SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 210 July/August 2017

Trump dumps Paris accord

Donald Trump finally confirmed on 20 June that the USA will be pulling out of the UN sponsored international climate agreement signed in Paris in December 2015 to tackle global warming. This move was opposed by most other governments and was condemned by climate scientists around the world as a huge blow to efforts to combat global warming. Not content with this slap in the face to the millions of people worried by rocketing temperatures, Trump has carried out his threat to largely dismantle US environmental infrastructure, in particular to remove the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "in almost every form".

Apart from appointing a climate denier to head the EPA, he is proposing to cut its budget by 31%, the most of any federal agency. Areas to be axed or slashed include the lead risk reduction programme, improving water quality, environmental justice initiatives, and research on climate change. One of the first acts of the new president was to fast track the building of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines that will open up huge new areas of wilderness to oil and gas exploitation, producing more of the fossil fuels that drive global warming.

At Paris, for the first time, the two biggest powers agreed to take part in a treaty that claimed to be tackling climate change. This move was hailed by some environmentalists as a turning point, since the US and China, the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, had boycotted the Kyoto treaty, the forerunner to Paris that lapsed in 2012, making it a non-starter. On 5 October 2016, the UN announced that sufficient countries had ratified the treaty for it to come into force on 4 November 2016.

The then US president, Barack Obama, signed a presidential order to ratify the treaty saying: "Today is a historic day in the fight to protect our planet for future generations. Today, the world meets the moment. And if we follow through on the commitments that this Paris agreement embodies, history may well judge this as a turning point for our planet". In fact, Paris was never intended to be a legally binding treaty like Kyoto, which at least had some meaningful clauses even though, in practice, the firms targeted never faced any significant sanction. Obama ratified the Paris agreement via a presidential order because he knew that the US Congress would refuse to do so. This meant that Trump was free to reverse the order when he came to office.

Trump’s inner circle was reportedly split on whether to renege on the treaty, to go through the formal process of leaving, or just ignore it. In the end he decided to go through the process of leaving. The disadvantage for Trump was that this would take up to four years, meaning that he could be kicked out before withdrawal came into effect. The Alt Right were probably pushing for the US to renege on the treaty to make a political statement, after their setbacks on the attempt to refuse entry to people from a selection of predominantly Muslim countries, and on funding for the Mexico wall. The capitalist establishment, however, must have put huge pressure on Trump not to do this because of the international legal implications. What probably swung it for formal withdrawal was that, while the process was being completed, the US would be free to ignore Paris because there were no sanctions in the treaty for any transgressors or foot-draggers.

The almost completely voluntary approach was one of the main limitations of the agreement, where the countries agreed only to make pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These pledges were unilaterally decided by the individual countries and there was no timescale for their implementation. There was only a commitment to review the performance after five years and no sanction if they did not. Not surprisingly, the pledges were inadequate to tackle the problem.

The US promised to cut emissions by 28% by 2025 from a 2005 baseline. China pledged that its emissions would peak in 2030 or, rather, said it would aim to achieve this, without specifying what they would be. Most experts agreed that, even if all the pledges were honoured, global temperatures would rise by up to 3C above pre-industrial levels, a potentially catastrophic figure.

In justifying his actions, Trump has cited the ‘ratchet’ mechanism embodied in the Paris treaty, whereby every five years states are required to review their progress, and then come up with bigger commitments to cut emissions. Although there would be no compulsion or sanctions if the US refused to comply and increase its emissions cut target, Trump regarded this aspect of the treaty as the thin end of a wedge. In doing this he was merely repeating, albeit in a typically crude and blatant manner, the longstanding position of big sections of the US capitalist establishment – and the multinationals it represents – that it was not prepared to give a ‘free ride’ to rivals, particularly China.

The hostile and dismissive response of other heads of the industrialised capitalist countries to Trump’s environmental hooliganism was completely hypocritical. Most of these states and their successive governments have for 30 years paid lip service to tackling climate change. All of them have utterly failed to control an explosion in greenhouse gas emissions and a corresponding rise in global temperatures. It is particularly ironic that China has now promoted itself as the world leader of the struggle to control global warming when it is by far the biggest polluter. In 2015 alone, it issued permits for the construction of 210 new coal-fired power stations, four a week.

The reaction of environmental activists to Trump has been defiant. Greenpeace has said that he cannot stop the renewable energy revolution because US states will independently implement green programmes and because a big uptake of renewable use is being driven by market forces. The Financial Times has called it ‘unstoppable’. There is not much evidence that individual US states will be able make a decisive difference to climate change, but there has been a significant increase in renewable deployment. That is, of course, very welcome. So could it make a meaningful difference?

The growth of renewables was discussed in Socialism Today in December 2015 (Why Can’t Capitalism Go Green?) but it is worth revisiting the arguments because solar and wind energy use has continued to increase since then. In 2016 there was a record increase in added renewable capacity which met a third of the increase in world energy demand. Nonetheless, the fossil fuels oil and gas still met 134 million out of the total of 171 million tonnes equivalent of demand, according to the Carbon Brief website. To put this into perspective, half a century ago fossil fuels accounted for 94% of global energy demand. Today that has fallen to 85.5%, including a decline of 0.5% over the past year.

So even at today’s increased rate of renewable uptake, and allowing for further significant (hypothetical) market driven accelerations in renewable introduction, it will take over 100 years for fossil fuel use to be eliminated. However, climate science says it is necessary to cut out fossil fuels by 2050 just to avoid the worst effects of global warming, a figure accepted by the majority of world leaders. Clearly, the numbers don’t add up.

There are also absolutely no guarantees that the present market trends will persist long enough even to achieve the totally inadequate timescale of the elimination of fossil fuels in 100 years. Energy demand has been curtailed in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and, although there is no sign yet of a long-term upswing in economic activity, another crazy credit boom like the one that preceded 2007 cannot be ruled out. This could then throw out of the window all the present calculations based on current subdued energy demand.

Much will also depend on the actions of China’s ruling bureaucracy, whose priority is always to preserve its privileges and power, and not to put the environment at the top of its agenda. For example, it is not clear whether the hundreds of new coal-fired power stations recently given the go-ahead will actually be built, but the possibility exists that they will, due to the pressure from the powerful coal lobby inside the regime. That would have disastrous consequences for global warming.

The currently subdued picture of world energy demand is based, to a significant extent, on policy decisions made in Beijing. An example was the order to end the frenzied construction boom five years ago that materially changed the outlook for global greenhouse gas emissions, after Chinese cement manufacture, the planet’s most polluting sector, was slashed. Trump’s aim to expand the coal and fracking industries will also push up US greenhouse gas emissions in the second biggest polluting country.

There are dozens of other permutations linked to the anarchic capitalist market system that can and will negate the Panglossian predictions of the market environmentalists of decisive action on global warming. So far, much of the argument and calculations have been based on whether sufficient action will be taken quickly enough to restrict temperature rises to 2C above pre-industrial levels. However, it is increasingly clear that devastating consequences can result from much lower increases. This was recognised by the Paris agreement which posed the need to keep rises down to 1.5C, without specifying any action or a timescale to achieve this.

The Carbon Brief website has brought up to date the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN scientific body responsible for the issue, to include data from 2016. It has concluded that four more years of emissions at the current rate will have used up the ‘carbon budget’ that would have given a good chance of keeping rises below 1.5C. The carbon budget is the total amount of CO2 emitted consistent with keeping temperatures below a certain level. In other words, time to take action has virtually run out.

New projections by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have also reached similar conclusions. Its models develop a set of pathways for how technology, energy, land use and greenhouse gas concentrations will change over the century ahead. The most optimistic scenario, in which ‘stringent mitigation’ actions are taken immediately, results in a temperature rise of between 1.3 to 1.9C by 2100. With the present ‘business as usual’ pattern of change in the variables above, the model is predicting a temperature rise closer to 4 to 6.1C by 2100, the higher figure possibly inconsistent with maintaining life on the planet.

Even with the most optimistic Potsdam scenario – which has no prospect of being achieved with a market led approach – there will be severe impacts on the planet. The present temperature rise of just over 1C has most probably resulted in extreme weather effects, starting with Hurricane Katrina and a series of subsequent devastating floods and droughts. A rise of 1.9C, at the top end of the optimistic Potsdam scenario, will come very close to risking runaway and catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Trump has revealed the modern face of imperialist capitalism in relation to the environment, stripped of the hypocrisy and weasel words of the other world ‘leaders’. It must be a call to action to take immediate measures not only on global warming, but to remove the fundamental cause of the problem, the capitalist system.

Pete Dickenson

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