Donald in Wonderland – US withdrawal from the Paris agreement

Trump just wishes that climate change would go away. We would all like climate change to be a dream. Some hard choices could be avoided, and we could keep environmentally damaging luxuries, such as fast cars and golf resorts.

Donald in Wonderland – US withdrawal from the Paris agreement

Unfortunately, climate change is a real threat – temperatures are rising, Greenland is melting, and coral reefs are dying – and in a sane world that would mean action being taken. Wishing it away is OK for little children, but not for the leader of one of the world’s greatest countries. This fated decision to ditch the Paris Agreement will be the only one for which his presidency is remembered in 100 years.

But what will the decision change?

Firstly, internationally, the early signs are that the EU (including the UK), China and India will take over global leadership on the issue, with US influence in future international discussions greatly diminished. EU, Chinese and Indian investment in renewable energy technologies is already huge (and much larger than the US’s) and their current commitments under Paris will ensure this continues. If the commitment of the rest of the world remains strong, the direct impact of Trump’s withdrawal is avoidable greenhouse gas emissions from the US ­– and an estimated warming of 0.1-0.3C globally. This may not sound much, but it is significant and should be compared with the current warming of 1C globally (and 3.5C in the Arctic). Worryingly, the US government’s position could weaken the resolve of other countries, even if they stay in the Paris Agreement. This could dramatically magnify the impact of the US decision. It is critical for the new global leadership to act quickly on this issue and to keep any waverers firmly in the fold.

Secondly, within the US, the impact will be dominated by the response of the states and the large cities. Important US states (including California and New York, which combined would be the world’s 4th largest economy) are aghast and have reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. They have their own climate plans and will continue to implement them. Both the traditional and high tech ends of US industry are against withdrawing – they see real risks to their business prospects if new industrial standards are developed by the new global leadership with the US not present at the discussions. From a UK perspective the opportunities from staying in the game are greater, and it is even more important to ensure that government and industrial investment is not affected by Brexit.

Thirdly, the power of the cities should not be underestimated – the dangers of sea level rise and increased storm strength are felt more keenly in cities like New York or Florida (and London), than a general threat of climate change does in the corridors of power. Global initiatives such as C40, a grouping of more than 90 cities with a combined population of 700 million people, are actively developing plans to reduce emissions and plan for climate change.

Finally, new electricity generation is already dominated by renewable energy. This is likely to continue as the cost is now competitive with, and often lower than fossil fuel burning. If battery and other technologies continue to develop at their current pace, then meaningful inroads can be made into energy usage in the other two main energy sectors, heating and transportation.

Anti-science agenda

More broadly the Trump administration is showing itself to be anti-science, again with self-harm the likely consequence. The recently announced budget proposal includes cuts of 10-30% from US government research budgets, with the exceptions of Defence research and NASA. Within NASA, though, the earth observation budget is targeted, including the removal of programmes to monitor atmospheric CO2 levels, the earth’s reflectance and ocean properties, all of which provide important basic information for climate studies.

This new, anti-science view is profoundly worrying as it means more ignorant decisions will be made. It is a major shift, as the US has been a leader in science and technology since before it formed. The Founding Fathers had a great interest in the natural world. Benjamin Franklin had a deep interest in science (he named the Gulf Stream among other things) and technology. Most notably, he saw the damage that lightning could cause, he collaborated with scientists in England, France and Russia, he did experiments on how electrical currents flowed – and he invented the lightning conductor. He identified problems and solved them. He did not retreat into his own world.

With luck, the impacts of Trump’s crass decision can be limited, especially if he is a one-term president. Achieving this will require real leadership from outside and inside the US. National and local government, industry, and broader society (including individuals, universities, religions, and so on) all need to be committed to taking action. If all these players step up to the challenge and re-double their efforts, then the effect could even be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels faster. 

Professor Neil Harris, Centre for Atmospheric Informatics and Emissions Technology, Cranfield University

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie