President Donald Trump...policy shift on climate change

Itai Mutemeri, a Climate change and economic development analyst at Senca Research, assesses the impact of US pulling out of Paris Climate Agreement

When Trump pushed the eject button on the U.S. involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement recently, he singularly turned America’s back to a pact agreed by nearly 200 countries in 2015 to curb greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent the runaway climate change that would occur should temperatures spiral 2C or more above the pre-industrial era.

Ironically, although the US is the world’s largest aggregate CO2 polluter, president Trump seems more concerned with appeasing the voters who put him in the White House than in pledging America’s co-operation to a global problem.

In a worst case scenario, the US withdrawal could add 0.3C to global temperatures by the end of the century, according to the UN World Meteorological Organisation. 

As energy policy analyst David Roberts so eloquently puts it: “Telling the world literally every other country in the world to **** off will probably create problems down the road”.

For developing countries, the consequences of Trump’s decision, down the road, are bleak. Although it will take years for the US to formally pull out of the Paris agreement during the 1,320 days Trump has left in office, he is committed to ramping up carbon dioxide emissions by keeping the coal industry on life support, in addition to removing Obama’s emission standards on vehicles.

Given that time is the most important asset in fighting climate change, Trump’s move basically means that he is fast forwarding the clock in the battle against climate change.

Itai Mutemeri...Trump fast forwarding climate change clock
Itai Mutemeri…Trump fast forwarding climate change clock

Here are three reasons why Trump’s decision is particularly problematic for developing countries.

In March, Swedish researchers published their projections of what it would take to reach the goals set out by the Paris Agreement, as they call it: A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. They estimate that global fossil-fuel emissions need to peak by 2020, at the latest, to keep global temperature rise below the 2°C target.

What are the consequences for developing countries if the world blows past this target? We already know that climate change will disproportionately affect developing countries. Some studies suggest a strengthening of the summer monsoon in Asia. This would increase water availability for some. But intense rainfall would also increase the risk of flooding and damage to the already poor infrastructure.

Without US’s participation and co-operation, that already ambitious 2020 goal now looks completely out of reach.

The second reason developing counties should worry about Trump’s move is that greenhouse gas emissions do not respect national borders. The thousands of tonnes of GHG emissions – that would have been mitigated if the US had stayed the course – could have medium-term impacts anywhere.

Studies indicate that the sulphur dioxide from power stations and factories in Europe worsened the droughts experienced in North Africa during the 1970’s and 1980s. That underlines the fact that climate is a global system and that nothing happens in isolation.

Lastly, Trump’s position is that he’s pulled out the Paris agreement because of his America first policy. He says it’s unfair on the US to contribute $1bn per year to the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change.

I’ll spare you a discussion on the idea of climate justice and why it makes sense. The US is the richest country in the world. One only has to consider that some business startups in America have valuations equal to the GDP of small countries to appreciate the wealth gap between it and some of the world’s poorest countries. (see Dropbox, see Benin)

To a country like Bangladesh, a fraction of $1bn represents an opportunity to develop infrastructure that survives torrential flooding. To Ethiopia, it’s an opportunity to pilot drought tolerant crops. But why help mitigate the sea level rise that is swallowing Vanuatu, when you can subsidise the fossil companies that are causing it?

This is part of the Donald’s apathetic attitude towards developing countries, best illustrated by his proposal to cut aid funding by 32% .

Undoubtedly, efforts will be made to fill the carbon gaps created by Trump’s landmark decision, both within the US and internationally. Plans by the European Union to bypass Trump’s administration and work directly with US business leaders and state governors to implement the Paris Climate Change are commendable.

The governors of California, Washington, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island are understood to be keen to continue working towards meeting the targets of the global climate accord.

That is encouraging news indeed because those seven states represent almost 15% of the US emissions.

Unfortunately, the damage done to the climate system, as a result of Trump’s dogmatic stance on the issue, will remain. And as usual, those at the tail end of economic power game will be the hardest hit.