Standing in the Rose Garden in the grounds of the White House, President Donald Trump gave a formal statement. His words were not unexpected. But the content and delivery do tell us something interesting about the current president and his vision not only for the United States but also how agreements about climate change can struggle to gain political traction amongst a segment of public opinion.
The speech was suffused with anxiety about America being disempowered and I would suggest ‘feminised’ by rumbustious others like China, India and the European Union. Shifting from a more emotive register on unfairness and restriction, the statement also talked of the financial costs being imposed on a compliant United States.
The presidential statement opened with the following, ‘The United States will withdraw’. Trump deliberately extends his enunciation of the word ‘withdraw’. And in that short gap between the next element of the sentence ‘from the Paris Climate Accord’, he earns some applause from the crowd. It is not clear who makes up the crowd but it would be safe to assume that they are unlikely to be anything but strong supporters of the administration and the presidential vision of ‘Mak[ing] America Great Again’.
The statement goes on to lambaste the Paris Climate Accord (or Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) for being indicative of three things. First, Trump accused ‘Washington’ (which is code for both the previous Obama administration and officials who would instinctively prioritise America’s international responsibilities over domestic interests).
Second, Trump spoke repeatedly of the Accord being ‘unfair’ to the United States. He complained that America was being ‘tied down’ by restriction while others such as India and China were allowed to build power stations and/or receive billions of dollars of aid in order to help them transition to lower carbon emissions. His repeated use of the word ‘coal’ was important because it was intended to highlight the impact that climate change policies have America’s domestic energy interests. Even if the United States has been a beneficiary of the shale gas revolution, Trump positioned the Paris Accord as antithetical to America’s coal industry.
‘Trump positioned the Paris Accord as antithetical to America’s coal industry’
Third, the president positioned the ‘withdrawal’ as a reassertion of America’s sovereignty. By rejecting the Accord de Paris (and note I also think ‘Paris’ carries with it for American Republicans reminders that France did not support the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003), European countries (and the EU as a whole) are also identified as inimical to US sovereign authority. The relationship between the US and Europe is strained as NATO partners argue over burden sharing.
It would be easy at this point to eviscerate, as many commentators have done so already, Trump’s decision to withdraw as evidence of a derogation of presidential duty. We hardly need to rehearse the president’s previous expressions of climate change denialism. We cannot honestly claim we were surprised by the presidential statement. And if we go back a little further in presidential political time, we would note the decision of President George W Bush not to proceed with the Kyoto Protocol (1997) arguing just like Trump that is was unfair.
But, and here is a big ‘but’, nowhere in the presidential statement does Trump deny climate change.
For all the asperity in the speech, he does not deny climate change science. He speaks of the US being a leader on ‘environmental issues’. He cannot bring himself to use the term ‘climate change’ but he does acknowledge there might at least be something that we need to talk about, even act upon. We might scoff at this claim given the administration’s indifference to lead agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (set up by disgraced Republic president Richard Nixon) and the appointment of a lawyer (Scott Pruitt) as its administrator.
‘The idea of America being ‘tied down’ by a plethora of legally binding commitments is simply false’
And we might take issue with his characterisation of the Paris Agreement as being punctuated by compulsory measures when it would simply be more accurate to talk of ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDC), which are voluntary pledges. So this idea of America being ‘tied down’ by a plethora of legally binding commitments is simply false. As the second largest emitter in the world, the US pledged to limit greenhouse emissions in the 2020s and be part of a rolling set of negotiations which would review progress on the matter. The INDC of individual countries were not up for negotiation at Paris and no one is going to penalise the US if it failed to meet that target of what then became nationally determined contributions. The clue is in the word ‘nationally determined’ rather than say ‘internationally imposed’.
Trump makes the point that he was elected by the people of Pittsburgh not Paris. But he picked the wrong city. The Mayor of Pittsburgh like many American cities are filled with elected representatives who understand that climate change needs to be urgently addressed. Pittsburgh voted for Hillary Clinton in November 2016. The Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, replied appropriately enough via a tweet that ‘As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future’. The American president may have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, but America is composed of 50 states and many cities, which do take the matter very seriously indeed. In some cases, they are at the front line of sea level rise and ‘strange weather’.
‘What Trump reveals is how hard it is for him to accept that the world no longer revolves around the United States’
The idea that China is stealing a march on America by being allowed to emit higher level of greenhouse gases until 2030 misses the fundamental point that China is already developing alternative energy generation with considerable gusto. Solar, wind and nuclear energy are part of China’s long-term energy planning. If Trump want to resurrect the US coal industry, he could remove national environmental restrictions posed by the previous Obama administration, but that would not mitigate the enormous impact the US-led shale gas industry has had on domestic energy production and consumption. Trump also underestimates the vitality of the US green energy sector, which accounts for 14 per cent of US energy production.
Trump is tilting at windmills. He is a modern day Don Quixote fighting against imaginary giants. Rather than seeing the windmill as a source of alternative energy, the ‘threats’ that Trump sees on the horizon are giants called ‘burden-sharing’, ‘restriction’ and ‘unfairness’ (but not ‘fake news’). Trump may think he is helping to slay giants posing as windmills, but what he reveals is how hard it is for him to accept that the world no longer revolves around the United States.