I had the good fortune of attending COP 21 in 2015, when the historic Paris Agreement was forged. So Donald Trump’s decision earlier today to withdraw the United States from the global accord was for me a deeply saddening move. However, in the long run, Trump may have given us just what we need to solve the climate crisis for good — if we seize our chance.
T he United States held up pretty much every concerted global effort to address climate change right from the start. “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” proclaimed President George H. W. Bush at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 — the very beginning of global efforts to address climate change. This mantra would derail climate negotiations again and again over the next two decades. First in 1997, when a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate declared the Kyoto Protocol “dead on arrival.” Then in Copenhagen in 2009, where diplomats reacted in dismay to a skittish speech from President Barack Obama on U.S. climate commitments (or lack thereof).
In Paris in 2015, the stars seemed to align — but again, it was not to be. With a stalwart Republican-held Senate that in advance refused to ratify any form of binding climate accord, President Obama’s team had no choice but to negotiate for something much weaker. The resulting Paris Agreement contains some important binding elements, yes — especially international frameworks for transparency and other mechanisms to solidify trust in the rules of the game — but maintains carefully voluntary language around parties’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions and provide financial assistance to developing countries.
In short, the Paris Agreement was never intended to take us as far as we need to go. And I believe it is unlikely that, if President Trump had kept the U.S. in Paris, future iterations of the global accord would do enough to address climate change at the scale and pace we so desperately need.
It is important, however, to remember how we got here — how one American political party could hold our planet hostage for 25 years. All signs, of course, point to the fossil fuel industry and its allies.
For example, as drama grew over President Trump’s decision to stay in or leave the Paris Agreement, ExxonMobil’s vocal calls for the U.S. to remain a party to the global climate accord raised red flags for me. The rationale was clear: by staying in the agreement, U.S. negotiators — and the industry lobbyists at their side — would retain a seat at the table, and could therefore continue to stymie any provisions that might threaten the profits of corporate executives or the careers of politicians beholden to them.
With its teams of lobbyists and purchased politicians, the fossil fuel industry condemned global climate action from the beginning. So if we are to truly solve the climate crisis, we must neutralize the fossil fuel industry and disentangle our political system from its suffering grip. All the while, we must never lose sight of our most ambitious goals for climate justice.
To do so, however, takes a strength of vision and political courage our movements in years past may not have possessed. The fight over the Keystone XL Pipeline provides an intriguing example. In his book Oil and Honey, 350.org’s Bill McKibben recounts the dilemma of targeting President Obama. “My sense was that we were walking a fine line between pushing the President and pushing him against a wall” over his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, McKibben wrote. The climate movement had a safety net in Barack Obama — but also a liability. He was yet another powerful politician green advocates had to woo. So for years, the climate movement remained stuck: caught between hope for federal action on climate change on the one hand, and deep concern about the possibility of failure on the other.
Yet now, by pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, Trump has cut our parachute. With active opposition in both the White House and halls of Congress — and today, the proverbial final blow — we have little option but to save ourselves. In this moment of free fall, we have an opportunity to forge a truly ambitious and timely path to solve the climate crisis.
For the international community, America’s departure from the Paris Agreement could allow China, the EU, and other wannabe climate leaders to pursue a truly ambitious new accord. While supporting their efforts and reassuring them that Trump’s climate rollbacks will not last, we in the U.S. can — and must — launch a full offensive.
Let us raise the volume on our condemnation of big polluters and turn our attention to their political machinations, to ensure their cronies in office pay the right political price for endangering our planet and its most vulnerable people.
Let us admit to ourselves that the Paris Agreement was never intended to be enough, and instead articulate a full-throated vision for climate justice. With little chance of passing federal climate legislation in the next couple years, let us take the time to develop truly ambitious models (whether through legislation, organizing frameworks, or real-life successes) for a just transition to a clean energy future.
Meanwhile, the opportunities for meaningful action at the subnational level will only grow, as states, cities, and companies across the country recognize they are all we have for now. Here, let us accelerate and strengthen our efforts, and use this moment to set the bar as high as it will go.
By exiting Paris, Donald Trump has created a political vacuum in the climate fight. Over the next few weeks, months, and years, that vacuum will be filled. For all of us dedicated to ending the climate crisis and creating a more just future for ourselves and our children, the path forward is clear: we must fill that vacuum with our vision of revolutionary hope, and we must fill it now.