US President Donald Trump has ordered a review of all treaties the US has signed with more than a single nation and his advisers have to identify which the country ought to quit. This could lead to the US remaining with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, even as it pulls out of the Paris climate agreement of 2015, which former President Barack Obama helped to forge.
This has a precedent. President George W. Bush extricated the US from the UN’s Kyoto protocol, which came into effect in 2005. It required all industrial countries to compulsorily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% below their 1990 levels and there were penalties for failing to do so, the only obligatory measure in climate negotiations to date.
Since the US was the world’s biggest emitter till 2007 when China replaced it and remains the second biggest, it bears a major responsibility for putting its house in order. A decade ago, the average American emitted 19.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, as against 5.1 tonnes by every Chinese and 1.8 tonnes by an Indian. While American exceptionalism touts the US as the world’s leader in establishing rights to environmental information and some related areas, its overall record, as Kyoto shows, leaves much to be desired. Ironically, Trump has imposed a gag order on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issuing any public information and the agency could also face cuts of up to 70% to its climate change programmes.
If the US pulls out of the Paris agreement, it will send the wrong signals. As it is, the agreement is voluntary, with each country specifying to what extent it will cut emissions and subject itself to international scrutiny. Every year beats the record for the highest temperatures and the world is well on course to cross the 2˚C increase above pre-industrial levels, beyond which there will be cataclysmic climate change.
At the protracted climate negotiations, the US leads the unofficial Umbrella group, which include Australia, Russia, Canada and Japan. At the very least, their will to combat global warming will be compromised; Japan – although the host country for the Kyoto protocol – pulled out of that treaty after the US did so.
As the Washington-based World Resources Institute observed, climate has come the centre of the agenda of both G7 and G20. Last year, US intelligence agencies found that climate change could case grave political and social instability worldwide, which is why G7 has commissioned a study on A New Climate for Peace and is stepping up its efforts to better coordinate strategies to contain climate security risks.
The bedrock of the Paris agreement is the action which countries take at home. In the US, it is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which is part of the larger Climate Action Plan and comes under the EPA. Trump has appointed former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the agency though Pruitt sued it 13 times in the past six years, in collusion with the very industries which the regulations were aimed at. Pruitt has admitted that climate change is occurring, adding worryingly that “human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.”
The Clean Power Plan seeks to curb coal-fired power plants, which might fell run foul of secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s assertion that he “will support US membership in only those international agreements that advance our national interests and do not cause harm to the American people or our economic competitiveness.” This is reminiscent of the senior George Bush’s remarks at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” However, even his son’s EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, has criticised Trump for appointing a person who is a climate change denier.
Trump may well be shooting himself in the foot because he is abandoning America’s plans to lead the world’s clean energy industries, the global market for which is estimated to touch $6 trillion by 2030. China is investing heavily in these and even India may get a toe in the door with its International Solar Alliance. Last month, 630 American top business leaders wrote an open letter to Trump and Congress, exhorting them to continue supporting renewables and not quit the Paris agreement.
Darryl D’Monte is chairman emeritus, Forum of Environmental Journalists in India
The views expressed are personal