The Climate Change Battle Heats Up

Since the middle of the 20th century, scientists have warned that human technology and economic “progress” have been disrupting the worldwide carbon cycle, one of many fundamental processes on which life on Earth depends. Sixteen out of the first seventeen years of the 21st century have been the warmest years on record for the planet as a whole, and 2016 was the hottest ever recorded. The 2016 temperatures continue a long-term warming trend, going back to the 1880s. Eight of the world’s ten deadliest heat waves occurred between 1997 and 2016.  It has therefore become increasingly apparent—except to a minority of citizens and industrialists, a handful of financially compromised and/or contrarian scientists, and some politicians—that the “greenhouse effect” has already begun.

Donald Trump’s “Screw You” to the World

Nonetheless, on June 1, Donald Trump declared that the United States was officially withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, following through on a campaign promise and defying fellow world leaders and many others who had pleaded with him for the US to remain a party to the pact. Trump’s move has already provoked a sharp backlash from the rest of the world, and it could prove to be a major setback for international efforts to avert drastic global warming.

The world’s nations had already been struggling to reduce emissions deeply enough to prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the threshold deemed unacceptably risky. The Paris climate deal is meant to provide a structure to reduce the pace of global warming over time. Now, the leader of the world’s largest economy has clearly stated that he wants no part of that process.

The Paris climate deal, which 195 countries agreed to in 2015, was designed to work through voluntary action and peer pressure. While it is imperfect, the accord is historic in that it requires all states—including the less developed ones—to commit to action. It sends a message that the world community is united in recognizing the anthropogenic (human-caused) nature of global warming, the danger that it poses, and a determination to fight it. By sending a signal to financial and energy markets, it also may galvanize corporate and research efforts to shift away from a carbon-based economy.

The Paris Accord was never ratified by the US Senate. Accordingly, the Trump administration plans to invoke the accord’s formal withdrawal mechanism, a legal process that will take four years to complete and would lead to an official exit on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the next presidential election. Trump also said he would not abide by any of the United States’ previous commitments under the Paris agreement and would rejoin only if the accord were drastically renegotiated, an unlikely prospect.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration will push to dismantle domestic climate policies, including the Clean Power Plan to curtail emissions from power plants, and various regulations on methane leaks from oil and gas operations. Those rollbacks are far from assured, and environmentalists plan to challenge them in court.

Make Earth Great Again!

How will other countries, and the American people, respond. Do they keep pressing ahead with climate action anyway, or does the Paris Accord start to unravel without the United States?

Even before the Trump administration’s announcement, efforts to arrest global warming were inadequate. Aggregated current pledges by nations to reduce greenhouse gases put Earth on pace to warm 3 degrees Celsius or more above preindustrial levels by 2050, an outcome with a great risk of destructive heat waves and droughts, and the death of vital ecosystems. Such a worldwide temperature increase would represent a rate of climate change 100 times faster than at any time in recorded history, with catastrophic results: agriculture would be profoundly disrupted; many species would almost certainly die; and as the oceans expand because of the higher temperatures and as melting increases in the polar ice caps, sea levels would rise. Many of the world’s great cities are coastal and would be profoundly threatened by super-storms and inundation, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Rio de Janeiro, London, Venice, Mumbai, Tokyo, Manila, and nearly the entire population of Bangladesh.

The United States could also face diplomatic repercussions. Europe, China, and other countries may decide to withhold cooperation on issues the Trump administration cares about, like trade and counter-terrorism. Other countries could also threaten to impose carbon tariffs on the US.

Whether the world can avoid that fate may now depend on countries like China. China is investing heavily in wind, solar, and nuclear power in an attempt to level off its coal consumption. But it is unclear how far China’s leaders will go in pressuring other nations. In the past, China has argued against rigorous transparency standards to review nations’ progress in meeting Paris Accord goals.

Many American cities, states, and companies are preparing to submit a plan to the United Nations pledging to meet the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions targets under the Paris Accord, despite Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated, “We will gather all our strength—in Germany, in Europe and in the world—to meet the great challenges of humanity, like climate change, and to successfully master these challenges.” She added, “For all for whom the future of this planet is important: Let us continue along this path together, so that we are successful for our Mother Earth.” Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said “The fight against climate change… will continue with or without the United States.” And Emmanuel Macron, President of France, has stated: “I can assure you, France will not give up the fight.” With a twist on Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan, Macron added: “Make our planet great again.”

Finally, a future American administration could always change direction on climate policy—and even try to rejoin the agreement—once Trump is out of office.

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