Paris, Climate and the Ironies of Trump

This is aimed, in no small part, at my many friends in the US, who I see alternating between despair at their own ‘government’’s behaviour and angst-laden apology to the world for their current Liar-in-Chief. Please, folks, relax, a little at least.

Yes, the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement will do damage – indeed, it already has – but that damage is less to the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change than to US influence in the world.

And even that is not necessarily a problem, if it forces other governments and institutions to step up to the mark more proactively, rather than riding – as rather too many have done, for too long – on the coat tails of US leadership. In that case, when the US re-emerges as an effective player in the global environment – as it inevitably will – it will find a world where there are many more committed peers in our mutual struggle with THE existential crisis of our civilisation. To that end, Trump’s actions may even shake the rest of us out of any complacency that’s arisen from the mere fact of the Paris agreement, to make us recognise that the actual hard work is yet to come.

Whatever happens now though, the reputational damage to the US puts it firmly into the global doghouse, alongside (to pick but two examples) BP and VAG: in other words, there are a whole bunch of areas where people will simply no longer ascribe any credibility to the US as a partner, something that will play out in many ways and in many sectors. However, over time, and given future over-compensation for current sins, that reputation can slowly climb back up the long ski-slope of international perception.

In the meantime then, we have to consider the actual impact on the global environment, both of immediate US recidivism and of the offset to the progress of global efforts caused by (let’s say) a four-year delay in active US government participation. In both cases, I’m actually not hugely pessimistic: It will, as many have noted, take until just after the next US election for the process of withdrawal from Paris to be complete, unless the US withdraws completely from the UNFCCC. In the meantime, just what is going to happen? Are we going to see a whole rash of new coal power stations in the US? Are we suddenly going to see the US renewables industry pack up its bags and go fishing, muttering, “It was good while it lasted”? In both cases, the answer has to be a resounding, “No”. In the window of opportunity that will be created for those remaining ‘dirty’ industries, the lead time on new capital projects is likely longer than the time for which that window will stay open. And just how many companies are going to invest hugely in sectors that were already in terminal decline, against an almost certainly highly limited opportunity for a return on that investment?

In the short term though, this action is likely to exacerbate the impact of Trump’s emasculation of the EPA, but that was already happening regardless – it hasn’t required any international grandstanding to get started. There, we’re likely to see some local environmental degradation from specific activities – mining, industrial waste in rivers and the reopening of some currently mothballed coal-burning power stations. Unwise and unwelcome though that is, it is not likely to have a significant global impact. So by all means be angry there, but our global environment is, in the short term at least, neither particularly worse nor better off than before yesterday’s announcement.

And that’s even before we consider the nature of the US federal system, where individual states and cities will doubtless act, individually and in concert, to oppose and mitigate the impact of central government’s idiocy, alongside many of the major employers. I expect that to make a big difference: remember that those twenty or so states which have the best records on environmental policy account for at least half of US GDP: what you’ll end up with are a few resolutely Republican states, driven by collusion with commercial interests, who lock themselves even further into a cycle of pollution and decline.

That’s the first of the ironies in this: the disservice it does to the employees of the fossil fuel and related industries: it takes generations to turn around the cultural mind and skill sets of industry-tied communities, but the earlier you start on that, the sooner those communities will be able to function again. What Trump has done is to give them false hope of a new dawn, in a world where their product and skills are becoming asymptotically irrelevant.

Because – and let’s be absolutely clear about this – the time of coal has passed, as we teach the tipping point beyond which the new models of generation and consumption are self-sustaining: they no longer require the catapult of legislation and incentive, leaving the world with a rapidly growing and profitable new industry AND a public appetite for it. Oil and gas have some way to go, but even the most reactionary fossil fuel companies have, for many years, been planning for a post-carbon future.

There may however be measurable damage to the ability of US renewables industry to compete at a global level: having started somewhat later than most European or Chinese players, they have however generated impressive levels of employment and economies of scale: in the normal run of things, we’d expect to see them emerge as major players on the global stage, further driving economies of scale and adoption. However, that same uncertainty that will inhibit investment in future dirty industries may impact current domestic investment in the US renewable industries, and it is certainly more difficult for a company to be able to build a strong international presence when there are uncertainties in their domestic market.

The second irony then is this: the rest of the world has, by Trump’s actions,  just been given a long-overdue impetus to not simply rely on US leverage and direction for climate action. China and the EU had already been moderately proactive in this regard, and it now looks as though the Great Game of the 21st Century is going to be played out in the dynamic of competitive and collaboration around the triad of environmental action, trade and soft power. With the US effectively sidelining itself at a critical time in the dynamic, it runs the risk of becoming an ‘also ran’ in the field: getting back from that to a position of real influence will not be especially easy.

I do see the current situation as transient though – what chance is there for an administration already being strangled by its own delusions, lies and dogma to withstand, locally, a de facto but determined alliance of progressive states and corporations or, globally, the tide of opinion and economics? So, the global mindset, geopolitics and economics are all lined up against Citizen Foul Excrescence and his cronies: Trump could not have created a finer call to action for the world than he’s managed this week.

Update: One of the problems with writing any analysis of current events is that they often change faster than you can get word to screen. I wrote this in the hours after Trump’s announcement: as of this morning (Saturday), Michael Bloomberg has already promised to make good the US contribution to the UN under the Paris Agreement; California, New York and Washington states (20% of US GDP) have formed an Alliance to take forward US commitments at state level and numerous individual cities have made like commitments, over and above existing networks and alliances.

The author started his so-called career as a behavioural ecologist and has long-term experience in both environmental field work and policy formulation. As a technology entrepreneur he has been the founder of an early climate education/action network and specialises in collaborative systems that support complex and uncertain environments.

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