US goes rogue on climate

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

SPARE A THOUGHT FOR AL GORE. The recent US election must have brought back painful memories of his own knife-edge loss to George W. Bush in 2000. Like fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, Gore won the popular vote but fell short of the Electoral College votes needed for the presidency.

Then there are the excruciating similarities in his pet policy area, climate change.

In 2000 Gore ran for president after an international agreement to reduce greenhouse pollution — the Kyoto Protocol — had just gotten started. After Gore lost, the Bush administration’s aggressive opposition to the deal cast a pall over future negotiations, hampering global ambition.

Now here we go again. Just a few days after the historic Paris Agreement on climate change entered force, another Republican climate denier has snatched the White House, and this one is from the kooky fringe.

Donald Trump once famously tweeted ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.’ During the campaign, he bellowed that he would ‘cancel’ the Paris Agreement and ‘stop all payments of US tax dollars to UN global warming programs’.

There’s more. For years during cold snaps Trump would tweet variations of the line ‘It’s snowing and freezing in NYC. What the hell ever happened to global warming?’ You can see similar tweets here.

Donald Trump climate cartoon by Greg Foyster

So Trump isn’t just a closet sceptic, paying lip-service to climate change while doing nothing about it. He’s an out-and-proud conspiracy theorist. All signs point to the US returning to its role as international climate saboteur, and for much the same reasons: Republican paranoia over the economic rise of China.

Many Republicans see a UN climate agreement as a threat to sovereignty and economic competitiveness. In 1997, the US Senate passed a resolution not to sign the Kyoto Protocol partly because it mandated targets on rich developed countries but not developing countries like China or Brazil. The Bush administration later pulled out of the protocol completely. (Actually China ratified it in 2002, but with a target of a less emissions-intensive economy, not an absolute reduction in emissions.)

Analysing the Kyoto Protocol for International Affairs in 2006, Australian academic Peter Christoff wrote that US resistance to Kyoto related to ‘ambition to remain the global hegemon’. Emergent states like China, he explained, ‘represent a major challenge to its own political and economic status’.

And so when Obama wanted to elevate action on climate change, he started with a symbolic agreement between the US and China in 2014, removing a persistent stumbling block in global negotiations. It was smart politics, and it built crucial momentum towards a successful result in Paris. Afterwards, the US and China held a joint announcement to formally ratify the agreement — another symbol of cooperation between the world’s two largest emitters.

In fact, the Paris Agreement was deliberately designed to avoid past Republican concerns. As the lead US negotiator Todd Stern told the Washington Post, there are no binding targets to trigger fears of lost sovereignty: ‘Under the Paris Agreement, no foreigner, from bureaucrat to king, gains an iota of control over US decisions about how much energy we use or, indeed, what our overall energy or climate policy is. Rather, every country develops its own plan for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. No country can tell another what it must do. This “nationally determined” structure was exactly what the US advocated.’

Assuming Trump will probably dismiss that advice, what could he actually do? He can’t just ‘cancel’ the Paris Agreement because more than 100 countries have already ratified it. The earliest a party can withdraw is three years after it took force, and even then the withdrawal wouldn’t take effect for another year. That means technically the US can’t exit until after the next presidential election in November 2020.

But there are loopholes. Trump could pull out of the entire United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent treaty to the Paris Agreement, which would take effect in one year. And a source in Trump’s team claims he can issue a presidential order simply revoking the US’s signature.

If Trump doesn’t pull out directly, he could also just do nothing to meet the US’s emissions reduction pledge — a kind of go-slow boycott. That would involve dismantling Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the main mechanism to reduce climate pollution from coal power stations in the US.

Perhaps the greatest damage he could inflict is to undermine global ambition. Climate change agreements are susceptible to free-riding — if one party tries to get away with doing less, others might too. There are no binding targets in the Paris Agreement, so it relies heavily on a sense of mutual obligation.

On top of that, Trump will entrench concern about global warming along party lines. A Pew Research online survey of voters leading up to the election found 66 per cent of Clinton supporters said climate change was ‘a very big problem’, but only 14 per cent of Trump voters. This polarisation of climate change has been a hallmark of US politics for over a decade and will likely continue.

We’re heading for dark times, but there was a ray of light last week — and it shone from Australia. The day after Trump’s victory, our federal Coalition government announced it would ratify the Paris Agreement. It was a small but significant departure from the past. When President Bush rejected Kyoto in the early 2000s, then-Prime Minister Howard quickly followed suit. This time it seems we’re staying the course, leaving the US to become a rogue state on climate change.