Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate-change accord is more symbol than substance

America will make progress on climate change despite its President, through market forces and action at state level

Thursday 01 June 2017 21:58 BST

We had been warned. Donald Trump himself had promised during his election campaign to take America out of the Paris climate agreement in his first 100 days as President. Not that all his campaign promises have run smoothly, and he showed some signs of hesitating over this one. So he ran a little behind schedule, but tonight, on day 132, he finally did it.

The delay gave those who want to see urgent global action to minimise climate change plenty of time to prepare. By the time he uttered the words, “the United States will withdraw”, we should have come to a pretty good understanding of why it matters and why it does not.

It matters mostly because of the symbolism. The figurehead for the second biggest producer of greenhouse gases has backed off from the first global agreement to mitigate climate change, barely a year after Barack Obama finally signed up to it. That shifts the balance of rhetorical forces behind the myriad international agreements needed to put the high ideals of the Paris accord into effect. Above all it breaks the cycle of positive actions that reinforce each other as nations act separately and together towards an agreed goal.

On the other hand, it matters much less than suggested by President Trump’s dramatic language of fighting back against the “vastly diminished economic production” forced on the US by the agreement.

What was significant was that the President repudiated the Paris deal, a process that will take three years – until roughly the end of his first term, in other words. He did not pull the US out of the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which would have been a more serious step and which requires only a year’s notice. So the US will be part of the Paris deal for the foreseeable future, while the President tries to negotiate new terms.

For a long time, it has been understood that the US presidency and Congress were unlikely to help to drive forward international action on climate change. In the end, the US signature on the Paris agreement was obtained only from Barack Obama in his final year as a two-term president: it never went through Congress. And so, although the flip in the White House’s position is important, the real progress is being made elsewhere and will continue to be made.

In America, that progress was always going to happen at state level and through wider economic forces. The states have been driving towards renewable energy, especially wind and solar, independently of federal government for decades now. While market forces have been driving the growth of shale gas, which is cleaner than the shrinking coal industry.

In Trump’s mythical universe, the coal industry is a victim of other countries, which “laugh at us” and tie America down for their commercial advantage. In reality, it is the victim of a cleaner fossil-fuel rival. Of course, President Trump’s petulant, put-upon narrative of persecuted America strikes a chord in the real world, in the former manufacturing powerhouse of Michigan and Pennsylvania, the places where he won the presidency.

But Barack Obama is right. “The nations that remain in the Paris Agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created,” he commented, while the President was still speaking. The job opportunities of the future lie in new, low-carbon industries. The coal industry is shrinking in America as it will soon shrink elsewhere because clean industries are the growth sectors of the future, not because of a conspiracy against it.

The tension between myth and reality showed through between the lines of President Trump’s speech. He said the Paris terms would cut global temperatures by only two tenths of a degree Celsius by 2100 – “a tiny bit”. Thus he acknowledged the reality of global warming, moving the argument back to the real-world argument about what to do about it and at what price.

That is a debate with which the rest of the world should continue to engage.

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