.

But it is also true that rhetoric is important, especially when countries immediately step up to the challenge by promising to stay the course and redouble their efforts. This steadies relevant markets and political coalitions within countries as well as shared goals among them.

Apart from policy and public relations, other countries may perceive new economic opportunities as the US government pulls out of the Paris accord. It is not so much that there will be a retrenchment in US trade in renewable technologies. Rather, the US government has clearly reaffirmed its general antipathy to the renewable energy sector and its disinclination to provide incentives to US renewable energy businesses that might wish to pursue international opportunities. These lost opportunities for US businesses are potential gains for others.

Another positive reaction to the US decision comes from US cities and states, which have immediately responded by announcing aggressive commitments to renewable energy goals. Again, it is unlikely that the Trump statement spurred major policy initiatives. No city or state would actually make such commitments without having first studied the costs and benefits as well as the pathway to realizing those goals. City and state planning for climate change has been going on for some time.

Nonetheless, it is meaningful to see major US cities and states speaking out together and immediately to show Americans and the rest of the world that Trump is only speaking for himself, his base, and the fossil fuel industries along with their supporters in Congress.

Although US cities and states can do a lot, it is not clear how far they can go towards meeting US targets on their own. Now that the US government has withdrawn from Paris, we may find out.

The domestic political effects of the US decision are also important and, I believe, positive. The decision is clearly energizing the climate and environmental movements and providing more fuel for progressives to organize for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Even more important, the issue of climate change is now, finally, getting the media attention it should have been getting all along.  It will rank higher as a priority issue for progressives and liberals and will also help to consolidate the links among the various progressive issue groups. It is likely to have a much higher profile in the 2018 and 2020 elections than it did in 2016.

It will be interesting to see the effects of the president’s decision along with the greater public discussion on the republican party. Before the decision, some republicans had been coming around to embracing the need to address climate change. The bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the US House of Representatives has grown to twenty republican members and there have been indications of greater concern about climate change among republicans in general and young republicans in particular.

According to a recent survey of Trump voters by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 47% think the US “should participate in the international agreement to limit global warming,” 49% think global warming is happening, and 73% think the U.S. “should use more renewable energy (solar, wind, and geothermal).” Climate change is by no means an issue the only the left is concerned about as Mike Pence would have it.

In addition, there is a strong renewable energy sector across the country, particularly in the Midwest and in rural areas. That includes conservatives and people in red states like Texas, which leads the country in wind energy. Democrats may have a bigger opportunity now to make the pitch for clean energy programs in much of the Midwest and South.

No doubt, I am putting a very positive gloss on an unfortunate and damaging decision by the president of the world’s largest economy. But sometimes clarity and polarization are beneficial in changing public opinion and disrupting “normal” politics. This may be one such case.  The clarity of Trump’s statement only serves to further isolate the administration while it energizes the opposition globally and in the US. Climate change has now become a much more visible issue in the US, which, by itself, is a most welcome change. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but the vociferous reaction to Trump’s statement, both in the US and abroad may be giving progressives and climate activists an important opportunity to build more support for their agendas.

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