Why Leaving the Paris Agreement Matters

Michael James Rance
Jun 2, 2017 · 4 min read

Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement yesterday was, by all accounts, a gigantic decision. The White House has framed their talking points in a similarly momentous way; trump’s speechwriter coined this decision as a watershed moment in America’s relationship to the world, while Trump himself said that the Paris Accords were fundamentally an agreement meant to weaken the U.S economy. In their eyes, retreat was about protecting national sovereignty, about America reasserting itself as the big kid on the block.

But take a step back from the Rose Garden and you realize Donald’s leap off the proverbial cliff has made America an internationally recognized buffoon. Other heavily-polluting countries, such as China and India, have both set ambitious targets for carbon reduction without ever sacrificing their sovereignty. And it was Western nations (ones that benefited the most from industrialization) that led the charge on lessening carbon emissions — including, at one point, the United States. This was not an agreement merely between differing nation states: it was a global agreement, one in which over 98% of the nations in attendance made tough decisions for the health of the planet.

And now, following its departure, the United States is on the outside looking in, detached from the rest of the global community’s fight against the world’s greatest challenge: Climate Change.

There are, sure, the technical benefits of the Paris Accords. The agreement sets clear goals for reducing carbon emissions, it creates new mechanisms to enforce pollution reduction, and it allocates funds for combating pollution around the world. But more than anything, this agreement is a historic and unprecedented step among world leaders to combat a global crisis — something unlike we have seen in the past decade.

Yes, other conflicts and disagreements have forged international relationships and necessitated large-scale diplomacy. Think of the wars, famines, and genocides that have brought about large agreements and international treaties. But the Paris Agreement is different.

Climate Change is entirely global. Its dangers know no borders, and its effects will not discriminate based on race or gender, nationality or class. The rancher in Texas will feel this just as strongly as a millionaire in Manhattan, and a Professor in Lebanon will feel it as brutally as an Autocrat in Pyongyang. Wealth, power, and prestige may be able to mitigate the brunt of climate change slightly for the most well-connected, but it will never be truly enough; if the farmlands dry up, we will have nothing to eat. If the polar ice caps melt to extinction, coastlines will be met with Old-Testament level floods. The scope of this crisis is beyond most traditional response — it will truly harm everyone. And it is the scope of this problem, Climate Change, that necessitates the breadth of this international response.

Climate change is a matter of life and death. It is an issue that forces every single human-being to grapple with their place in the world, and it threatens to redefine what it means to live a healthy life. The world will become a place of scarcity; scarcity of food, scarcity of clean water, and scarcity of healthy living environments. And it takes only a short perusal through history to recognize that scarcity is the father of all conflicts — and in this new future of scarcity and conflict, international diplomacy will become more important than ever.

So what better way to begin this new era of international climate crisis than by having the world’s largest power retreat?

We are the globe’s most powerful country, and since the end of the Cold War we have been considered the world’s hegemonic superpower. For better or worse, the United States commands attention on the international stage. What does it say to the rest of the world when the world’s largest country shirks its responsibility on Climate Change? It signals that the United States is no longer a rational actor — and that we are no longer interested in tackling the fundamental problems facing humanity. Instead, this retreat shows that we may very well be a regressive power — sliding into a sort of isolationism that is the marker of a nation in decline.

That saddens me, because I believe that America has a unique opportunity to become a leader on Climate Change. Instead, we are squandering that opportunity — we are becoming a unique destructor of humanity’s future. And as much as this hurts the United States, this is so much more than about America, or of the political consequences of such a retreat. No, this is distinctly about the future of civilization, and of the ability for average humans the world over to lead productive and healthy lives.

Is this the end of the planet as we know it? Of course not — there is still room to reduce the impact of Climate Change. But we are running out of time. Climate Change is now real, and unavoidable, and already corroding the ecological health of planet Earth. Already the seas are rising, temperatures increasing, and the polar ice caps melting. Already species are dying, crops are drying, and communities are being pushed to the brink of collapse.

History has been defined by a human tendency to disagree to the point of absurdity. We still disagree on many certain and controversial things, yet we no longer meaningfully disagree on the ecological threat facing us now. Climate Change is real, and it has happening, and we are on the verge of a climate crisis of unprecedented proportions. What we need are international responses to this inherently global problem. What we need is a human response to a human problem. And yesterday, by signaling their departure from the Paris Agreement, the United States neglected its global responsibilities. But more importantly, the United States refused its basic responsibilities as stewards of the Earth. America will be worse off because of this retreat from the Paris Agreement, and so will the world, and the future will suffer from this act of American cowardice.

That is why what happened yesterday matters.

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