It’s not just Donald Trump. The United States has a long record of negotiating international agreements and then running away from them. The rest of the world has an equally long record of heaving a sigh of regret, telling Americans it will be happy to have them back when they get over it, and carrying on without them. It will do it again over the Paris Accord on climate change.
We have had many expressions of synthetic shock since Trump finally announced he was abandoning the climate accord last Thursday, after wringing every last drop of drama out of his totally predictable decision. Then we had the equally predictable affirmations from everybody else that they would carry on regardless. It’s all as stylised and traditional as a Noh play.
The tradition actually dates back to the early 20th century, when the United States was the prime mover in creating a new international institution to prevent war, the League of Nations, at the end of the First World War—and then refused to join it. The League could probably not have avoided the Second World War even if the US had been a member, but its absence certainly didn’t help.
Then came a longish period, from the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 to the arms control agreements of the 1960s and ’70s, when American leadership actually did make the world a safer place. But by 30 years ago it was back to the bad old ways, with the US not signing (or signing and then “unsigning”) the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change.
In each case, the rest of the world just went ahead and put the treaty into effect anyway—and in no case did the American defection destroy the deal. It’s already clear that Trump’s decision will not sabotage this deal either. The other major powers will all stick with the commitments they made in Paris 18 months ago, because they are all really frightened by what will happen if they don’t.
“We need the Paris agreement to protect all of creation,” said Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Then she, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy issued a joint statement saying, “We firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.”
“As far as the Paris accord is concerned … our government is committed, irrespective of the stand of anyone, anywhere in the world,” said Japan’s finance minister, Taro Aso. “I’m not just disappointed, but also feel anger.” China’s President Xi Jinping modestly explained that his country has only become the world’s leader on climate change by default. “It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”
The absence of the US government will not derail the project. The commitments of American states, cities, organizations and individuals on reducing US greenhouse gas emissions will continue to provide at least half of the cuts promised by former president Barack Obama. Since those promised cuts were to be spread over 10 years, the damage may be even less if Trump turns out to be a one-term president.
The commitments made at Paris in 2015 were voluntary national promises. There were no negotiations about how big the contributions of various countries should actually be: Trump only talks about “renegotiating” the deal because he never actually read it.
The sad fact is that all the cuts promised by all the countries at the Paris conference were not enough to keep global warming from going past the never-exceed level of plus 2 degrees C. When the United Nations added the numbers up, the world was still heading for plus 2.7 degrees.
Take all the promised American cuts out of the equation and the world will be heading for around plus 3.0 degrees instead, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. Either way, we cross the threshold and tumble into runaway, irreversible warming.
However, the world still has 20 years or so before we pass through plus 2 degrees. Everybody at the Paris talks understood that they would have to hold another conference in around five years’ time and come up with bigger cuts then. It’s salami tactics, which is bad science but good politics, and it could still deliver the goods.
Five years from now, Trump may no longer be a problem. Even if he’s not impeached or dead, he might lose the 2020 election. He might even choose not to run again; he’s already complaining about how hard the job is.
So the US might rejoin the rest of the world in 2020—or it might not, but the rest of the world still has to go on trying to save itself even if the US chooses to be a free rider.
The other 190-odd governments of the planet understand how very bad it will be for everybody if we break through the two-degree boundary. They are obliged to act with or without the United States.