What does Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement mean for climate change?

The US retreat on climate change could spell global disaster - but hope is rising in the East.

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There are few moments where the fate of humanity can be said to rest in the hands of a single man - yet the moment Donald Trump pulls out of the Paris Agreement on climate change may well be one.

That moment knocked on the door on Wednesday, when sources told the press that the President planned to withdraw America from the global pact.

The move was the culmination of a series of will-he-wont-he tweets that have only increased the sense of drama (and egoism) surrounding the decision:

The 2015 accord is widely believed to be the world’s best chance of tackling catastrophic temperature change. Under its terms, nearly 200 nations agreed to reduce their emissions and limit global temperature rise to “well below” two degrees celsius by the end of the century. Yet without US support, that goal is thrown into doubt.

World leaders have criticised the proposed withdrawal as an act of staggering self-harm. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has previously described a lack of action on climate change as “morally criminal”. A statement from Sierra Club said U.S withdrawal would be a “historic mistake”.

So why back out at all? In pulling out, America will become one of only three countries not to support the accord - Syria because it is in the grips of war, and Nicaragua because it does not believe the agreements terms are ambitious enough. The US has no such excuse.

In a letter signed earlier this week, 22 heavyweight Republicans urged Trump to exit the agreement on the grounds that it may undermine his ability to unravel Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The plan requires states to reduce the carbon emissions from power plants – something that many fossil-fuel supporting Republicans oppose.

The risk now is that Trump’s new energy strategy will drive up global CO2 levels at a perilous rate. Even with all of Obama’s proposed emission-reduction policies, the US was still on course to exceed its 2025 Paris pledge by over 1.6bn metric tons of carbon a year, according to one study in Nature Climate Change.

So can the rest of the world go it alone? History is not on the side of the climate campaigners. When George Bush’s government backed out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, worldwide emissions soared. “It is now far more likely that we will breach the danger limit of 3.6 degrees,” Professor Michael Oppenheimer, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the New York Times.

Yet Trump’s intransigence may lead other nations to stiffen their resolve. At a recent summit in Italy, G7 leaders reaffirmed their commitments to the agreement. And the world economy is pushing towards renewable energy apace: solar and wind power is now either the same price or cheaper than new fossil fuel generation in more than 30 countries, says a report from the World Economic Forum.

Public opinion also supports action to tackle emissions. “When the UK public backs the Paris Agreement by a four to one majority, there’s no mandate for the next government breaking the cross-party consensus that we’ve now had for 25 years,” Richard Black , director of the ECIU said in a press statement.

Plus, the world has a new "leader” in the field: China. Not only has its government fully backed the accord but is eyeing an opportunity to extend its soft power. A Chinese energy company even wants to re-train American miners as windfarm technicians.

Trump’s administration has yet to announce exactly how or when American will leave the Agreement. Yet this waiting game has gone on long enough: when it comes to stopping the worst effects of climate change, we must hope that the tide of action will wait for no man - not even Trump.

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.