Climate change

Catastrophic climate change is more likely, Donald Trump has just made sure of that

Paul G. Harris says the US president has made what will be his most derided decision but it is based on economics, politics, ideology and psychology, and feeds his pathological need to be the centre of attention

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 11:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 7:41pm

Well, he did it: President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate change. That leaves the rest of the world looking to China and the European Union for leadership to combat the greatest long-term threat facing humanity (not to mention nature itself).

This is an incredible change. Until recently, China was the bogeyman of climate change. A decade ago it replaced the US as the largest source of “greenhouse gas” pollution causing global warming and other manifestations of climate change. That’s because it uses more coal than any other country. China pledged at Paris to stop increasing its use of coal and other fossil fuels, and President Xi Jinping (習近平) has backed this pledge many times.

This sounds like great progress, and is better than doing nothing, but this still puts China’s emissions at double those of the US. This level of pollution is a recipe for climate disaster. Nevertheless, that’s what climate “leadership” looks like in the world of Donald Trump.

Watch: ‘The US will withdraw from the Paris climate accord’

As for the Europeans, they are doing far more to transition away from fossil fuels. But they have never quite been able to be the climate leader that they have always wanted to be. That’s because they are not as much of a “union” on this topic as many might expect. Some EU states remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels. For their own economic interests, they have held back European leadership.

China vows to work with EU on climate pact

What possessed President Trump to do this? Why hand the mantle of climate leadership to those countries he claimed during his schoolyard-bully election campaign to be big fat losers? We can’t read Trump’s mind, but the reasons for his decision can be discerned fairly easily even without reading his late-night tweets. It comes down to economics, politics, ideology and psychology.

First economics: by pulling the US out of the Paris agreement, Trump won’t suddenly put the brakes on America’s move away from the worst fossil fuels. Coal is on life support – it’ll die a natural death in the US regardless of what Trump does. American states, not least California, will continue to decarbonise gradually. Smart businesses see the future, and it’s not one fuelled by coal.

But Trump’s pull-out will enable Big Oil to continue reaping enormous profits by keeping as many people and businesses as possible addicted to oil for as long as possible. Big Oil owns massive reserves in the ground that they want to get out and sell. Trump’s decision means they can do more of that before a future president stops them.

Trump greenlights Keystone XL pipeline from Canada

Second, politics: Trump’s decision is just what the traditional business supporters of the Republican Party want. They have spent decades trying to slow down climate action in the US. This is just more of the same. More importantly, Trump is doing what he promised to do during his campaign.

Trump seems to have a rule of thumb: reverse every decision taken by Obama

Third, ideology: the Paris agreement is an international agreement brokered by the UN. Republicans in Congress have made a cottage industry of attacking all things UN for half a century. Trump is just doing their bidding. But he, like them, hates any international agreement that imposes its will on the US, despite the Paris agreement being little more than a collection of voluntary pledges.

Finally, psychology: President Trump is an angry man. He hates lots of things and lots of people. But there’s nothing he seems to hate more than Barrack Obama. Trump seems to have a rule of thumb: reverse every decision taken by Obama.

More than that, Trump has a pathological need to be the centre of attention. With this decision, he will be.

President Trump is well on his way to being the worst American president ever. Withdrawing from the Paris agreement will go down in history as among his most derided decisions. It won’t stop global action on climate change, but it will delay it. The chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change was slim even with the US in the Paris agreement. It just got slimmer.

Paul G. Harris is the chair professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. See