Donald Trump, the Paris Agreement, and the Meaning of America

Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change has sparked a global uproar. Yet America’s reluctance to reduce its use of fossil fuels is, in fact, logical. Not only because of the U.S. president’s overt denial of man-made climate change, but also and more fundamentally because it reflects America’s historical essence and trajectory.

So he did it. Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States of America, finally announced his decision to withdraw his country from the Paris Agreement on climate change. According to the White House occupant, this agreement negotiated by the Obama administration was a ‘bad deal’ for America, undermining its competitiveness and jobs, costing millions to its taxpayers, imposing disproportionate and unfair restrictions on its carbon emissions, and weakening its sovereignty. This agreement, he said, “is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States”. It is “a massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries”, and “the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life.” Such a bad deal is unacceptable to a president who has pledged to ‘Make America Great Again’ and to put America and its workers first.

Obviously, Trump’s core supporters have cheered this momentous decision. The billionaire real estate mogul-turned-president, they say, has made good on a pledge he made during last year’s campaign, showing once again that he meant what he said. The rest of America, on the other hand, as well as much of the world, couldn’t be more outraged. By reneging on its commitment to help fight climate change alongside the international community, America is abdicating its claim to global leadership, many argue. By joining the group of countries that are not signed up to deal reached in the French capital in December 2015, a group that so far comprises only Nicaragua and Syria, it is even turning into a ‘rogue state’, some suggest. A state that rejects science, progress and enlightened values, choosing instead a one-way trip back to the ‘Dark Ages’. A state that cannot anymore be relied upon, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it just a few days ago, or even that represents a growing danger to the world. Sad!

In the U.S., Trump’s announcement has triggered a sharp reaction from cities, states and businesses, which have vowed to meet U.S. climate commitments regardless of what Washington says or does. More than 1,000 city mayors, state governors, college and university leaders, businesses, and investors signed a “We Are Still In” open letter to the international community, saying they are committed to delivering concrete carbon emissions reductions that will help meet America’s emissions pledge under the Paris Agreement. Billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg even promised to provide up to $15 million in funding that he says the United Nations will lose as a result of President Trump’s decision to pull out from the climate deal. Emblematic CEOs such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Disney’s Robert Iger announced they would quit Trump advisory councils, and anti-Trump demonstrations have been held across the country.

Outside the U.S., the reaction has been no less virulent, and Donald Trump’s decision has been vehemently condemned across the international community. Emmanuel Macron, the young and newly elected French president, rebuked his U.S. counterpart in a televised speech – the first speech ever given in English by a French President from the Elysée Palace – condemning his decision as a historic “mistake” and issuing a call to “make our planet great again“. This call, a direct jibe at Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ election slogan, went immediately viral on social media… The leaders of the European Union and China, backed by India and Japan, announced they would fully implement the Paris Agreement despite Washington’s withdrawal. The deal, they insisted, is not up for renegotiation, despite what the U.S. president might say. Trump’s decision, many observers suggested, could actually trigger a wide-ranging geopolitical shake-up that would isolate the U.S., or even make it a ‘global pariah’, and hand China a chance for global leadership.

Beyond America’s geopolitical standing and diplomatic reputation, the reactions to Donald Trump’s decision have of course focused on what it may mean for the planet’s climate. A number of observers have suggested that the American president might actually be doing the world and global climate a favour: outside of the Paris deal, the U.S. will not be in a position to block progress as it has done so many times in the past on climate negotiations, and the rest of the world will therefore be able to step up its efforts. The ‘climate revolution’ they say, is already unstoppable anyway, including in the U.S. The stunning growth of renewable energies, fuelled by rapid technological progress and by their falling costs, will ensure that the ‘decarbonisation’ of the global economy accelerates in the coming years, whatever Mr. Trump may say or do.

Most analysts and climate activists, however, consider that the U.S. withdrawal will severely undermine the international community’s fight against climate change. The disengagement of the world’s only superpower and current second largest CO2 emitter – and by far the biggest carbon polluter in history – might in fact weaken the Paris Agreement in many ways. Not only because it may reduce incentives for some countries that only reluctantly signed up to the deal to meet their voluntary emissions reductions pledges, but also because it may slow down the pace of technological progress needed to enable the transition to ‘clean energy’. The U.S. indeed remains the world’s technological powerhouse, and a lot of the ‘solutions’ required to accelerate the deployment and use of renewable energies (e.g. concerning electricity storage or carbon capture) are expected to come from its research labs and tech companies. Without sufficient political support and government funding, these solutions may take longer to be developed, or even never emerge. In addition, America’s withdrawal will also undermine the Green Climate Fund, which aims to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to the changes already set in motion by past emissions, and to which the U.S. was the largest contributor in absolute terms. Trump’s decision, hence, appears to many as an irresponsible move, a ‘moral disgrace’ or even a ‘crime against humanity’. Future generations will reap catastrophes and conflicts, and “people will die” because of this reckless withdrawal, some have warned.

Climate change denier in chief

Of course, Donald Trump’s decision doesn’t really come as a surprise. Over the last few years he has repeatedly denied the existence of man-made global warming, calling it ‘fictional’, ‘bullshit’, or even a ‘Chinese hoax’ aimed at making U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. Obviously, there is no point in committing to reduce carbon emissions – and hence to enforce restrictive regulations on economic activity – if you believe that climate change is bullshit and/or a hoax. In addition, he had repeatedly promised during last year’s election campaign that he would repeal and renegotiate all international deals that he thinks do not serve America’s best interests – meaning pretty much all international deals, and certainly the Paris Agreement. Some had however hoped that he would change his tune once installed in the White House. Over the last few months, many tried to caution him against withdrawing from the climate deal, including some celebrity climate activists, economists, politicians, prominent members of his administration, and even his own daughter, Ivanka. Some out of conviction, and others for tactical reasons: it would be easier for the U.S., they argued, to control, steer and contain international climate change remediation efforts by being party to the Paris Agreement rather than as an outsider. Just a few days before his withdrawal announcement, European and G7 leaders also tried to persuade him to stay in the Agreement, stressing how much damage an exit would inflict on America’s global standing and leadership. Yet he chose to stick to his election pledge and to renege on the deal.

Donald Trump thus probably really believes that climate change doesn’t exist, that it is not man-made, or that it doesn’t matter. His supporters were in fact quick to point out that ‘climate science is not settled’, that human responsibility in climate change is not proven, and that global warming is anyway not the ‘paramount issue’ that ‘the left’ claims it is.

Yet it is 2017, and evidence is piling up that climate change is happening, that it results from human activity, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, and that it generates rising costs and risks for countries across the world. Global emissions of carbon dioxide have stabilised in recent years, and even apparently reached some sort of plateau, but the concentration of CO2 – and other greenhouse gases – in the atmosphere has continued to rise sharply as a result of past emissions and is now at record levels. Meanwhile, the planet is heating up at a record pace, exactly as climate scientists said it would. The 120-year global meteorological record shows that eight of the ten hottest years have occurred in the last decade, and 2014, 2015, and 2016 all set new global temperature records. ‘Extreme’ weather and climatic events are multiplying across the globe, and sea level rise is accelerating worldwide. The science about man-made climate change is, in fact, as settled as science can be, given the partial and provisional nature of all scientific knowledge. And climate change is only one of the many aspects of human-induced environmental degradation, the extent of which is already for all to contemplate. Mankind, it is becoming obvious for all those who wish to see, is breaching several ‘planetary boundaries’, increasing the risk of triggering large-scale disruption of nature and of driving the earth system into a much less hospitable state.

In 2017, in fact, one can have only two reasons to keep denying the existence of man-made climate change: a complete lack of understanding of the basics of the greenhouse effect, and/or an objective interest in the continuation of the fossil fuel-based economic system. Donald Trump, it could be argued, has both.

His decision probably reflects his sheer ignorance of climate science, as well as of diplomacy and the international politics and economics of climate change. These are obviously not the only things he does not understand – in fact, his first few months in office have shown that ignorance is and will be a defining feature of his presidency. He himself recognised that he had no clue that some of the issues he would have to tackle as president “could be so complicated”, and that he thought being president “would be easier”. Climate change is just another “unbelievably complex” subject that probably eludes his comprehension, and on which he has therefore decided to follow his gut instinct: “Pittsburgh, not Paris”, that is… From this point of view, his decision on the climate deal only confirms that his presidency is, for the U.S. and for the world, turning into a farcical tragedy of historic proportions.

But Donald Trump also has an objective interest in the perpetuation of the fossil-fuel-based economic system. As a businessman he has made his fortune in real estate, building residential towers, hotels and resorts across America and the world. The construction industry is a major user of non-renewable resources, and is in particular heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Restricting the use of those resources or making them more expensive would inevitably raise the costs and hit the bottom line of companies like The Trump Organization, with which the president has failed to really sever ties. Moreover, Trump and the Republican Party are obviously under the influence of a powerful fossil fuel lobby, which has for years promoted ‘alternative facts’ to discredit or undermine climate science and splashed huge amounts of campaign cash on G.O.P. candidates. As a result, many Republican Party members and leaders have come to view climate change as fake science, designed to undermine America’s economy. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, in other words, might be first and foremost “a story of big political money”, perhaps “the most astounding example of influence-buying in modern American political history”.

The Trump MAGAthon

Yet Donald Trump’s decision does not only reflect his ignorance of climate science, his manifest conflicts of interest, or even the obvious influence of powerful fossil fuel lobbies over his administration and the Republican Party. In fact, even if a few coal and mining companies effectively lauded his move, most of America’s big oil and gas industry had actually urged him to remain in the Paris Agreement, at least officially, and criticised his decision to exit it. His own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who was until last year the CEO of America’s and the world’s largest oil major, ExxonMobil, was in favour of upholding the deal. In addition, most of America’s ‘big money’ actually voiced support for Paris, from Wall Street bankers to Silicon Valley’s tech giants. The U.S. ‘corporatocracy’, hence, cannot really be suspected of having pushed Washington to pursue narrow-minded, short-term national economic interests at the expense of the planet, not this time at least.

In addition, even if Donald Trump denies man-made climate change and has no grasp of “unbelievably complex” issues, even he must understand that the Paris Agreement is voluntary and does not, in itself, impose mandatory restrictions on the signatory nations nor penalties for failing to meet the pledged emissions reductions. Even he must understand that the U.S. contribution to the Green Climate Fund represents a minuscule portion of the Federal budget, and a very limited price tag for exerting influence and control over climate mitigation efforts across the world. Even he must understand the risks for America of isolating itself, of antagonising its allies and partners, of retreating from its position of global leadership, and of leaving Europe cosying up to the Chinese. Yet he still thinks that it is in America’s best interests to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Why is that?

Could it be that Donald Trump is just pandering to public opinion, which has traditionally been more sceptical about climate change in America than in other parts of the world? That would probably not be a very clever move, as polls suggest that U.S. public opinion on climate change has significantly evolved in recent years, even if at the same time getting increasingly polarised. Concern about global warming is rising, and a significant majority of Americans actually opposes exiting the Paris Agreement. Most Americans want the U.S., on the contrary, to take “aggressive action” and to lead global efforts to fight climate change, even if they still rank the environment near the bottom of their list of priorities for the country. Overall, it is unlikely that Trump’s decision will win him or the Republican Party any additional popular support and any vote.

Could Donald Trump’s decision be then motivated by a genuine belief that exiting the Paris Agreement will help protect, save or promote American jobs? Jobs in the coal industry, in particular, which he has vowed to bring back to the U.S.? Once again, this is unlikely to be the main consideration here. Countless economists have pointed out that coal jobs are probably not coming back, whatever the President may say or do. Most economists also refute the claim that the Paris Agreement would cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars in reduced output and millions of manufacturing jobs. On the contrary, they argue that without a decisive push for renewable energy the U.S. may miss out on the growth and jobs opportunities arising from the ‘clean energy revolution’. This debate is unlikely to be settled anytime soon, as trying to evaluate the net macroeconomic effects of the transition to renewable energy remains largely akin to guesswork at this stage. In terms of jobs, however, renewable energy technologies already create far more jobs than fossil fuels. In particular, the solar industry is creating jobs 17 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy. Stifling renewables therefore means stifling one of America’s main job creation engines – obviously not a wise move when you pretend to be the champion of job creation for American workers.

So what, in fact, may lie behind the President’s decision?

Donald Trump, let’s remember, has pledged to ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA), in the sense of bringing the country back to the heydays of the 1950s and 1960s, when U.S. manufacturing ruled the world and humming factories provided plenty of well-paying jobs in the ‘flyover states’, in particular for white males with no or little education. The supposed ‘greatness’ of America in those days was entirely reliant on the extensive use of fossil fuels, and most particularly oil. Trump and his supporters thus believe, consciously or unconsciously, that making America ‘Great Again’ requires embracing or re-embracing fossil fuels and is incompatible with reducing carbon emissions – especially since these emissions, in their views, have no significant adverse effect on the environment. Renewable energies, on the contrary, are seen as ineffective, wasteful and environmentally damaging. In particular, wind turbines are, as Donald Trump tweeted, “monstrosities” that are “ruining landscapes” and killing millions of birds every year. They are “an environmental & aesthetic disaster”, not only “disgusting looking” but also “bad for people’s health” and “destroying every country they touch” as the energy they provide is “unreliable and terrible”. Investing in solar energy, on the other hand, is just a waste of money on “unproven technologies and risky companies”. And energy efficiency measures are potentially damaging too, such as those new “environment friendly” light bulbs that can cause cancer

It would be easy to discard these tweeted assertions as uninformed, unfounded, dishonest, or just plain stupid – or to regard them as mere political posturing. Yet they find a wide echo across America because they reflect a deeply held perception of the existence of a close correlation between America’s ‘greatness’, and the unbridled use fossil fuels. A perception that extends well beyond the ranks of the Republican Party, even if in a diffuse way. And a perception that, from a historical perspective, actually corresponds to reality.

America’s fossil-fuelled exceptionalism

America, in fact, likes to think of itself as ‘unique’ and ‘exceptional’. This uniqueness or exceptionalism, the story goes, is based on liberty, individualism, democracy, and free-market economics. It is those principles that have made America ‘a shining city on a hill’, a place like no other, where all men of goodwill, regardless of their origin, social class or circumstances of birth, have a chance to pursue a life of opportunities, to achieve prosperity and success through hard work in a society with few barriers, and to reap the rewards from their efforts for themselves and their children. A place where everyone even has an ‘unalienable right’ to pursue ‘happiness’ and can live the ‘American Dream’. It is those principles, Americans often claim, that have made the U.S. the ‘greatest country in the world’, the most powerful and richest nation in history, and a country that in turn has a ‘manifest destiny’ to promote and defend freedom throughout the world…

This quasi-religious mythology, which is cherished and even revered across the American political spectrum, makes up for a nice story, but a story that does not fully reflect historical reality. Political and economic freedom have of course played an important role in America’s ascent, but they have not arose in a vacuum or flourished on a blank sheet. They have taken root in a land blessed with an unusual abundance of natural resources: thousands of acres of fertile land, abundant fresh water, and a wealth of mineral resources – stone, sand, salt, gold, silver, copper, as well as coal, oil, or natural gas. They have taken root in a land that, also, had loads of space, with a large land mass that early on became governed by one political system, that was largely empty once the indigenous population had been ‘removed’, that was bordered by two large coastlines providing food and later ports for commerce, and that was easily accessible via ocean or land and hence attractive to immigrants. Even with all these blessings, though, America’s early economic rise required more work capacity than what could be provided by incoming European immigrants and paid for by its nascent productive system. This work capacity got procured, then, in the form of slave labour. Slavery, in fact, played a much more critical role than individualism, democracy, or free markets in the economic development of the pre-industrial United States. And it is only when industrialisation started to take hold in the country – i.e. when the use of various types of machines powered by fossil fuels started to significantly expand the work capacity available to the economy – that it finally renounced slavery. From then on, America embarked on an era of rapid growth that brought it to the top of the world’s economic table at the turn of the 20th century.

What is important in this story is that America’s economic rise has resulted from many factors, but most fundamentally from the fantastic expansion of the ‘capacity to perform work’ available to its economy. This capacity to perform work, in physics, is called ‘energy’. In pre-industrial United States, slave labour provided a significant part of the energy required for the productive system to expand. As America started to industrialise, the energy of slaves got replaced by the much more abundant, powerful and cheap energy obtained from fossil fuels. With coal and then even more with petroleum, the world in fact gained access to sources of energy that were far more powerful, economic, convenient and versatile than anything mankind had been able to use until then. Most importantly, fossil fuels provided energy inputs of much higher quality than previous energy sources in terms of their ability to power useful or productive work, and also of much higher energetic productivity in terms of their ability to deliver massive amounts of ‘net energy’ to society, i.e. energy available to do many other things than procuring, processing and distributing energy. America had plenty of the stuff, and the ideal setting for making full use of it, unconstrained as it was by legacy social and political straightjackets, and populated by a still scarce but rising population eager to fully exploit the riches of their new promised land.

Fossil fuels have therefore been instrumental in making America the world’s leading economic power. Without fossil fuels and the formidable economic expansion they made possible, America would probably not have become the industrial, technological, military and political superpower that it is. Without fossil fuels, there would have been no flamboyant city skylines and no sprawling residential suburbs, no interstate highway system, no mechanised agriculture or industry and no superabundant consumer goods, nor all the joys of the modern consumer culture. Without fossil fuels, there would have been no American muscle cars, no Harley-Davidsons, no Route 66, and of course no Boeings. Without fossil fuels, America would not have won two world wars, built the most powerful military apparatus the world has ever seen, and sent men to the Moon. Without fossil fuels, America would probably not have achieved “the world’s highest standard of living”, given rise to the largest middle class in human history, or come to be seen as a land where anyone can be free to pursue opportunities and dreams. Without fossil fuels, in other words, there might have been no ‘American Dream’ and no ‘American greatness’. As an ‘exceptional’ cultural, historical, anthropological and even civilisational reality, America owes probably far more to fossil fuels, and most particularly to oil, than to liberty, individualism, democracy, and free markets.

Carbon-based empire

The correlation between America’s ‘greatness’ – in the Trumpian sense of the term – and fossil fuels is thus obvious. But what is maybe more important here is that fossil fuels also constitute the fundamental foundations of America’s power structure. Ever since the discovery and exploitation of U.S. petroleum in the second half of the 19th century, the fossil fuel industry has not only exerted massive political influence, but even held considerable political power in the U.S. To this date, it keeps a tight grip on Washington and also on many individual states, even those that have a reputation of being ‘green’ and ‘progressive’, such as California. More importantly, fossil fuels are embedded in every aspect of America’s capitalist system, and in particular in its financial system. The modern financial system was actually developed to support the rapid economic growth that took off in the 19th century with the phenomenal amounts of cheap energy made available through the exploitation of fossil fuels. Since then, there has always been a tight connection between America’s fossil fuel-based energy system and its financial system.

Moreover, fossil fuels also constitute of the fundamental foundations of America’s global power. America’s use of fossil fuels has grown almost unabated to this day, and despite being endowed with massive reserves it has had to import more and more of its fossil energy, and particularly oil, from abroad. U.S. oil production peaked in the early 1970s and then declined steadily for several decades until the recent ‘shale oil’ boom, forcing America to find ways of ensuring that ever more oil could be procured from across the world – and more particularly the Middle East – to feed its economic machine, at a reasonable cost. To this end it established as of 1973 the ‘petrodollar’ system, by which most global oil trade is being denominated in U.S. dollars, and which has become the cornerstone of its global power. This system underpins the dollar’s reserve (and international trading) currency status through the need for all foreign governments to hold dollars to buy oil, and ensures that most of the dollars spent by the U.S. to purchase oil from abroad flow back at some point into the U.S. financial system, as foreign governments park their dollars in U.S. banks or use them to invest in U.S. securities or assets.

This ‘petrodollar recycling’ system creates a never-ending demand for U.S. dollars, and ensures that billions of dollars flow back, year after year, from oil producers to America, propping up financial assets and boosting the U.S. economy. The importance of this endless flow of dollars is often overlooked, yet it lies at the very heart of America’s global power. It is the very reason why the U.S. has been able to uphold the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of emitting the world’s reserve currency after the collapse of the Bretton Woods international monetary system, and hence the privilege of being able to run twin deficits (government and current account) without adverse economic effect. On the contrary, this flow of dollars has increased liquidity in the U.S. financial markets and pushed interest rates down for decades, contributing to non-inflationary growth in America. It has been instrumental in the relentless financialisation of the U.S. economy and the growth of an increasingly predatory financial system, which has made possible the debt-fuelled economic expansion of the last decades and enabled many Americans and the U.S. government to live beyond their means. It has, also, made it possible to finance the growth of the U.S. military apparatus and the extension of its military presence across the globe, which prime objective is to ensure that nobody messes with the system that conveys dollar-denominated oil to the U.S. or to its trading partners, and billions of dollars back to America. It has, finally, enabled an international build-up of debt denominated in U.S. dollars, which itself further boosts the international demand for dollars and their regular flow back to the U.S. It has been instrumental, in fact, in the maintenance of a global economic system that not only allows one country to exert disproportionate control over international financial flows, but also, and more fundamentally, that enables less than 5% of the world’s population to consume close to 20% of global energy – and even significantly more when taking into account the energy consumed in other countries to produce ‘stuff’ for the American consumer.

This ‘wealth pump’ effect is, in fact, characteristic of an ‘imperial’ system, which in the case of the U.S. is intrinsically linked to the continuous and growing use of fossil fuels. In other words, fossil fuels – and the carbon emissions that their use generates – are at the very heart of America’s global power. The U.S., it can be argued, is fundamentally a carbon-based empire, which regardless of what its politicians may say does not have an objective interest in promoting the ‘decarbonisation’ of the world’s economy – that is, if one chooses to ignore or deny the long-term effects of climate change. Nor does it have an objective interest, it should be noted, and contrary to widespread belief, in reaching ‘energy independence’. Such independence would indeed stop the flow of petrodollar recycling into the U.S. financial system and economy and, over time, wreck the ‘wealth pump’ that has made the U.S. the global superpower that it still is. The U.S., in fact, did not become wealthy and powerful by producing energy but by consuming it – directly and indirectly – and by putting in place the means that ensure that it can consume far more than others.

The debate about Donald Trump’s decision to pull out from the Paris Agreement therefore probably misses the point if it remains focused on the inanity of the American President’s climate change denial, on the outrageous political influence of the U.S. fossil fuel lobby, or on the fact that America may be missing the train of the ‘clean energy’ revolution. These are of course very important issues, which deserve careful consideration. In particular, the capability of variable renewable energies such as solar and wind to power the modern world requires further examination. Despite recent investments, technological progress and price drops, solar panels and wind turbines still only produce a small fraction of the world’s energy, and it would actually take giant technological leaps forward for wind and solar to become more powerful, economic, convenient and versatile sources of energy than fossil fuels, capable of delivering energy on the scale needed to replace them. But what is much more fundamental to understand America’s course is that the intended transition away from the exploitation of ‘stocks’ of concentrated chemical energy and towards the harnessing of diffuse and intermittent natural energy ‘flows’ represents much more than just a substitution of a set of energy sources by another. If carried out in full, it will amount to a complete re-engineering of humanity’s societal ‘metabolism’ (i.e. the set of processes by which human societies and their various components ‘exchange’ energy and matter with their biophysical environment and between themselves), as well as of the corresponding power structures and relations. A re-engineering that is probably incompatible with the perpetuation of America’s imperial ‘wealth pump’, and perhaps even with the existence of any kind of imperial wealth pump for that matter.

One could think that America is capable of facing up to the demise of its carbon-based empire, which is anyway destined to wane as fossil fuels get depleted, and hence as their energetic quality and productivity decreases. Yet it has for many years obstructed international climate change remediation efforts, including under Barack Obama. And if it finally signed up in 2015 to an international agreement aimed at reducing carbon emissions, it was in fact to an agreement that, despite being the best the international community could achieve, is largely toothless and inadequate to contain global warming under the intended 2°C threshold – something that would require a far deeper and much faster ‘decarbonisation’ of Western economies. Even this agreement was too much, though, for the new U.S. President, a man with no filter and little capacity for the hypocrisy that forms an integral part of international diplomacy, especially when it comes to climate change.

Once Donald Trump is removed from office, in 2020 or earlier, his or her successor might decide to bring America back into the Paris Agreement. This will maybe help reduce the damage inflicted to America’s international reputation by The Donald, but it won’t necessarily mean that the country is anymore committed to decarbonising its economy. The U.S., which per person emits carbon at nearly double the level of Japan and three times the level of most European countries, is among the countries that have the widest margin for emissions reduction, and its greenhouse gas emissions are already on the way down: since their peak in 2007, they have actually decreased more in absolute terms than those of any other country. However, this drop has resulted from the replacement of coal with natural gas in electricity generation and from the economy’s sharp slowdown after the 2008-2009 global recession rather than from the growth of renewable energies, and it may not continue if the American economy picks up significantly. America, despite the Obama administration’s standing on climate change, looked already set to miss its emissions reduction pledge under the Paris Agreement before Donald Trump’s decision to pull out, and even before his election.

It is therefore easy and probably justified to vilify Donald Trump for his decision to exit the Paris Agreement, and to condemn him for his ‘crimes’ against the planet. This decision, though, does not mean that America dramatically reverses its course on carbon emissions reductions, but rather that it ceases to pretend. Imperial powers never voluntarily give up on what forms the basis of their imperial rule; on the contrary, they tend to cling to it and fight – literally – to maintain it for as long as they can. America’s carbon-based empire has no reason to be any different, and it will not give way without a fight, not even for the sake of Paris.

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9 thoughts on “Donald Trump, the Paris Agreement, and the Meaning of America

  1. You know, carbon dioxide is the gas of life – plants breath it and it helps them grow (and produce more oxygen). How is this bad? I’m not saying pollution is good – just that Carbon Dioxide is not a bad gas.

    You say that the science is settled – I guess you agree with the frequently made claim that 97% scientists agree that climate change is happening. Can any thinking person really believe this? We thought gravity was settled with Newton, but then Einstein re-wrote the rules. And that was gravity! And who says it is settled? Well, institutions like the BBC agree to waive their impartiality for climate change on the basis of a (closed and non-scientific) panel – they avoid airing climate sceptic opinions and can proceed as if there was an (artificial) consensus.

    On the climate change science – we can barely get an accurate weather forecast for tomorrow, yet you would have us trust the computer models + and the parameters scientists give those models, to inform us on how the climate will change over the next 100 years?!?! Not to mention that the heating up effect is mainly on account of the heavy re-writing of the historical data – yes, the historical measurements of 100 years have been revised! Nor the fact that the scientific consensus was that was that climate was cooling in the 70’s. Nor the fact, that even if it was warming, this is better for supporting life!

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    1. Well, Alex, as I said in the article, I believe that in 2017 one can have only two reasons to keep denying the existence of man-made climate change and the damages it generates: a complete lack of understanding of the basics of the greenhouse effect, and/or an objective interest in the continuation of the fossil fuel-based economic system. I suspect you have one of those reasons, or both. I’m not going to argue with you, that would be a waste of time. That’s a discussion you need to have with your own intellect and your own conscience. Good luck.

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      1. Thanks for your response.

        I am interested in understanding more, and I do not have an interest in the continuation of the fossil based economic system. I’m just an average citizen. Honest!

        My issue that I have a distrust of the message we are meant to accept in this politicised area. I would like to see scientists allowed to work in a scientific way, following the scientific method – I can’t stomach the message that ‘the science is in!’. I don’t like that basically all funding for science in this area is now granted to projects that are in support of the climate change hypothesis – surely science should be doing the opposite and trying hard to disprove CC, no? I also don’t like that all the information we receive, is intermediated by commentators – my example earlier was of the BBC being able waive their impartiality, is a case in point. Another indicator is the level of fear associated with the message. Seasoned political observers know that by scaring the people they can be more easily guided to make decisions that aren’t actually in their best interests.

        My sense then, is that the message on climate change is firmly managed. We see this managed message in other domains too, eg we saw a consensus of informed opinion (ie all the MSM) was against Jeremy Corbyn. Some of this opinion was no doubt honest, but when there is that much, I feel able to conclude that it is being driven by some agenda, and that what we have is a psyops operation in play.

        In the case of climate change, it seems to me that on the immediate agenda is the huge allocation of resources towards ‘fighting’ climate change. Many companies are lined up to take advantage eg see Al Gore’s fantastic investment successes on the back of this message. More sinisterly and further into the future, I see this as a way to get the world’s population to get on board for global taxation and global governance. By stating the question as ‘Who wouldn’t want to pay a carbon tax to make the world great again?’ you really can get turkeys to vote for Xmas.

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  2. Alex, OK, let’s admit that you are an average, honest citizen. I will then tell you this: there is no doubt that climate change is a politicised area, and therefore that it is being used by some in the pursuit of political ends. There is no doubt that economic interests are at stake, and that some people are making a lucrative business out of it. But that doesn’t change the fact that climate science is, as I wrote, “as settled as science can be, given the partial and provisional nature of all scientific knowledge”. It doesn’t mean that “the science is in” and we just have to accept it and shut up; it means that there is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence supporting the hypothesis of man-made global warming, and that it is therefore entirely reasonable to take it into account for designing and implementing our individual and collective actions. Yes, there may be a sort of groupthink among climate scientists, and even some tendency to shut down dissident voices, but that reflects the fact that an overwhelming majority of scientists does agree on the fact that climate change is real and is largely due to human activities – as well as maybe the frustration that nothing serious has yet been done about it and that it is even unlikely that anything really serious can be done about it, as it would probably not be democratically acceptable. I don’t think that climate science is being used by evil people trying to manipulate the populace by scaring them. Or if it is then it is not working, as we would all be far more scared if we would actually take climate science seriously – and then accept the rather simple fact that our best long-term interests are somehow opposed to what we are used to perceive as our best short-term interests. What is clear however is that there are far more powerful interests actually trying to manipulate people in the opposite way, by either denying that anything should be done or claiming that only minor adaptations will suffice. If I were you I would be far more suspicious of the motivations of those people, who undoubtedly have “an agenda” and want to continue benefiting from the way we currently allocate our resources.

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    1. Thanks again for your response.

      We agree that this area is politicised. I also agree that there is “groupthink among climate scientists”. I would say that the cause of this is that climate scientists are themselves dependent on climate change for their livelihoods. There probably aren’t many vegetarian butchers either. Unfortunately for us, once powerful interests are invested in an issue like this, the politicisation means that it is hard for us to tell what is honest science or not.

      With climate change, there are indications that the science is not the neutral knowledge gathering exercise that one expects that the scientists are conducting. I suspect that they don’t take delight having their hypotheses proved wrong. As I mentioned earlier the historical record is not sacrosanct but has been revised – ie the temperature in Africa as recorded in 1900, is different today to what it was in 1990. You can ‘prove’ that we are experiencing unprecedented temperature rises if you are prepared to those kinds of actions.

      Worse still, we cannot trust our media to faithfully relay the science. How many articles do we see about less ice in the Arctic, or huge ice-bergs calving in the Antarctic. But we don’t hear the other side – ie that there is more than expected ice at present in the Arctic, and pertinently, more polar bears, and that there has been increasing ice in the Antarctic (despite the calving). The climate changes in lots of ways – but only the changes that support the warming thesis are provided.

      To understand more, we have to rely on a sort of meta-analysis of what we are told and use our sense of smell – is this article promoting a technology (eg, smart surveillance cities), is it promoted by the Rockefeller Foundation or Shell, are people allowed to comment on what’s said, etc? Unfortunately, when I dig in to what is being said, much seems to be smelly, second hand commentary.

      By the way, I don’t disagree that humanity is doing some terrible things to the planet. I would like to see much more meaningful action taken against any who damage the planet, from frakers and oil companies who pollute water sources (currently frakers are subsidised), deep sea dredging should not start, etc, etc – I just don’t think carbon dioxide is the issue. And I don’t think that the damage specific companies do should be passed on to us consumers in the name of global warming. And I don’t agree that its ok for some enviromental groups to use carbon dioxide as a means to force change for our greater good. Frankly, global warming has the hallmarks of increasing government control for the benefit of corporations, at the individual’s expense – they pollute, we pay, and are happy to sign up do so – and that’s the trick!

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      1. Ok, all right, carbon dioxide is not an issue, and the greenhouse effect is an invention of evil scientists and corporations to strip you from your consumer rights. It’s all a gigantic trick, my friend, don’t be fooled!

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      2. Alex, like paularbair I’m going to take you at your word and assume you are not just trolling or have some other agenda. You seem to conflate several categories of science that relate to climate change, which explains much of your confusion. Plus you seem to be heavily influenced by the whole ‘conspiracy theory’ school of thought, which if you do some research you will see is largely funded and promoted by economic interests in the status quo.

        Let’s scrutinise your belief that the science is not as definitive as science can get when it comes to climate change. Firstly there is the science of observation, which mainly consists of scientists that collect and monitor measurement data from across the globe. This is what you might call ‘pure science’ and is hard to dispute, because we are simply talking about observations, where I’m sure even you can agree there is little room for interpretation. This data shows very clearly that the planet is warming, which is consistent with the science of chemistry, which itself describes the ‘greenhouse effect’. We also know about CO2 concentrations (measurable), and so this whole section of observable science stacks up according to ‘theory’. Secondly there is the science of prediction, which of course is much harder and where scientists are trying to model complex and dynamic systems. Everyone agrees that this is much more uncertain, but even here there is strong empirical evidence that the observations are matching the predictions. Of course there will always be anomalies, but those are expected with such a dynamic system with so many feedbacks – but it is the trend that matters. Here we have science showing temperature rise, which matches the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations, which matches the theory of the greenhouse effect. If you still doubt all of this, let me ask if you have actually read the IPCC reports? Or are you just dismissing them based on third hand information?

        Secondly, your assumption that climate scientists (by which presumably you mean the modellers) are biased because of their own self interest. This is harder to counter, but to believe in this argument one would have to somehow claim that the relatively low incomes of climate scientists (in proportion to their level of education) are in some way comparable to the huge rents on offer to those that have a vested interest in disputing climate science and climate change. Most scientists are motivated by an interest in their specialist topic, as if they were motivated by money there’s a good chance they would not be scientists! Of course science is very dependent on public funding, and the type of science that is carried out therefore tends to reflect public or political concerns. But would you want it any other way? And do you also believe that scientists working on cancer research are inflating the risks and prevalence of cancer to get more grants? If you have such a cynical view of science (and human beings working in ‘public good’ areas, where there is virtually no way to become rich) then I pity you.

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  3. M. Arbair, this is a truly eye-opening account, even if a depressing one. It is on a par with your article on the crisis of complexity in its level of thought accorded to a crucial issue. Sadly, I do not believe it will receive the same levels of exposure, as the views it expounds are too unpalatable for the beneficiaries of the current system to seriously consider.

    The reaction to Donald Trump’s many idiocies have already rewritten Obama into some kind of secular saint who would have set the world on a course to endless progress, and that everything would have been great if only he could have somehow obtained a third mandate. This conveniently ignores the fact that Obama’s presidency, despite talking the talk, has not seen much improvement in the state of the environment. Actually, pointing out that the Paris accords are mostly non-binding, and that USA will meet its obligations despite Trump’s withdrawal unwittingly shows just of how little consequence the Paris agreement truly is. The American progressives, similar to their counterparts in other developed economies, are more than willing to flaunt their right-on credentials while ensuring that nothing really changes and hoping that the consequences of rampant climate change will not hit the rich countries too hard.

    In a way, American liberals should not be blamed too harshly. As your article makes clear, real change is possible, but the US would need to accept a diminished status. While this would not necessarily be painful if done correctly, there would always be demagogues who would insist that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it, preventing the reforms. Also, even if the unthinkable could happen, and the US agreed to managed decline, this would require a complete rehaul of the power balance in the world. The ensuing chaos and attempts of current also-runs to fill in the vacant place of the world leader would not be pretty.

    Thank you for the article. While good solutions are hard to find, it is always a pleasure to witness some clear thinking and unflinching honesty that you keep demonstrating. As someone interested in French politics, I am also looking forward to your views on how Macron’s presidency is going to work out once the parliamentary elections are over!

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  4. In response to OJK (the system does not allow me to directly to your comment).

    Thanks for taking me at my word. As I previously stated, I’m not trolling, nor do I have another agenda, nor am I funded by some economic interests. And you?

    Please don’t pity me either – really, that’s a way of trying to dehumanise poor little old me, no?

    You say I conflate several categories of science – but which one do you mean? I say “you’re confused and have got it all mixed up” – see? its just not an argument. Then you call me a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – so you want to label me, in order to close down the conversation via a different means. Lots of ad hominem attacks. You then claim that conspiracy theorists are funded be economic interests in the status quo – I don’t even know what you mean! Bankers + oil men are funding who and why? To keep things the same?

    In fact, my main point is that corporations are providing the funding for the global warming movement as they are seeking to not only externalise their costs (when polluting) but in order to gain from the tax income they hope to levy on the people. So, if they blame the wider population for the carbon problem, they avoid clearing up their pollution and messes as we (with the proper social engineering) will merrily sign up to pay for them. Better still, they stand to gain those carbon tax revenues when they are divested.

    On your points – you talk about the pure science of measuring. Did you hear about the ‘Climatic Research Unit’ – they collate data from many sources around the world. Look it up on Wikipedia (aka: conspiracy central!). From that page, some interesting things to note – its sponsors include British Petroleum, Royal Dutch and the Rockefeller Foundation. It does mention the email controversy and that they were cleared of manipulating data. Maybe they missed the email that said: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline. Mike’s series got the annual land and marine values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land N of 20N. The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999 for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for 1999 with data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998.”, Subject: Diagram for WMO Statement, Date: Tue, 16 Nov 1999 13:31:15 +0000. Who knows?

    Then you mention the science of prediction and that its harder. I already mentioned this but the predictions are a joke. They can’t predict the weather accurately next week, but they can predict it in a 100 or 1000 years?! You know how the predictions are made, right? Using a parameterised computer model. I would expect, that what happens when the model doesn’t show what you want it to, you change the parameters and go again. And again. Until it looks better. Its a computer model – not reality!

    I’ll mention another point again too that Carbon Dioxide is the gas of life, more so than oxygen – it helps plants grow – its not a bad thing. They pump it into greenhouses to increase the yield.

    I’m glad you agree that it is hard to counter the fact climate scientists have a vested interest. I do believe that they are well intentioned and have a genuine interest. However, I don’t believe that the funding they receive is neutral, or that such one sided funding can possibly be right. If the money, publicity, etc only goes to one side of the argument, that does not make for a balanced concensus. Eg if we take an imaginary scenario, where the thesis is that coffee is good for you, and there are 100 studies, say, 90 fail to prove the thesis. Well, we still have 10 that do. We can say these 10 studies prove coffee is good for you – hurrah! The absence of funding to even prove the opposite view, along with the fact any ‘difficult’ studies do not see the light of day allows you to claim, well, whatever you want. The funding of well meaning scientists is not neutral.

    I’ll leave you and any readers a couple of sources to follow up on. Michael Crighton, of Jurassic Park fame, wrote a book called ‘State of Fear’, an excellent, well-researched page turner. On the science side, I would recommend taking a look at Judith Curry – the former Professor and Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

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