Reprinted with permission from ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION.
This is disastrous.
With his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord on climate change, President Donald J. Trump shoved his country’s chair away from the head of the table. He sided with those notable world leaders Syria and Nicaragua, which were the only two of 197 nations that refused to join the historic agreement to curb carbon emissions in 2016. (Those 197 nations were all signatories to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.)
That means America has abandoned a role it has held since the end of World War II as the unquestioned leader of the free world, the widely respected force for global good, the premier defender of human rights. There is, after all, no human right more basic than the right to clean air and water, the right to live on a planet that provides basic resources, the right to an Earth that is a friendly host to the human species.
President Barack Obama stepped eagerly onto the world stage as an advocate for aggressive measures to curb carbon emissions. He not only led domestic efforts, such as tough new standards for power plants in the U.S., but he also kept up the pressure on China to take responsibility for reducing global warming. (Trump has already taken steps to reverse Obama’s domestic initiatives on climate change.)
With China and the U.S. both agreeing to the Paris document last year, the two nations that generate nearly 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions had joined the effort to combat greenhouse gases.
Now, Trump has left China looking like a better global citizen than the United States. If the agreement collapses, the United States will certainly be blamed. And if it doesn’t, China is in an excellent position to claim moral authority. Even Trump’s good friend Vladimir Putin has issued a statement saying that Russia backs the Paris accord.
Several of the president’s advisers urged him to stay the course. So did many leaders of business and industry, who have accepted the science of climate change and begun to revise their business models accordingly. So did Todd Stern, who was Obama’s chief negotiator on the Paris framework. “Pulling out of Paris would cause serious diplomatic damage. The countries of the world care about climate change. They see it as a profound threat. … The president’s exit from Paris would be read as a kind of ‘drop dead’ to the rest of the world. Bitterness, anger and disgust would be the wages of this careless act,” Stern wrote recently in The Atlantic.
That just covers the diplomatic damage. It doesn’t take into account the environmental wreckage from a failed accord.
The Paris agreement is no panacea. It is nonbinding and allows individual countries to tailor their reductions in emissions as best suits them. And many scientists don’t think it does enough to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — an increase considered unacceptably dangerous.
But it does signal a serious start toward genuine solutions to the problem of global warming. Getting the biggest three polluters — the United States, China and India — to even agree to curb emissions was a victory.
If the Paris accord falls apart and the world reverts to its old ways, the human race will be more threatened. The Pentagon has already identified climate change as a serious threat to national security because of the ways in which it challenges global stability. A 2014 report from the Department of Defense called it a “threat multiplier.”
“The impacts of climate change may cause instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability,” the Pentagon said.
That’s just the beginning. Climate change will first wreak havoc on the poorest countries. But the rising oceans will reach our shores as well, threatening our coastal cities. Droughts, floods and fierce storms will also challenge our way of life. There won’t be any walls high enough to protect us from a worldwide calamity.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.