The Paris Agreement: Tr(b)ump in the road

Donald Trump’s election campaign was high on rhetoric and low on policy detail. It took critical (and offensive) aim at numerous movements, groups and peoples, and as a major right/left wedge issue the environmental movement was no exception. ‘Trump Digs Coal‘ was his battle cry at the Charleston Rally in West Virginia. A message supported with a commitment to ‘cancel’ the UN Paris Agreement on climate change, a bête noire for ailing heavy industry in the USA. Little wonder the beleaguered coal States voted for him in record numbers: 69% in West Virginia versus Clinton’s 27%.  How the rhetoric translates into reality is less clear.

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The Paris Agreement is now under pressure – the election of President Trump could prove a hammer blow, but it’s unlikely to stop progress completely. First and foremost the scientific consensus remains clear: we have a problem and the negative impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly clear. There is a chance Trump’s instinct to make money will prevail. If so his choices regarding climate and energy policy may differ from his election pledges. Furthermore, climate and energy policy is unlikely to be a priority for Trump, whose top issues are allegedly tax reform, immigration, repealing Obamacare, infrastructure, and trade. US leadership on climate change has been valued by policymakers internationally and will likely suffer. Will Trump really be so willing to give it up and isolate the USA? What’s clear is that the narrative around climate change needs to change to fit the new political order.

Make me a deal I can’t refuse

Trump is not an ideologue. He is a red-blooded capitalist. His political opinions are – given time and depending on his advisors (some with worryingly contrary views on climate change) – seemingly fluid. Will President Trump ‘dig coal’ as promised? It’s questionable, not because he’s concerned about the environment, but because there are cheaper alternatives, notably shale gas, and increasingly renewables. There is a strong chance Trump’s base instinct to get a good deal, to make money – and not prop up ailing industries – will prevail over lofty electoral rhetoric. Energy markets are complex and to support uncompetitive and polluting generating capacity is to stifle innovation and fresh competition. How this will play out internationally is also open to speculation. His commitment to “become, and stay, totally independent of any need to import energy” plays well with his supporters, as does his promise to “unleash untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves.” Yet energy commodity markets, such as coal, gas and oil, are international. His push for energy independence would defy the free market forces championed by the USA. Not that this would necessarily be a barrier to Trump. His views of trade deals, such as NAFTA, are well known. Perhaps it’s time to look again at Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, setting out the use of market mechanisms and pushed heavily by the USA during negotiations

Changing the narrative and Leadership

The narrative around climate change and the need for international cooperation has changed continually to reflect the political, social and economic reality. In light of Trump’s win it’s time to rethink how to engage a new wave of politicians, citizens and business leaders.

Until Trump takes office it will be unclear how this narrative needs adjusting. In his pre-election documentary on climate change, Before the Flood, Leonardo DiCaprio interviews Sunita Narain, of the Indian Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Narain rightly presses DiCaprio on the need for Americans to change their overly consumptive lifestyles. In a moment of honestly DiCaprio admits a change of lifestyle in the USA is not likely to happen. Noticeably in disagreement, Narain, goes on to explain the importance of American action as “something for us to learn from. Leadership to hold up to our government (in India).”

Two things are striking about this short conversation in light of President Trump. Firstly, that even a committed environmentalist like DiCaprio struggled to see a change of lifestyle as a meaningful entry point or catalyst for transformation in the USA. It’s unlikely such an approach would hold much traction with Trump, or his advisors. Furthermore, Trump supporters are likely to come from a social class where living standards and opportunities have materially decreased in their lifetimes. Questioning lifestyle is yet another attack on what remains of their way of life. What then are the technological or business opportunities that offer optimism and replace ailing polluting industry, give communities hope, a sense of purpose, prosperity and security? Would the people of West Virginia voted so overwhelmingly for Trump if opportunity and prosperity had been maintained? What if Tesla had built their revolutionary “gigafactory” there rather than Nevada?

Secondly, American leadership on climate change has proven highly influential. Combined with support from China it was the catalyst to bring the world together to agree on the Paris Agreement. Trump can’t cancel the agreement unilaterally and withdrawing from the UN climate change Convention (UNFCCC) by executive order would likely prove a nuclear option. He can, however, simply ignore it and the commitments made by his predecessor. This would create uncertainty around global emissions reductions, support for nascent industries and the availability of climate finance to countries in need. It’s unlikely to be without consequence. The rest of the world is unlikely to sit idly by (just as they didn’t during the Kyoto Protocol) and allow the world’s most advanced economy (another) carte blanche to pollute. Trump’s protectionist rhetoric will likely be matched. Cross border carbon taxes could be one way to level the playing field, but a tit-for-tat trade war is likely to have few real winners. Disengagement poses a challenge for the likes of Narain too, who must think again about how to motivate action domestically without being able to leverage pressure from the USA.

The election of Trump undoubtedly deals a blow to the forward momentum of the environmental movement. But the Paris Agreement is bigger than President Trump, as European and Chinese officials are keen to highlight. It’s too early to say if we’ll see radical backwards movement. Paris was a major win, and a necessary step for a world which has just seen the three warmest years on record. In these uncertain times those of us who believe passionately in stopping climate change have much to play for.

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