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Paris Agreement, Trump and Tide of History

Jun 13, 2017
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies
Recently President Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement of the United Nations. There has been a public outcry in response. Trump had already in his campaign vowed to do so and to stop paying into the Green Climate Fund. That was mostly regarded as rhetoric to win over voters, and Trump’s team apparently had different opinions on the question. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressly argued for staying in. When Trump visited Europe not long ago, all of his hosts expressed support for the Paris Agreement. However, Trump decided to go ahead with this wrong decision.
The Paris Agreement had not come easily. Since the 1990s, the international community had struggled mightily to build consensus to jointly deal with climate change. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the end of 1997 and the Copenhagen Summit was held in late 1999. It was apparent from the summit that the international community had both agreement and major differences. The situation was a complex one. In order to overcome those differences and find the greatest common denominator, the world community had years of tough consultation and negotiation and finally reached agreement at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015. In the agreement, countries vow to hold the global average temperature increase to within 2 degrees Celsius (or better, 1.5 degrees); they would decide on their own the specific targets of emission reduction according to the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’; developed countries would provide financial and technological assistance to developing counties. The common understanding had been obtained through tough negotiations and with all countries making sacrifices and compromises. It was a great milestone, marking mankind’s long journey to deal with climate change. The agreement had come into force within just one year, reflecting the will of nations.
However, inside the US, there is not yet a solid consensus on climate change. Many people, Republicans in particular, still have doubts. Some other people support coping with climate change by ‘relying on the market’. Should everything be determined by the market, it would not be possible for new energies to develop since using traditional energies is far cheaper than developing new ones, natural gas and coal being the cheapest. But renewable new energies offer more promise for the future.
The withdrawal by Trump is also a move against Obama administration. During his campaign, Trump vowed to overthrow Obama’s political legacies one after another. So immediately after taking office he targeted both Obamacare and the series of measures taken by the previous administration to deal with climate change. Even the relevant pages on White House website were deleted. He put an end to what he called the ‘war on coal’ and allowed the reopening of mines closed by the Obama administration. He wanted to increase production of fossil fuels to create jobs. He killed Obama’s Clean Power Plan, accusing it of burdening the US economy. He chose an environment skeptic to head the Environmental Protection Agency and reduced substantially the agency’s budget (saying it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money). Now finally he announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Indeed measures taken by Trump will create some jobs, but they will at the same time kill other jobs. According to statistics of the Department of Energy, the coal industry employed about 86,000 workers in 2016, but the solar power industry created374,000 jobs that year. With this move, the US may lose very promising business opportunities of the global low-carbon economy. He may have fawned on some people, maybe those in old industrial zones, but he has also displeased many with such a move. Demonstrations have been held across the US. Some governors and mayors have vowed to continue energy-saving and emission reduction in their states and cities. California, New York and Washington have formed a ‘climate alliance’ and the Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda promised to act in observance of the Paris Agreement objectives. Many American multinational corporations opposed Trump’s decision and some industrial leaders even left Trump’s business advisory council in protest.
The US withdrawal will have a negative impact on the global effort to cope with climate change but will not reverse the overall trend. The international community has condemned the Trump announcement. European countries expressed their determination in observing the Paris Agreement. French President Emmanuel Macron even invited American scientists to continue their climate-change research in France. Trump’s move has indeed further hurt American reputation and soft power. Trump is actually exercising his ‘American first’ principle by placing assumed American interests above international agreements. How can a big country like the US go back on its own words and act so irresponsibly on a serious question of an international treaty? How should the international community engage the US in the future?
There are many Chinese sayings about the importance of honoring one’s commitment, as there are many in English. China is cautious when making a commitment and serious when translating it into action. The path of green and low-carbon development outlined in the Paris Agreement fits beautifully with China’s strategy to develop an ecological civilization. As such, the Chinese government has announced that it will not link energy saving or emission reduction to any other country’s action and will pursue the objectives unswervingly.

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