Donald Trump and the Paris climate agreement: A decision is imminent

Update: We’ll know next week, according to Donald Trump, who has treated us to the tweet equivalent of a teaser trailer. 

Donald Trump and the Paris climate agreement: A decision is imminent

You can take the man off the TV, but you can’t take the TV stylings out of the man, it seems.

The original story – with the horrifying consequences a decision to pull out would cause – continues below.

On my birthday last year I wrote a headline that at the time seemed pretty fanciful: “President Trump would renegotiate COP21 climate deal”. The fact that Trump – a well-known climate change denier – would seek to kill off the baby step in the right direction that was the Paris climate accord wasn’t the fanciful bit: putting the world “president” in front of “Trump” was.

A year older and a year wiser and more jaded, it turns out the headline wasn’t some kind of dystopic take on whimsy but an insight into what was to come. As the United Nations – the international governmental body, rather than the hardcore punk supergroup – prepares to gather for its May climate conference, the mood is decidedly pensive. To remind you, this is what Trump said a year ago:

“I will be looking at that very, very seriously, and at a minimum I will be renegotiating those agreements, at a minimum. And at a maximum I may do something else.”

The question now is whether this is one of those Trump pledges you should take seriously, like building a wall on the southern border, or one that you shouldn’t, like jailing his political opponents. If you have any fondness at all for the planet we share, then you really have to hope it’s the latter.

It certainly makes the May UN climate talks – which the BBC describes as usually “pretty low-key” – a bit more lively this time around.

“This was supposed to be a highly technical and uneventful meeting to flesh out some of the details in the Paris Agreement. But, obviously, the speculation coming out of Washington is now at the top of our minds,” explained Thoriq Ibrahim, minister of environment and energy for the Maldives – one of the countries most impacted by the kind of sea-level rises that runaway climate change will cause.

Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s former environment minister, was equally worried, telling The Guardian: “Although it is still too early to be sure what his strategy is for the US, the signs so far of backsliding are a concern to anyone who was involved in the long process that led up to the Paris Agreement. We certainly could not have imagined this political picture when we signed the agreement in Paris. It is a concern because we saw a similar situation when George W Bush came to power and backed away from the Kyoto Protocol.”climate_change_protest

The figures from Kyoto presented a mixed picture, but showed that some progress was made even without America’s endorsement. For the Paris Agreement, things are considerably more fragile: any hint of the US – the second-largest polluter on the planet – pulling out or being offered a more favourable deal could easily see the whole thing unravelling.

Indeed, there were warning signs from Australia (number 14 on the list of shame) that the country would follow the United States’ lead should Trump walk away. Assistant minister for social services and multicultural affairs, Zed Seselja, told Sky News that “if they were to pull out, obviously that would change the nature of that agreement,” explaining that the country is “doing more than our share”.

“But as it stands, the Australian government is committed to the Paris Agreement.”

So where will Trump land? It’s really hard to say, because the president’s opinions on major issues seem to change by the day and appear to be worryingly influenced on who he last spoke to or even what he saw on TV last night. That means that he might make promising noises when being lobbied by, say, Al Gore, but given he leads one of the most global warming sceptic parties on the planet, such meetings are in short supply.

More pessimistic readings can be taken from his actions since coming to power (which includes getting the EPA to redraft the Clean Power Plan) and his cabinet picks (which include a man who once claimed carbon dioxide is nothing to do with global warming).

All the same, salvation may be at hand from our old friend political expediency. Word is that a group of Trump’s advisors, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus, are arguing that pulling out could see them being sued by green groups. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has also come out in favour of staying in for diplomatic reasons, arguing that it’s important for the US to “maintain its seat at the table.”

Even if the US stays in, you can’t imagine the country being a hugely enthusiastic participant – at least not until 2020. With hindsight, it’s thoroughly dispiriting that climate change played next to no role in the 2016 election campaign: you can change your president every four years, but changing your planet is significantly harder – even with some presidential pressure.

Image: Garry Knight used under Creative Commons

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