One man does not control the world’s climate

It is important not to over-react to the news that Donald Trump wishes to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement and seek to renegotiate a ‘fairer deal’ for America. The wailing and grieving around the media that has accompanied yesterday’s announcement is exactly the sort of reaction that Trump is seeking to provoke. It plays to his sense of self-importance and it fundamentally mis-reads the relationship between the Paris Agreement and the climate system.

The BBC’s top-level news headline for today on their web-site has been “Global dismay at US climate deal pull out”. World leaders, including Barack Obama, have lined up to denounce Trump’s decision and media headlines proclaim “A crime against the future of people and the planet”. Other commentators express concern about a set-back for the Agreement itself – a “devastating failure of historic proportions” according to Senator Chuck Schumer — and what it will mean for the future of the world’s climate.

This set of reactions may be understandable, but they play straight into the hands of Donald Trump and his advocates. They reaffirm his mission of self-importance, of fighting against the establishment, his self-belief that what he says and does matters more than anything anyone else says and does.

Overstating the significance of Trump’s announcement also mis-reads the nature of the Paris Agreement and its efficacy in ‘governing’ the world’s climate. The Paris Agreement is already a voluntary arrangement of self-determined and self-policed intentions to reduce greenhouses gas emissions from different national jurisdictions. There are no penalties, no sanctions for states which fail to meet their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).

Even if, following Trump’s announcement, the USA now fails to secure its own NDC – and this if far from certain for reasons below – the projections of how this might alter the average global temperature by 2100 reveal the sleight of hand. Projections suggest a warming of about 3.6°C (without the USA in Paris) rather than 3.3°C (with the USA in Paris), a reduction of just 0.3°C and well-within the random noise in the system. The fact is, all the NDCs declared by nations leave the world well short of the declared goal of 2 degrees of warming, let alone the aspirational target of 1.5°C.

We should not fall for the hype of defenders of the Paris Agreement and its own self-pronounced historic status. Neither therefore should we despairingly denounce Trump for declaring he will remove the USA from the Agreement. Such reactions give too much weight to the actions of one man to shape the world and they place too much faith in the Paris Agreement to effect change in societies around the world.

This is not a defeatist position to hold. And I am certainly no defender of Donald Trump. It is rather a position that recognises the limited powers that Trump holds over his own economy and the limited effectiveness of any single global treaty to “govern” the world’s climate. What matters far more are the thousand and one sites around the world where change is taking place, the thousands of different political actors, social movements and loci of innovation and change which are shaping the trajectory of future world development.

For sure, some of these have taken inspiration from the Paris Agreement. But many have not and are driven by their own internal logics: new business start-ups and commercial opportunity; cultural movements for enhanced well-being and healthy life-styles; effective city planning to deliver cleaner air and efficient mobility; moral imperatives to deliver improved energy, health and education services for the world’s left behinds; and so on. These developments have a momentum and a motivational force of their own that do not stand or fall on the febrile politics of the Paris Agreement, even less on the whims of an American President.

Rather than obsess about Donald Trump’s “will-he-won’t-he” games it is far better to look on the up-side of what is already happening around the world and to lend ones shove to many of these changes underway. We should read Trump’s announcement in a different way: paradoxically, it will invigorate and make more determined many of the individuals, organisations and movements alluded to above.

One man does not control the world’s climate.

Mike Hulme, 2 June 2017

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