I have refrained from political commentary since Trump took office because so much has been unclear. Not that his stated views during his campaign that climate change is a Chinese hoax and climate rules are designed to hurt American businesses or his appointment of staunch climate change-deniers to the EPA and Department of Energy, promised anything good. But now the long awaited, reality TV decision about the Paris Climate Agreement showed the real Donald Trump meant what was really going to do what he promised: The United States will “withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord,” “seizing all implementations right away.”
Trump frames the climate change fight, not as one of our world’s biggest challenges but an economic zero-sum game of the US against the rest of the world. In his speech, Trump tried to tie leaving ‘Paris’ to the protection of the American people. This is a narrative weaned from reality.
Here are some sobering facts to put Trump’s decision in context
- Withdrawing from Paris doesn’t impact much in the medium term, regarding real climate policy and action. Withdrawing from the agreement will take a full four-year period. Ironically the US can only officially withdraw the day after the 2020 presidential election.
- Paris is a voluntary agreement, of which many critics claim lacks teeth. Every nation sets its own goals. Obama pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent during the 2005 – 2025 timeframe. The US could have simply adjusted its ambitions and goals if it felt Obama’s goals are unattainable. Trump has already gutted the Clean Power Plan, an essential part of Obama’s efforts to reduce emissions by fossil fuel burning electricity plants and increase the use of renewable energy and energy conservation.
- Many “legacy” energy jobs are already gone. Coal jobs won’t come back, nor will the jobs in Oil & Gas that were lost in the downturn over the last three years. Coal has lost its ground and competitive edge to natural gas, solar and wind. Mostly for competitive pricing reasons, not policy reasons. Coal companies acknowledge this, saying they don’t see a future for coal and jobs will continue to diminish. The production of oil and gas has rebounded from the slump of 2014-2016, but jobs have not. This is due to new efficiencies in the field, primarily driven by automation.
- The new jobs re in clean energy and Paris promotes their creation. The jobs Trump is so eager to create are not in the fossil fuel industries but in clean energy. The solar industry is the biggest engine of job creation in America. In 2016, one in fifty new jobs was in the solar industry. Grid modernization driven by renewable energy has created 100,000 new jobs in 2016, according to the Department of Energy. The Paris Agreement created a lot of momentum for the adoption of clean energy. For the first time in history, the world united to curb emissions and set a framework to act against climate change. The Paris Agreement provides a big push for the energy transition that is underway across the globe, a transition that some experts expect to create a ten-trillion-dollar economy for renewable energy and is already creating large numbers of blue-collar manufacturing, installation and service jobs in the US.
- Any deal on climate change is terminal while Trump is in power. There won’t be a new deal of a re-negotiation of the current agreement, as Trump alluded to in his Rose Garden spectacle.
Will it change US progress in the inevitable move to renewable energy?
The simple answer is no. Besides the damaging effects of Trump’s actions at the federal level, for businesses, states, and cities, the only common sense course of action is to continue down the path of renewable energy. Directly after Trump’s decision, California, Washington, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, Minnesota, Delaware, Virginia and Puerto Rico – representing roughly 35% of the US economy – formed the United States Climate Alliance, vowing to uphold the Paris Climate agreement within their borders. Eleven other states, including Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina and Illinois, have also supported the Climate Agreement.
The historic Paris Climate Agreement has already been ratified by most parties to the treaty and was signed by all countries except Nicaragua, who find the agreement not far-reaching and aggressive enough, and Syria, for obvious reasons. The Paris agreement is an agreement with intentions, not with automatic actions. The interpretation and subsequent actions heavily rely on industry and civil society. And they are now further encouraged to take action. While the Trump administration is doing everything to shut down forward-looking energy policy and climate change policy on a federal level, such as overhauling Obama’s Clean Power Plan, on a state and city level, the majority is acting; investing in renewable energy resources, adhering to the Paris Agreement guidelines. Since Trump’s announcement, governors, mayors and business leaders have spoken out and showed their intentions to stick with ‘Paris.’ California’s governor flew to China to sign an agreement with the Chinese to collaborate on climate and clean tech, emphasizing the resolve from states to act and move forward.
A symbolic policy shift with diplomatic and reputational impact first and foremost
The announcement to withdraw from ‘Paris’ is a symbolic move more than anything. And it is symbolic for all the wrong reasons
- The backlash is starting to show; there is a negative impact on the reputation of the US – the rest of the world effectively sees Trump’s move as the withdrawal of the US from the world stage. The diplomatic backlash will be felt beyond the climate realm.
- Impact on American businesses – US businesses fear they will be at a disadvantage seizing the opportunities in the renewable energy market, while they, until Trump’s decision, where well-positioned to lead in the global clean energy market.
- It highlights the missed opportunity to jump on the renewable energy train. Trump is missing a great opportunity to make a concerted effort on infrastructure and the job creation in the renewable energy market. Last year, one in fifty new jobs in the US was created by the solar industry. Think about that. And only 50.000 people work in coal. Pick your battles, Mr. Trump. Instead of trying to save a small number of coal mining jobs with the red herring of ‘clean coal’ and withdrawing from Paris, focus on re-training coal miners for the manufacturing, installation and service jobs in the wind and solar industry.
The bottom-line: Trump will be gone when Mar-a-Lago is swallowed by the sea
As Oscar Wilde famously said: “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” Trump’s announcement was short-sighted and removed from reality and science, catering to a small fraction of people with extremist and ancient views on climate and energy
The good news is that the clean energy transition is well underway and won’t be stopped by the Trump administration, not in the US and certainly not abroad. But, as many critics of the climate agreement emphasize, it might be too little too late. The Paris deal was a strong message from all nations, coming together in the endorsement of curbing global warming and the impacts of climate change, but the climate fight needs more ambitious goals and most importantly actions. The world can’t wait any longer and play an economically motivated game of chicken, with the well-being of our planet at stake.
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