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US pulls out of Paris Agreement on climate change: Here's why Donald Trump's brain fade will have no immediate impact

As Donald Trump leads the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, it is necessary to look at the modalities of the walkout, what it involves, the underlying reasons and the decision's environmental, economic and geopolitical impact. Before I tackle some key questions though, one point must be stressed at the outset: paradoxical as it may sound, Trump's decision carries no direct legal consequences for the US or immediate economic or ecological consequences for the world.

That is because a) the Paris Agreement is "non-binding" in nature and b) regardless of what the president of the United States thinks, more than two-thirds of Americans are worried about climate change and its biggest business leaders are moving aggressively in the right direction to control greenhouse gas emissions, supplemented by significant efforts from states like New York or California. Despite Trump's efforts to roll back Barack Obama's climate policies, therefore, US will remain on course to achieve the modest emission cuts that were anyway part of the Paris deal.

 US pulls out of Paris Agreement on climate change: Heres why Donald Trumps brain fade will have no immediate impact

File image of Donald Trump. AP

So does it mean Trump's withdrawal is inconsequential?

Quite the contrary. Trump has, through his ill-advised, narrow, illogical and dangerous move risked undermining the entire Paris deal which may result in poorer nations following in his footsteps and triggering a race to the bottom. Even if such a possibility doesn't come to pass (unlikely), by reneging on its promise, the world's wealthiest nation and its second-biggest polluter has placed an unfair economic and political burden on the rest. The US president is basically saying, "Look, we won't be held responsible for our actions and if you want to stick to the deal, pick up the tab." In these terms, his decision is morally reprehensible, illogical and patently callous.

As The New York Times points out in a scathing editorial, "In huge neon letters, it (Trump's move) sends a clear message that this president knows nothing or cares little about the science underlying the stark warnings of environmental disruption. That he knows or cares little about the problems that disruption could bring, especially in poor countries. That he is unmindful that America, historically the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, has a special obligation to help the rest of the world address these issues."

Why is Trump's move illogical?

After the disastrous fate of Kyoto Protocol (which a George Bush-led US sabotaged), the United Nations acknowledged its inability to enforce the legality of international treaties. Hence the cornerstone of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was consensus based on self-imposed targets. Each country, in keeping with its developmental stage, pledged to either immediately cut emissions (like the US) or working towards reducing carbon footprint and putting in place technology and infrastructure that makes it possible for achieving the goals in a stipulated time (like India). The difference in goals arises out of the fact that a developed country like the US is in a better position to cut its emission by 26 percent in 2025 compared to its 2005 levels than India, whose millions of poor are still denied basic necessities like electricity, and hence would require more time to shun fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy.

The illogicality in Trump's action lies in the fact that Trump could have very well junked some of Obama's policies even by staying within the Paris deal precisely because it's non-binding.

As Washington Post writes: "The Paris Agreement does not formally obligate the United States to make any particular level of emissions cuts. All it does is ask countries to announce emissions plans of their choosing and report on their progress. It has no major implications for US sovereignty and demands no particular policy balance between environmental and industrial concerns. If the Trump administration wants to move that balance toward fossil fuel interests, it does not have to leave the Paris agreement to do so."

Trump's claim that the Paris deal is undermining US coal mine jobs is bunkum because coal's decline as a fossil fuel in American market precedes the Paris accord, and is more a result of cheap natural gas cornering the market. Also, as The New York Times said, Trump forgot to mention that while coal jobs were declining "employment in the solar industry, for instance, is more than 10 times what it was a decade ago, 2,60,000 jobs as opposed to 24,000".

What prompted Trump's brain fade?

If we look at Trump's speech during the announcement (full text available here) it's hard to distinguish it from his campaign rallies.

Trump is relinquishing America's global leadership role — and with it all the necessary moral and economic burdens — for a more inward-looking US that seeks a 'level-playing field'. This has been a recurrent motif in Trump's speeches. It signifies that he perceives the world to be prospering at America's cost. It may be his political positioning or a deep-rooted conviction but Trump appears to be convinced that it is not incumbent on the US to ensure that the world remains a fair, just and equitable place when the cost of ensuring these values are hampering its own interests. Is he correct in his assessment? This is an irrelevant question. What matters is that he thinks he is right, and the world must somehow deal with it.

According to Trump, America isn't the sole superpower, world's most powerful geopolitical player, world's biggest economy or the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases but a nation wronged and sucked dry by its opportunistic allies and renegade nations and it is his duty to set things right.

Was he justified in blaming India?

Absolutely not. Trump's rant against China and India points to his inability or reluctance to grasp basic facts. It is perhaps too much to expect knowledge of history, logic and awareness from a snake-oil seller occupying the world's highest seat of power but Trump needs to be reminded that India's per capita carbon emission is a tenth of America's, not to speak of the fact that the US has been the world's biggest polluter for centuries and is majorly responsible for raising the global temperature.

Brookings Institution fellow Tanvi Madan took to Twitter to post three graphs (relying on World Bank data) which may be relevant here to show how unjustified Trump's rants against India, in particular, were:

As The New York Times writes in another article, "While Americans make up just over 4 percent of the world’s population, they are responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. China emits more carbon into the atmosphere today, but... the US has a long head start on burning coal, oil and natural gas. Some said it was a moral imperative for the US to stay in the Paris pact."

What does "withdrawing from deal signify"? Is it dead?

Far from it. In fact, the US announcement seems to have triggered a counter-reaction with world leaders pledging to continue with their commitment. Chinese premier Li Keqiang recently told German chancellor Angela Merkel that China will honour its commitment while Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his tête-à-tête with Merkel had described any action to renege on Paris Agreement as "morally criminal". The US, too, cannot exit the deal before November 2019 when it shall formally submit the proposal and then it must wait for one more year for its name to be deleted from the records. Anything can happen within that timeframe, including a new American President reversing the decision.

How will Trump's decision affect the deal?

The biggest casualty could be the Green Climate Fund. Obama's America had already disbursed a third of the $3 billion in the GCF as part of the deal which envisaged rich countries donating cash to poorer nations for them to come up to scratch with technological advancements and encourage more spending on cleaner fuels. For all of Trump's whining about the US having to pay more, though, it is not the sole contributor, neither is it the highest. According to The New York Times, Sweden, with a donation pledge of $581 million, is spending roughly $60 per person which is "six times the amount the United States is pledging per capita."

The absence of US leadership, however, will be keenly felt in areas of development of greener technology and global effort to tackle emissions.

Effects of US pulling out of Paris deal on India

India, with a massive population many of whom are denied even the basic services, has a more flexible deadline under the Paris Agreement. Still, the Modi government within a very short time has taken giant strides. As a blog in Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) points out, "By May this year, India has solar power generation capacity of 9 gigawatt, become the world’s fourth-largest producer of wind energy, and announced plans to cancel 14 gigawatt of coal plants — putting it on track to not only meet, but exceed its Paris climate deal targets."

It will be really easy for India to flout the Paris Agreement citing the US as the example — Australia seems already headed that way — and the Modi government has no legal or moral compulsions to stick to its target of cutting emissions by 30-35 percent compared to 2005 levels.

Moreover, as Trump has said voters in Pittsburgh elected him and not Paris, it can be argued that Modi need not pay heed to rich world's concerns about global warming when he has millions of poor to take care of who are denied even the basic necessities.

The prime minister, however, has shown that his commitment towards the environment is absolute. His resolve towards sticking to the spirit and letter of Paris Agreement has been admirable. Few would bet against him reneging on his promise. If anything, India gets a little more breathing space in honouring its commitment. Going by the way the Modi government is acting on a war footing on renewable and cleaner energy front, economies of scale may help India achieve the target even without the funds promised by the US.

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Updated Date: Jun 02, 2017 18:18:41 IST