What Trump can teach us about tackling Climate Change

“We’ll always have Paris” says Rick to Ilsa in the film Casablanca, referring to the cherished memory of their brief love affair, now over.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Paris recently, though in less romantic terms. The Paris agreement on Climate Change sealed in 2015 was something of an international love-in. Announced with all sorts of fanfare, you could be forgiven for thinking it was, like many love affairs, too good to be true. Will this global love-in really go the distance? Will the world really be able to keep temperature rises below 1.5°C? If last week is any indication, I’d say the honeymoon shine might be about to wear off.

We’ll always have Paris, but is that enough?

Last week, still rosy with the Agreement’s initial promises, Ex-UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon had stern words for the Trump administration over their decision to withdraw from the agreement altogether, admonishing Trump for causing “serious political damage”.

His main criticism was on economic grounds — with the U.S. no longer involved, who will help compensate poorer countries whose contributions to the agreement will require significant financial investment from their richer counterparts?

Who indeed. While no sensible person would deny the need for the U.S., as one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters, to play its part, the wishful thinking behind Paris, like most love affairs, is the expectation that nations will act altruistically or morally rather than in their own naked self-interest. On that premise alone, one can hardly blame Trump, or his advisors, for urging caution when staying in the agreement would likely have had a serious impact on U.S. economic competitiveness. Cutting their own emissions while also funding the efforts of other nations? Doesn’t sound like the most attractive offer to me either.

Whatever Trump’s questionable beliefs on climate change, his withdrawal from Paris is at least showing him to be both pragmatic and honest. Honest? Well, yes, because although very many other countries formally remain within the agreement, it’s hard to see any serious intention on their part to stick to it.

In the same breath as he rebuked Trump, Ban was quick to praise the continued commitment of China’s President Xi Jinping for being “fully onboard”. And if you take a look at how China is currently performing against the targets they set forth in their NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution), they certainly appear to be doing well.

But the devil is in the detail. The independent researcher Climate Action Tracker (CAT) has been tracking climate action since 2009 and keeps an eye on what the Paris Agreement’s signatories promised, how they’re currently performing, and whether their efforts are in line with what’s needed to keep warming within the globally agreed 1.5 degree limit. Their assessment for China is telling:

China’s policies and actions are set to overachieve its “peak by 2030 CO2” goal in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), as well as its own national targets. Based on progress to date, the NDC… is not ambitious enough to limit warming to below 2°C, let alone the 1.5°C limit in the Paris Agreement, unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort than China, which is why the Climate Action Tracker rates it “Highly Insufficient.

Yes, China is doing well on what they promised, but what they promised isn’t nearly enough. China may remain within the agreement, but what’s the use if its actions are inadequate?! China, along with the U.S. is a top emitter of CO2, so is it any wonder its ambitions are deliberately set low when to set them any higher would harm its economic competitiveness?

But what about the EU? As a global leader on climate policy, the EU is another entity known for Trump-bashing when it comes to climate change. Back when Trump initially announced his intention to withdraw from the agreement in June last year, Germany’s Angela Merkel was quick to “send a signal” of disdain, branding the decision “extremely regrettable,” expressing herself “in very restrained terms”.

But how is Germany doing on its commitments? According to Climate Action Tracker, the EU as a whole falls into the category of ‘Insufficient’ when it comes to the agreed 1.5°C limit set out in the Agreement. Germany in particular, while one of the two largest coal users in the EU, has “yet to address the issue” of how they’ll be reducing coal emissions to the target needed to meet the Agreement. When talking about the EU, the CAT states:

Neither the historical — nor the projected — rate of emissions reduction will allow the EU to meet its 2050 goal.

Trump may have withdrawn from the Agreement, but those who remain shouldn’t get a blank pass for simply ‘being in’ when it’s the details or their commitments that really matter.

So, it seems that, whether in or out of the agreement, no major nation or grouping is doing its bit. And this is my point: an agreement based on noble self-sacrifice simply will not work. It may sound like true love at first, but of course it can’t last. That isn’t to say the US decision to withdraw hasn’t had a significant impact on projections based on the Paris Agreement’s cumulative NDCs, nor is the point to undermine the all-important cooperation that is symbolised in the Paris Agreement.

The point, rather, is to highlight that global agreements will only work if — and only if — they are structured to be in every nation’s self-interest. And that can only be achieved if two or more completely separate global issues are included in any negotiation.

If, for example, a global currency transactions tax were negotiated alongside CO2 reductions, the vast proceeds from the tax could be used to compensate the big losers on the climate part of the agreement. With their costs fully compensated, staying in the agreement would then be in every nation’s self-interest — even the largest emitters. But continue as we are now by wishfully hoping that nations will act against their own interests — continuing, that is, with the self-sacrificial, wishful-thinking ‘love-in’ approach — and we’ll find that all we have done is to allow emissions to keep on rising while losing yet more precious time. Yes, negotiating two highly contentious issues will doubtless be more complex, but at least it is based on realism. At least it offers the possibility of every nation winning.

The memory of Paris isn’t enough to meet the challenge of climate change. What Trump has done shouldn’t be taken as politically damaging; rather, if we read it realistically, it is illuminating. It is sending us a message — an important ‘reality check’. The reality is that any agreement that fails to take account of nations’ self-interest isn’t going to be up to the job. Until we have something that does, all we’ll be left with is the wildly disparate efforts of individual nations either acting alone, or not acting at all.

So until then, here’s looking at you, kid.