Letter from America: Trump pulls the USA from the Paris Accord and the Enlightenment

Professor Doug Crawford Brown has left Cambridge to settle on the West Coast of the USA. He will be keeping in contact by sending ‘Letters from America’ for this Think Piece section of the website.

The world has spent the past 4 months awaiting the inevitable: Trump’s withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Climate Agreement. Given his position as a climate sceptic and populist, the decision was unsurprising. What was surprising is how he managed to pack so many demonstrably wrong reasons into one short announcement: 
  1. He got the science completely wrong, not only in rejecting the significant human role in climate change, but in his statement that the current Paris Agreement would only reduce the 2100 warming by 0.2 degrees. He cited an MIT study, but that study simply assessed what would happen if the nations carried out their 2030 commitments and then stopped decarbonising. It was a call by the MIT group to go beyond the current commitments, not a call to scrap them. Why would any nation do that once the market has shifted to low carbon, renewable energy? The market has already transformed. The reduction is 0.8 degrees if nations hold fast on their trajectories. That is the difference between merely troublesome and deeply worrying change.
  2. He also got the business case wrong. His claim is that the agreement hurts the economy and puts US jobs at risk. This assumes money spent on decarbonisation is simply burned, rather than flowing back into the economy in other ways. Someone must build and install low carbon energy supplies, or high efficiency equipment and cars, and that creates jobs (perhaps not for the oil and gas firms he favours). The narrative that one can either have a strong economy or strong climate policy has been well and truly debunked by science and economics.
  3. He miscalculated the views of the business community. Major US and global firms are strongly committed to climate action. They know that remaining globally competitive requires reducing our energy use and carbon emissions. They have a sense of stewardship. Elon Musk withdrawing from Trump’s committees is only the first in protest at such a misstep.
  4. He got the wrong end of the stick in claiming the world will now no longer be laughing at America. This is a statement that is possible only for someone who is not watching the world’s reaction to his decision, and was not listening in his tour of the EU. Those global reactions show he has made the nation a laughing stock, simultaneously losing any moral ground to urge actions by others. The EU and China now occupy that ground.
So, is all lost for the Paris Agreement in the USA? Not at all. Remember that we are the United STATES of America. Trump has simply made Washington DC (or at least the Executive Branch) irrelevant. It is DC that has become the rogue nation. It is DC that has decided the Enlightenment was an elitist conspiracy. Governors and Mayors throughout the country have already announced they will continue with the Paris commitments within their own states.  California is leading the pack, helping create the United States Climate Alliance. California already has per capita emissions half that of the US more generally, and below that of most EU nations. Our carbon intensity of the economy is similarly low. The products we make and then sell on the global market therefore have low (and shrinking) embedded carbon. We have had ambitious climate policies for a decade, and yet our economy continues to grow.
So UK, don’t give up on us. Form a political alliance with the enlightened states of the US. Create partnerships with innovators, entrepreneurs and large firms in the states of the Climate Alliance. Insist that your supply chain purchases goods from these states, rather than from the White House heartland which clings to the outdated high carbon economy. Insist that the UK government formally state their opposition to the US withdrawal. And remember that any policy decision for which Ted Cruz is applauding is inevitably on the wrong side of history.

Dr Douglas Crawford-Brown