How I became O.K. with Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement
By Rob Schuham, Co-Founder of COMMON and 17. Edited by Julia Dopp.
Like many of you, I was deeply saddened when our President pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. While I wasn’t surprised, it still felt like a punch to the gut. His rationale was ill-informed and foolish.
I want to explore the notion of “foolish” in a slightly different context, however. Not necessarily for the reasons you might think. It was foolish as it relates to his administration’s agenda. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accord will ultimately backfire on his administration in ways that even our President’s outlandish imagination couldn’t…well…imagine. And some of those backfires will actually result in the U.S. meeting or perhaps exceeding the goals of the treaty.
Before articulating how we may decrease our CO2 emissions to levels below those outlined in the agreement, let’s first look at some of the obstacles the current U.S. administration has created for us in pulling out:
- Exiting the agreement means separating ourselves from every other country in the world, minus Syria and Nicaragua (the former of which is in the midst of a horrific civil war, and the latter of which felt that the agreement wasn’t far reaching enough)… so we’re making our seat at the proverbial global table quite wobbly and unstable. The recent G-20 gathering tried to handle our absence from the Paris Agreement delicately, however, the strong consensus expressed by the other 19 heads of state is that the U.S. is making a serious mistake.
- Having originally advocated for the accord, we’re now essentially ditching everyone at a party we insisted they attend. So, we’ve damaged our credibility by going back on our word.
- We’ve snubbed not just members of the G-20, but the world at large, by ignoring their pleas that we remain in the accord. This is not only damaging to our relationships with them, but could also potentially encourage other countries to band together against us (à la “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”).
- This is another blow to the American brand because of a political agenda that relegates the environment, science and health to the back burners. Simply stated, the reputation of “Brand America” will suffer on many levels. As someone deeply experienced in branding and brand reputation, I felt a shudder like I have never felt before.
- We may concede our strong position in the renewable energy sector to companies in other countries that are salivating at the opportunity to gain market share in supplying the rest of the world with high-demand solar, wind and other cleantech products and services.
- Finally, our President essentially doubled down on his war on facts and scientific data. To wit: his appointed head of the EPA, like Trump, believes manmade climate change is a hoax. The villainous Koch brothers, the oil and gas magnates who are the largest funders of climate change denial PR efforts, are giddy with joy. And the coal industry believes it just got another chance at life. All the while, our planet continues to heat up at a pace that is exceeding some of climate scientists’ most dire predictions.
So now what? Did all the hard work, blood, sweat and tears that I, my co-workers, good friends and hundreds of thousands of others have put into the climate movement just get flushed down the proverbial toilet?
Possibly not. The climate movement has in no way come to a grinding halt. In fact, I would say that Trump’s alarming actions served to revitalize the cultural movement around climate action just after it had momentarily slowed down. As recently as mid-2016, even some of the more engaged climate activists felt that the signed climate agreement, in combination with what seemed like a shoe-in election for a new Democratic president who believed in science and facts, represented a moment in time where we could finally exhale and relax a bit. Many Americans thought climate change was “being handled” and that we could go about our business and not worry as much about taking assertive action. Further, the business case for renewable energy vs. fossil fuel energy had all but been settled and the expiration clock on oil, gas and coal companies had started ticking loudly.
Dare I say we were becoming a bit complacent? Had we moved back in time to where we didn’t feel the need to act as much as we used to? My thinking is yes. Hell, I had been on the front lines for years, and I thought the war to some extent had been won with the cleantech energy business case alone, not to mention a signed climate agreement. I was still active, but I admittedly had taken a victory lap. Too long a lap, in hindsight.
My attitude was dangerous. It was a slippery slope back to a precarious time, and Trump’s actions inadvertently created a self-arrest mechanism that put the brakes on everyone’s victory laps, and our country’s larger slide toward inaction.
Also on the bright side, Trump only announced that the U.S. will withdraw. He can’t actually withdraw yet because there are provisions in the agreement that say any party must wait for three years after the Paris Accord entered into force before they can start the exit process. Even then, the withdrawal wouldn’t be finalized for an additional year. What does this mean? That the U.S. withdrawal will not be effective until November 4, 2020 — one day after the next presidential election. And, once the U.S. has officially left, they could rejoin the Paris Agreement after 30 days. Meaning: if a new president is elected that supports the agreement, we’re only out for a few months.
Regardless of the above, Trump’s mockery of the overwhelming majority of people who stand with science was a wake-up call like no other. At home in the U.S., it jarred our citizens, companies, mayors and governors into action. Many declared support and compliance with the agreement regardless of the Federal Government’s stance. This engagement is manifested in campaigns like wearestillin.com, which continues to generate global excitement with its still-growing list of members. As a result, I believe we will actually come out ahead on two significant fronts:
1) Because so many cities, states and corporations have courageously stepped up and strongly committed to the Paris Agreement, I believe the U.S. will actually beat the CO2 reduction goals. We are motivated at an unprecedented level. We’re pissed off, embarrassed by our current administration, and we are going to see to it that the U.S. does exceptionally right by the planet and its inhabitants. If, and when, we re-enter the agreement, we will be even further along than the previous administration had hoped for.
2) Other countries are seeing a renewed swell of support — city by city and state by state — for climate action as a rejection of the U.S. administration’s tomfoolery. The signal we are sending to the world is obvious, powerful and says that even though Donald Trump is president, he does not stand for the majority of Americans when it comes to climate change.
Bottom line: we do not have the luxury of complacency anymore. We need to be more engaged than ever. And the lack of presidential leadership on climate fronts requires that we all step up and collectively exhibit the true leadership the world expects from the United States. I’m in. Are you?
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