Donald Trump may have done the world a big favour last Thursday afternoon when he announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement. In a single blurt, he largely muted three years of expected US obstruction at the international climate negotiating table, while salvaging the momentum toward ever-more-ambitious greenhouse gas reductions at the heart of the Paris process.
Trump also opened up a golden opportunity for Canada to lead on climate change, and reap the resulting diplomatic and economic benefits.
In the tortured weeks leading up to the White House decision, as world leaders and more than 1,100 US businesses urged the administration to stick with the landmark global climate deal, there were only a few, quiet cracks in an otherwise united front. Once in a while, on private e-mail lists and in occasional articles or blog posts, questions would come to the surface:
Is this a moment when the climate community should be careful what it wishes for?
Or, more directly:
If the Trump administration is intent on poisoning the Paris agreement from within, do we really want them at the table?
Once Trump made up his mind, the floodgates opened. The global community was only too happy to let an obstinate, factually challenged adversary go his own way.
Making the planet great again
In what some news reports interpreted as a conciliatory gesture, Trump said he would re-enter the Paris agreement if it were recast in the United States’ favour. “We will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair,” he said. “And if we can, that’s great.”
The world community had other ideas.
“If one country decides to leave a void, I can guarantee that someone else will occupy it,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
“Today’s announcement has galvanized us rather than weakened us, and this vacuum will be filled by new, broad, committed leadership,” tweeted EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete.
In a bilingual statement that may have produced the most widely quoted phrase of all, newly minted French president Emmanuel Macron concluded, “Let’s make our planet great again.”
Even Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov affirmed that “President Putin signed this convention in Paris,” and “Russia attaches great significance to it.”
US state and city governments, meanwhile, unveiled a new climate alliance that will work around the White House to meet their country’s Paris target and report progress to the UN climate secretariat.
And as for the methods and modalities of a complex, carefully crafted international accord, the UN secretariat weighed in with its own brake on Trump’s flight of fancy.
While the secretariat “stands ready to engage in dialogue with the United States government regarding the implications of this announcement,” it said, “the Paris Agreement remains a historic treaty signed by 195 Parties and ratified by 146 countries plus the European Union. Therefore, it cannot be renegotiated based on the request of a single Party.”
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What if Trump had stayed?
In the 24 hours after the announcement, the realization dawned that nations had dodged a bullet. The US could have done real damage to climate change action by keeping a seat at the table. Instead, while the withdrawal won’t take effect until November 4, 2020, Trump’s statement means his negotiators will be taken far less seriously as the rest of the world develops the rulebook to implement Paris.
That’s crucial, because a defining characteristic of the Paris agreement is that it’ll only succeed if it gets better, stronger, and more ambitious over time. Delegates arrived at the Paris conference knowing they weren’t adopting an agreement that would cap average global warming at 2.0°C — much less the real required target of 1.5°C — in a single shot.
Instead, the agreement incorporates an ambition mechanism, essentially a timeline for countries to increase their greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction commitments. The most immediate moment on the horizon is an initial dialogue in 2018 leading up to a “global stocktake” in 2023, aimed at assessing progress toward the Paris targets and beyond.
Those milestones are intended as opportunities for countries to advance collectively toward a postcarbon economy. But what if a large, influential player took those opportunities to obstruct, distract, and belittle?
There have been moments when the US played exactly that role — when George W. Bush pulled his country out of the Kyoto Protocol, or when a change in congressional leadership turned the US from a tough but fair participant into an implacable adversary in mid-1990s negotiations on an Arctic environmental protection strategy.
It wasn’t a pretty picture, and it’s not the outcome our grandchildren need or deserve from the Paris process.
A more specific risk stemmed from some of the diplomatic acrobatics climate negotiators went through in hopes of keeping Trump engaged. After White House counsel Don McGahn opined that the US couldn’t scale back its carbon reduction commitments if it stayed in the agreement, key architects of the deal insisted it had been purposely crafted with that flexibility in mind.
It was a tragically ironic moment, after those same negotiators had worked to build an agreement that would push participants to continually amp up their decarbonization commitments over time. And it would have “set a damaging precedent,” noted Christian Holz, senior research associate at the Climate Equity Reference Project, and one of Canada’s most knowledgeable observers of international climate negotiations.
“It would severely undermine the whole point of the Paris agreement that the direction of travel is only forward, that every few years countries have to come back with pledges that are more ambitious than the previous,” he said in an interview.
The opportunity for Canada
Every aspect of Trump’s decision creates opportunity for Canada, from a diplomatic void that will rapidly be filled, to the job and business benefits of a $3-trillion clean energy revolution. In correspondence last week, Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network-Canada, boiled it down to a stark choice: “Will we step into the vacuum created by U.S. retreat from climate leadership? Or will we bow to detractors who, emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, claim climate action puts Canada at a disadvantage?”
Federal climate policy suggests both outcomes are plausible. Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wowed Paris delegates with his promise that “Canada is back, and here to help,” Ottawa has pushed through a pan-Canadian climate framework, but focused it on achieving the country’s inadequate, Harper-era GHG target, then approved new fossil megaprojects destined to blow the country’s carbon budget. The country adopted tough new regulations on climate-busting methane emissions, then allowed industry to arm-twist it into a three-year delay in implementation.
But it might just be that Trump’s announcement, to steal a well-worn phrase, changes everything. “Now is the moment for Canada to take it to the next level, seize the benefits of climate action, and emerge on the international stage as a bold climate leader,” Abreu said. “The world is practically pleading with us to do so.”
And with a number of key diplomatic levers coming up in the next 18 months, including Canada’s turn in the G-7 presidency in 2018, “Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet have an opportunity to distance themselves from Trump’s shadow.”
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