After just five months in power, the new President of the US has done it. He has ripped up the most powerful demonstration of collective and responsible global citizenship that the world has experienced in this century.
The US President has ignored many voices in making his decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement – an agreement ratified by 147 countries, including his own. Pleas from businesses, investors, city mayors, his own Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, and even the Pope have been swept aside. Included in those snubbed – the oil and gas sector. Houston, at the heart of the industry, now has a problem.
Of the many advocates calling for the US to stay in the Paris Agreement it might seem counter-intuitive for a carbon intensive sector to support such a commitment. But they, out of all the other sectors, may be hit hardest by Trump’s insistence on reviving coal – one of the major commitments at the centre of his manifesto.
Exxon Mobil was one of the many voices that spoke up in support of the US remaining in the Paris Agreement – and now investors have called for the company to develop their strategy in line with a low carbon future. It is not a death knell, but it is a call for the company to reinvent itself so it is fit for the low carbon future it will need to operate in.
So what does Trump’s decision actually mean?
The good news is that the US President has left the door open to renegotiating the terms of the Paris Accord or to working on an alternative agreement.
The real issue, as with many seemingly simple decisions, is that they are actually quite complex. The ramifications of what he has decided, as the world’s second largest emitter of carbon emissions and the world’s largest economy, is profound.
It goes far beyond the fight against climate change and gets to the heart of how global leaders are tackling the delicate balance between staying within the planet’s natural boundaries at the same time as meeting regional pressures of growing inequality and the rise of technology.
By not meeting the promises made by predecessors Barack Obama or George W Bush, the US is kicking off a chain of significant consequences.
The major concern, highlighted by US scientists, is that if the US does not meet their commitments to curb emissions of greenhouse gases the worst case scenario is “3 billion tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in the air a year”.
The inconvenient truth about this fact is that it is not just the poorest nations who will be impacted by this – such is the nature of “global” warming – there will be effects at home, too.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict “sea levels will rise as much as three feet in Miami by 2060. By the end of the century … some 934,000 existing Florida properties, worth more than US$400 billion, are at risk of being submerged.”
Ironically, this could include his Mar-a-Lago resort. The fortunate truth is that the US doesn’t need the Paris Agreement to reduce its emissions.
Many states and cities are independently setting a low carbon trajectory and many businesses are already seeing cost benefits from reducing their energy use and switching to renewables – but the lack of international accountability at the federal level will be a thorn in the side of the global climate political process.
Those nations already experiencing climate change impacts have every right to feel morally let down.
Many of them more than pull their weight in an effort to mitigate emissions, but their contribution does not even come close to filling the void left by US neglect. And there is potentially a further blow for those most in need – the US still owes US$2 billion to the Green Climate Fund. There is a question over whether that will be honoured.
Others stand ready to pick up the leadership void left by the new kid on the block – and the political playground will be an interesting one to navigate as a result of his decision.
Most recently, the other G7 leaders wore their hearts on their sleeves. Meeting in Sicily, Italy, they left no doubt about their view on the climate deal – only time will tell how this plays out in other negotiations as Canada picks up the reigns to host the G7 meeting in 2018.
Of the other G20 nations, there are a few that wobbled during the heated negotiations ahead of COP21 in Paris but the resounding support for the commitment was reiterated after Trump’s election during COP22 in Marrakesh, which confirmed there would not be a mass backslide. There is open support from many willing to continue their leadership role.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is clear about his position on the climate deal driven by the economic and technological reality of the energy transition. There is now a huge opportunity to sweep up the market opportunities left open by the US.
The silver lining to the cloud over the climate camp right now is that the solution is not entirely reliant on global politics.
Technology is already moving at a pace that makes “climate-smart” decisions inevitable even if climate change is not a consideration for investment choices. The energy transition is already under way in many nations.
Renewable energy options are out-competing incumbent supplies. Fossil fuel rich nations are not blind to this trend – Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, is aiming for “renewable energy installations, primarily of solar and wind, of 9.5 GW by 2023.”
It is not just the power sector that is shifting. Transport technology changes are opening up the market for electrification of vehicles, changing the landscape for the future of travel. These new realities are politically relevant and are fundamental to the economic success of countries and the wellbeing of their citizens.
There are many other examples of how low carbon technology has knock-on benefits for jobs, health and land use productivity that will be at the heart of the creation of a new economy that many millennials see as their future.
As populations swell across the globe and the fight for precious resources continue, keeping a handle on dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions will be one of the myriad of complex issues that will be at the heart of global politics.
The question is, what side of history will the US be on as others chart a course for a world that has the future of civilization as its mission – not an American dream fuelled by an antique resource.
Emily Farnworth is Head of Climate Change, World Economic Forum