Is the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement the wake-up call the world needs?

It seems like a body blow to the very possibility of saving humanity’s future. A “brutal act,” as described by Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel. The Paris Agreement is itself limited in scope, and insufficient in its goals, but at least it amounts to the single best step the world has taken to try to limit the effects of climate change. A glimmer of sanity in our disturbed civilization.

So how could President Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the agreement be anything but disastrous? I would argue that perhaps it’s the first step in a major pivoting of world relations and power dynamics that could put us on a more hopeful course.

Think of a battered spouse who is continually physically abused, but keeps trying to pretend to herself and others around her that somehow it’s manageable. As a friend, you might counsel her to do something drastic, but get frustrated when nothing happens. Then, one day, the battering goes too far. Your friend ends up in hospital—and finally recognizes she has to leave the brute before it’s too late.

Belgium NATO Summit
Trump pushing the Montenegro Prime Minister out the way at a recent European summit

The civilized world has recently been receiving a battering from the brute that has taken power in the United States. If the US had remained in the Paris Agreement, it would have enabled the other countries to act like that battered spouse, keeping the cover on America’s violations of its prior commitments, even while the world careened towards disaster. It was already clear that the US was going to fall far short of its emission targets under the Paris Agreement, and had reneged on its pledge of financial assistance to poorer countries fighting the effects of climate disruption. The US backsliding would have given cover to other countries to avoid meeting their own targets.

Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement would have continued, like the proverbial fig leaf, to cover over the naked facts that we need far more drastic change to avoid a climate catastrophe this century. As many of us who were at COP21 noted at the time, there was a chasm built in to the agreement between the global emission targets and what would be necessary to avoid a 3+ºC rise in temperature by 2100. As Ken Ward, former deputy director of Greenpeace, has recently written:

Pulling out of Paris takes false hopes off the table, and opens the way for building an effective climate movement. So as committed climate activist who knows we’re running out of time, I say, let’s get on with it.

Many observers fret that the US pullout will now cause the rest of the agreement to unravel. But is it possible that the opposite is true? Could it catalyze more responsible government leaders—such as those in France, Germany, China, and India—to realize there is no-one else to rely on but themselves to stave off disaster?

In hunter-gatherer bands, when a troublemaker gets too big for his breeches and threatens the group’s survival, the rest of the band strengthens their bonds against him in the interest of group security. Our troubled globe, with nation states jostling with each other, is in a similar situation. What could they do together to save our future?

Hunter-gatherer bands evolved to cooperate against troublemakers. Will our world do the same?

An interesting  option would be to establish a global tax on carbon and apply it to all goods traded internationally. It’s a topic being seriously discussed in power centers far from the Beltway. This could, in the Trump era, lead to tariff wars, but it might also be a game-changer that the world’s responsible nations have the power to enable.

One unequivocal achievement that Trump has blundered upon is ending US leadership in the world. The US has already lost any semblance of moral leadership, but now its technological, economic, and political status may be irreparably damaged. China, India, and the EU have the opportunity to build a 21st century economy based on renewables that will leave the US in the dirt. They will be the centers that the rest of the world will look to for any chance of a hopeful future.

America’s global hegemony is over. We can only hope that the world’s new power blocs will do a better job with what they inherit.

6 thoughts on “Is the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement the wake-up call the world needs?

  1. There is wisdom in your thought that this flamboyant gesture by the president may become a wake-up call for the rest of us. Already, we see U.S. states and cities stepping up. There are over 170 sub-national entities now in the ‘Under2Coalition’ that was co-created by Gov Brown with the Under2MOU. To the extent that Trump, Pruitt, Zinke, et al were already taking steps that undercut the American commitment, mired in the difficult-to-see regulatory processes, those have now become more visible by virtue of this dark and narrow blunder.
    I just love it that, shortly after Trump said he was elected to serve the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris, the popular elected Mayor of Pittsburgh tweeted out that his city will not retreat from its commitments to fulfill the promise of the Paris Accord. President Macron’s speech to the American people was a true example of a global leader, ending with saying we all will continue to “Make our Planet Great Again.”


    1. Well said, David. Trump has created a vacuum of world leadership that is now being filled by those with vision, such as Macron, Jerry Brown, and a plethora of others.


  2. Thanks Jeremy. I just left a small Climate Rally at the Federal Bldg. in San Francisco. Approximately 70 people marched and carried signs and chanted for mother earth. Let’s keep on with organizing public pressure and informed conversations to save the planet.


    1. Yes, Ken. Thanks for all that you do! We can react to this by getting more energized, and organizing those who start waking up to the destruction Trump and his cronies are bringing on humanity.


      1. Thanks Jeremy.

        I have somewhat different views on this matter.

        Trump has withdrawn from the Paris agreement due to economic reasons (he wants jobs) and his disloyalty to Science. He does not think that the statistics given by the environmentalists are correct. He may not be genuine but that is what he appears to think.

        He is not prepared to bow down to the “international” or global superstructure, and his nationalism dictates him to withdraw.

        The western developmental paradigm is not capable of protecting the environment, and irrespective of Trump’s decision the other countries should turn to a different paradigm that is not man-centered, and that leads to coexistence with nature, without exploiting it for man-centered development.


  3. I’m not sure if Trump’s approach is as rational as you suggest. However, I do agree with you about the western paradigm not capable of protecting the environment. Thanks for your comment!


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