Curtis Johnson, Truthout | Op-Ed
In light of the tremendous stakes of the climate crisis for the future of life on Earth, Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord was a monstrous act. It came after previous acts by the regime to gut climate and other environmental protections, undermine the Endangered Species Act and protections for wildlife, open public lands and the oceans to further exploitation of fossil fuels, put science-deniers who are hostile to protecting the environment and the public in charge of key government environmental positions, suppress climate research and scrub climate change information from government websites.
Taken together, Trump’s order to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, which would have cut emissions from US power plants, and his Paris decision mean that instead of US greenhouse gas emissions falling, they will likely remain at the level they are, or even rise. The result? Worsening an already growing climate cataclysm. Trump’s actions are predicted by scientists to make it that much more difficult to prevent the world from breaching temperature limits needed to prevent dangerous climate change. The longer that deep cuts in emissions are avoided, the more serious the damage will be, and the less likely climate disaster can be prevented.
Trump’s decision may also mean that other countries are less likely to meet their Paris goals, despite statements from some that they remain committed to the accord.
Given these impacts, Trump’s decisions on climate and the environment should be called what they are: crimes against the planet, against life and against human beings.
“America First” — the Planet and People Be Damned
Trump justified his decision in the most selfish and chauvinist of terms:
This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States. The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement — they went wild; they were so happy — for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.
He went on to claim that the Paris accord would have meant massive loss of jobs and shuttering of coal plants in the US, while other countries like China and India expanded their own, and other unacceptable economic losses. Trump thinly lied that he wants to renegotiate the agreement to make it “more fair” to the US and that the US would remain “the world’s leader on environmental issues.”
Firstly, it must be said, there is no country on the Earth more responsible for climate change and its depredations on species and humans than the US. The US is today the second largest contributor to greenhouse emissions. China now produces more greenhouse gases than the US, but US emissions per person are more than those in China and India combined. This doesn’t even include the fact that much production in China and India contributing to emissions is done for the international market, essentially for the benefit of the wealthier countries.
Additionally, the US is far in the lead of any other country in producing the largest portion of greenhouse emissions over time that have built up. It’s responsible for fully 20 percent of the carbon emissions in the atmosphere. But Trump and his people don’t care anything about this. They don’t care about what damage has been and is being done, or the responsibility of the US to alleviate the destruction for which it is responsible. In fact, as part of this decision, Trump said he would stop US contributions to the Green Climate Fund, the UN-sponsored program to assist poorer countries to develop by investing in cleaner energy technologies. Instead, Trump says all that matters is what is an “advantage for America.” So, in essence, what damage the US emissions have already caused, and what happens going forward to the rest of humanity or the species of the planet, are of no consequence. That’s not acceptable.
Some critics of Trump say the decision to pull from the accord “will only hurt the US” and its standing in the world, and so the US should stay in for this reason. But people in this country should not identify their own interests as the same as those who hold power in this country, which are in fact opposed to the interests of the majority of people here and throughout the world.
Further, Trump completely misunderstands (or is just trying to cover up) that the Paris accords and goals for each country were set by each country on a voluntary basis. Whether and how they are met is also completely voluntary. Some call this the “beauty” of the agreement, but it is actually one of the big problems with the accord, because all of these countries are only making steps they precisely think won’t harm their own “economic and national interests” too much, whether the planet can stand it or not.
So, under this voluntary agreement, there was no forced shuttering of factories or job losses by any country on any other country, including on the US. This is entirely false and meant to create a dangerous and vengeful “we’re the victim” narrative. And let’s be truthful; Trump does not care about the lives of coal miners. And it is not other countries that are eliminating coal jobs, but the workings of the capitalist market itself (of which Trump is a personification), principally the outcompeting of coal by natural gas production — yet another destructive fossil fuel. Trump’s figures for his “argument,” like most everything else from this president, are just falsehoods. In this case, they are based on cherry-picking worst-case scenarios from studies commissioned by a group known as the American Council for Capital Formation, which is composed of some of the largest fossil fuel and other pro-business interests. (Point by point fact-checking and refutations on Trump’s justifications have been done elsewhere; one of the best is here.)
Further, any country or leader who can only promise jobs for people (like increasing coal mining jobs) that would contribute further to the destruction of the natural world that all species and humans need to survive and thrive is entirely illegitimate.
A very important point that needs to be made in all of this is that Trump’s Paris decision is not just a big “screw you” to the planet and the people worldwide, it is also a further “doubling down” on attempts to consolidate a fascist form of government. It doesn’t stand alone, and can’t be understood correctly apart from the moves by this regime and its allies on every level to silence the press, to attack the rule of law, to attack protest and democratic rights, enforce a vicious white supremacy and misogyny, unleash vile deportations and hatred toward immigrants, and threaten the world, even former allies under the signboard of “America First.”
It’s a further attempt to coalesce an unthinking, anti-scientific, anti-evidence, “post-truth” and vicious ethos as the ruling norm, where reason, concern for others (besides white Americans) and critical thinking are seen as weak, and worthy of not just disdain, but destruction. Trump’s Paris decision came in the same week that white supremacist, brown-shirt types wielding knives on both coasts targeted people of color and then killed them or others who stood up for them. Trump’s Paris decision resonated with these types of fascist elements throughout our society.
Trump’s portrayal of a victimized US that has been taken advantage of by the rest of the world and is now being laughed at is chillingly reminiscent of Hitler’s constant assertions that Germany had been betrayed — “stabbed in the back” by foreign enemies and abetted by domestic ones. Let’s not forget how this was a key way the Nazis galvanized the population to unthinking obedience, and to lay down their lives in committing the most atrocious crimes against others. We cannot allow this to be repeated.
All of this raises further the need for mass repudiation, denunciation and resolute resistance to stop Trump and this whole fascist regime, and to force them out before they can do further untold damage.
The Climate Stakes
A November 2016 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicted that if all countries meet their current Paris goals, (including those by the US), the result would still be a 3 degree Celsius temperature rise. So, what is needed is emissions cuts not just meeting the Paris goals, but cuts that would actually prevent temperatures from exceeding a 1.5-degree Celsius rise — a level we are already dangerously close to. This planetary need demands an emergency footing.
Obama set as an aspirational goal for the Paris accord, a US 26-28 percent cut in emissions below 2005 levels by 2025. According to Climate Action Tracker, the US, even with Obama’s policies fully realized, was on track to cut emissions only 10 percent by 2025.
But now even these small cuts that fall far short of the declared US Paris goal, (which wouldn’t cut emissions enough), are being tossed aside by the Trump regime. Trump’s decision to pull out of Paris, to seek to do away with any restrictions on burning of fossil fuels at a time when the necessity of protecting life and people is immediate, makes this president and all his cronies that support this entirely illegitimate and a tremendous danger to the future.
What are the stakes if global temperatures are not kept below the 2-degree Celsius aspirational goal of Paris? Increases beyond this would make it much more likely that the Arctic, Greenland and parts of the Antarctic ice caps, as well as glaciers worldwide — already rapidly melting — will be locked into a death spiral. This could rapidly escalate the release of methane and carbon locked in permafrost and in frozen ocean hydrates, which are already releasing greenhouse emissions with just the approximately 1 degree Celsius warming that has already occurred.
The vast impacts of this — from further transforming the planet’s weather patterns and its climate system, to undermining key planetary ecosystems that sustain life, to sea level rise, to spreading drought and more damaging storms, and to increasing conflict, wars and mass forced migrations (especially impacting the poorest people on the planet) — can only be called catastrophic. When looked at in interaction with extinction of species, transformations of the world’s oceans, the death of coral reefs, habitat destruction and many other related building threats to world ecosystems, it’s clear that such a scenario must be prevented to sustain a livable planet.
Stopping Trump’s Regime, Saving the Planet
Some commentators are arguing that since the EU and other countries are vowing to uphold the Paris accord and meet their climate goals, and that a number of governors and mayors in the US have also said they intend to follow through on cutting emissions in line with original US proposals, that Trump’s decision may not be too harmful. And that because of changes in the viability and lowered cost of new sustainable energy technologies, Trump’s aim to stick with and even expand fossil fuel production is destined to fall by the wayside. This line of thinking says, in effect, that the destructiveness of everything this regime is trying to do (and not do) on climate will just be pushed aside by the sweep of history. I believe this is mistaken and would steer people away from seeing the seriousness of this decision and the need to resist it.
It’s true that wind, solar power and other new sustainable energy technologies are spreading and taking hold in ways not seen previously with the ordinary workings of things. Also, that states or cities actually significantly cutting emissions would be a positive thing. But a much more drastic and rapid transformation of the world’s energy system — a more or less immediate decision to stop extractions of the dirtiest of fossil fuels and an overall plan for rapid elimination of fossil fuel use in general and a switch to general use of sustainable technologies — is really what’s required, given the emergency state of the climate crisis.
This is what’s needed now — not piecemeal or moderate cuts in line with profitability for large capitalist interests. This will not occur by hoping for “the adults in the room” in government to do the right thing, waiting for the next election or by identifying what is needed as what is in line with “US economic interests.” This can only occur by people in the US joining with people around the world — standing up, rising up to save life on our planet, taking the future into our hands. This starts with stopping Trump and his whole administration from carrying out their dangerous direction on this and every front.
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Curtis Johnson is a research scientist and freelance writer who has reported on the Gulf oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the extinction crisis and the climate crisis, as well as other environmental topics.