America’s tragic fall from international climate leader to global embarrassment

I covered the Paris climate talks. Now Trump threatens to undo everything achieved there.

Hundreds of pairs of shoes are displayed at the place de la Republique, in Paris, as part of a symbolic and peaceful rally on November 29, 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani
Hundreds of pairs of shoes are displayed at the place de la Republique, in Paris, as part of a symbolic and peaceful rally on November 29, 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani

In December of 2015, the entire city of Paris was on edge. Just weeks after devastating attacks left 130 dead and 367 more injured, the city was still under a state of emergency, a feeling of silent mourning and fear mixing with its indefatigable spirit.

Paris was afforded little time to recover before it was once again thrust onto the world stage, playing host to hundreds of thousands of environmental experts, world leaders, diplomats, and journalists who gathered for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.

I have many vivid memories from the 10 days I spent covering the conference for ThinkProgress, bearing witness to both a historic moment in the fight against climate change and a city in disarray. I remember walking into a hotel just off the Rue de Rivoli, one of the city’s most famous streets, for an interview, and being stopped by police officers with machine guns, who asked to search my bag before they let me in.

I remember standing outside of the Pantheon, in the city’s Latin Quarter, encircled by massive chunks of ice that had fallen from the Greenland ice sheet, rippling and melting under the midday sun. I remember shivering on the banks of the Bassin de la Villette, Paris’ largest artificial lake, as representatives from indigenous tribes from the Arctic to the Amazon released a declaration calling on global governments to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

But mostly, I remember how I felt afterward — exhausted, battling a winter cold, and blissfully ebullient. As a climate reporter, covering the talks was a thrilling experience, allowing me access to some of the world’s most accomplished climate experts and activists. But as an American, someone who was born and has lived all her life in the world’s largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, watching the talks meant something more. The final accord, agreed upon by nearly every nation in the world, felt like the first step towards some kind of redemption, some kind of acknowledgement of wrongdoing and acceptance of required penance. But it also felt like the beginning of a world where things like climate change or low-carbon economies, that had so long been the under the academic purview of economists or scientists, would no longer be relegated to the margins. It felt transformative.

“The final accord… felt like the first step towards some kind of redemption.”

A little more than a year later, Donald Trump, a man who repeatedly mischaracterized and vowed to cancel the historic agreement on the campaign trail, was elected president, and everything that was forged in Paris was suddenly thrown back into question.

That question — what will become of the Paris agreement under President Trump — continues to go unanswered, but it hasn’t stopped the administration from using the accord as little more than a political pawn.

In speeches to his supporters, Trump has trotted out the agreement to bolster his credibility as an isolationist bent on obtaining the best deals for Americans. And in interviews with media, top officials like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have used the agreement to spread falsehoods about U.S. international climate policy, calling it a “bad deal,” which is patently false. Meanwhile, the administration has done everything in its power to undo domestic policies aimed at helping the United States meet its commitments to the Paris agreement, from rewriting the Clean Power Plan to weakening vehicle emission standards.

The vacuum of information created by the Trump administration regarding the Paris agreement has left the rest of the world paralyzed, unable to move forward with solidifying or strengthening the promises made in Paris. This week, climate negotiators from around the world are meeting in Bonn, Germany under the auspice of firming up key components of the Paris deal, like how to ensure countries are transparent in communicating their emissions reductions. But negotiators, according to Politico, are stuck waiting for a clear policy direction from the United States — meaning the Trump administration’s waffling is already having concrete impacts on international climate action, regardless of whether the United States ultimately remains in the agreement or not.

The administration has repeatedly dodged any responsibility for its role in providing clarity, to either the American public or international partners, declining to give a firm timeline on when a decision will be made. In response to questions asked by nations like China or Brazil through a formal United Nations process, the Trump administration repeatedly refused to provide any details about their intention to withdraw from, or remain in, the agreement.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Tuesday that the administration would decide whether or not to withdraw from the agreement after the G7 Summit in Italy at the end of May. But that timeline has changed so often over the past few months, it’s difficult to lend any credence to the administration’s word on the matter. Still, if Spicer’s information is correct, that means that Trump will be heading into his first G7 Summit with no answer about the United States’ role in a historic multilateral agreement it helped create.

Trump may have pledged to cancel the Paris agreement within 100 days, but he can’t actually do that; the agreement is built off of hundreds of independently-determined goals set by each individual country, making it impossible for one country to unilaterally cancel the agreement. So Trump has since softened his stance a little, saying he might try to “renegotiate” the agreement, or suggesting that he might simply withdraw the United States altogether.

The decision to withdraw from the agreement — or not — has, reportedly, set off a firestorm of strife within the Trump administration. It has pitted white nationalist adviser Steven Bannon (firmly in the “leave” camp) against former Exxon CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (perhaps surprisingly in the “remain” camp), and given First Daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump her first real task as the administration’s unofficial (and unproven) climate champion.

Like so much with this current administration — the far-reaching and long-rumored executive order on energy, for instance — the decision on whether or not to withdraw from the agreement has been defined, largely, by rumors and blown deadlines. Senior aides have pushed multiple meetings on the matter, sometimes rescheduling days later, sometimes not. Administration officials arguing for leave have concocted the myth that staying in the agreement could compel the United States to retain policies like the Clean Power Plan — an argument legal and environmental experts have roundly rejected, noting that the Paris agreement contains no legally binding commitments and therefore would not bind the United States to any action.

The United States may very well withdraw from the Paris agreement, or it might remain in the agreement but significantly downgrade its commitments. It might remain and use its position to try and expand the reach of fossil fuels around the world, using mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund to argue for more money for projects that use coal or natural gas.

But even if the United States remains in the Paris agreement, the Trump administration has already damaged, perhaps irreparably, the image of the United States as a leader on climate action. At home, Trump has taken steps to roll back policies that were crucial to meeting the relatively weak emissions reduction goals set by the Obama administration, and has used his executive authority to greatly expand the potential for fossil fuel extraction on both federal lands and in offshore waters. Internationally, he has promised to cancel payments to the Green Climate Fund, and has spent months waffling on the Paris agreement, sending a clear signal that the agreement is hardly a priority — in one way or another — for the administration.

“In a few short months, the United States has gone from leader to laggard on one of the most difficult, and important, challenges of our time.”

And while Trump’s environmental rollbacks are set to face an onslaught of challenges in the courts, the sheer pace of the turnaround has been breathtaking: in a few short months, the United States has gone from leader to laggard on one of the most difficult, and important, challenges of our time.

Countless experts and pundits have argued that the United States would essentially torpedo its international standing if it were to withdraw from the Paris agreement. George Shultz, Secretary of State under President Reagan, wrote in the New York Times that “if America fails to honor a global agreement that it helped forge, the repercussions will undercut our diplomatic priorities across the globe.” Paula Caballero, climate program director for the World Resources Institute, said this week in Bonn that withdrawing from the Paris agreement would “signal to the rest of the world that America does not honor its commitments.” Even Bill O’Reilly said back in November that Trump should remain in the Paris agreement “to buy some goodwill overseas.”

Diplomatic relations, once wounded, can take generations to rebuild. And diminished standing in the international world would undoubtedly hurt the United States’ ability to negotiate on a multitude of issues — something George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Collin Powell learned after the administration unilaterally walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.

But some things, once done, cannot be undone. And there is legitimate, scientific concern that climate change is one of those things — that there are mechanisms beyond anyone’s control (feedback loops kicked off by rampant release of methane from the Arctic permafrost, for instance) that could quickly tip the scales from a livable climate to a climate catastrophe.

Environmentalists often referred to Paris as the “last, best chance” to prevent the kind of rampant global warming that could trigger impacts like a dramatic rise in sea levels and global food shortages. Climate change is what social scientists refer to as a “collective action problem” — a problem so vast that it can only be solved through collective action, but with costs that would prohibit any one actor from solving the problem alone.

Solving climate change means radically rethinking almost every aspect of human life, from energy to transportation to agriculture. It means radically transforming economies away from the fossil fuels that have powered their growth since the Industrial Revolution and deploying, on a massive scale, technologies like wind, solar, and hydropower. It means agreeing to leave the majority of untapped fossil fuels in the ground, meaning businesses that have made their fortune in extraction would have to turn away buried profits.

“The complexity of climate change is what made the Paris agreement so important.”

The complexity of climate change is what made the Paris agreement so important. It created a mechanism that united some of the world’s biggest polluters — the United States, China, India, Brazil — around a common goal. Nations committed to reducing their emissions by a certain percentage in the near term, and committed to deepening those cuts after five years, and then ten years, and on into the future. And while it was never going to be enough to ensure that the world avoided the most dangerous impacts of climate change, it was a critical first step in the right direction.

Another vivid Paris memory comes from interviewing 21-year old Peruvian activist and indigenous leader Diana Ríos, a member of the Ashéninka tribe. Ríos, who lives in the Ucayali province of Peru, near the Brazilian border, traveled for more than a week to get to the Paris talks. Through a translator, she told me about how she had received death threats for her work trying to stop illegal logging in her community; her father Edwin Chota, was found dead a year earlier, likely murdered by loggers.

The forests that make up the the Ashéninka’s ancestral lands are home to some of the world’s last supplies of big-leaf mahogany trees, which can fetch upwards of $11,000 a tree. In 2014 — when Lima hosted the United Nations Conference on Climate Change—the Peruvian government gave the Ashéninka the official title to their land, but Ríos told me it hadn’t stopped loggers from coming onto the land illegally. And beyond loggers, Ríos spoke of how indigenous communities, which often depend on the land for subsistence and cultural traditions, are some of the most vulnerable to climate change.

“We don’t want words or paper,” she said through a translator. “What we need to see is action. It’s one thing to say indigenous are important in saving the forests, but then show us that in the field.”

CREDIT: AP Photo/Thibault Camus
CREDIT: AP Photo/Thibault Camus

I listened to Ríos as she spoke about living in a country where the government’s actions did not square with its words — despite signing a pledge to reduce deforestation to zero by 2021, deforestation in Peru has gone up in recent years due to lack of government oversight. I was impressed with her passion and affected by her history, but most of all, I was struck by her courage. This young woman had traveled for a week, despite death threats, to a foreign country she did not know, all to speak up about how climate change and environmental degradation was impacting her life.

As special as Diana Ríos is, there are hundreds of thousands of people like her around the world, whose future will be shaped by the Trump administration’s decision on Paris. There are islands that may slip beneath the ocean due to accelerating climate change, entire histories and cultures that could disappear beneath the sea. There are communities in the United States that are already being forced to abandon their homes due to eroding coasts or rising seas. And entire countries are facing increased instability due to a scarcity of natural resources — instability that security experts fear could fuel global terrorism.

Watching the United States finally take responsibility for climate change in Paris — as the richest nation on Earth, and the most historically responsible for the problem — was exhilarating. Watching the Trump administration turn its back on that progress such a short time later isn’t a surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.