Trump’s biggest reason for leaving the Paris agreement is based on a myth

Climate finance is a benefit, not a burden.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The Trump administration again this week delayed its decision on whether the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. According to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the administration will now decide whether the United States will continue to participate in the global climate pact sometime after the G7 summit at the end of May.

During his campaign, Trump claimed that he would “cancel” the Paris agreement. One of his primary arguments for withdrawing from the pact, however, is unsound.

“It’s not a fair situation because [other countries] are paying virtually nothing and we are paying massive amounts of money,” Trump told Reuters late last month.

Trump is presumably referring to the U.S. contribution to international climate aid. In 2014, the United States pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, or GCF, which helps developing countries achieve low-carbon and climate-resilient growth.

China, however, has pledged a comparable amount of finance to support climate-smart international development. In 2015, it announced that it would channel approximately $3.1 billion through the South-South Cooperation Fund on Climate Change.

As a share of gross domestic product, the Chinese pledge well outstrips the pledge from the United States. Moreover, the United States has delivered only $1 billion to the GCF — and Trump’s so-called skinny budget calls for the elimination of further transfers.

Figure shows the pledge to the South-South Climate Cooperation Fund from China and signed pledges to the Green Climate Fund from other countries. CREDIT: Gwynne Taraska/ThinkProgress
Figure shows the pledge to the South-South Climate Cooperation Fund from China and signed pledges to the Green Climate Fund from other countries. CREDIT: Gwynne Taraska/ThinkProgress

Many other countries are likewise contributing climate aid — and many are contributing more than the United States relative to the size of their economies. Over 40 countries now financially support the GCF. Among these are wealthy countries, including France, Japan, and Sweden, and developing countries, including Mexico, Chile, and Colombia.

It is in the self-interest of countries to support climate-informed development. Greenhouse gas emissions from anywhere in the world drive climate change — the effects of which are already imposing soaring economic costs domestically, threatening military assets, and increasing the risks of political volatility and human displacement worldwide.

The United States has contributed foreign aid for clean energy and disaster preparedness during Republican and Democratic administrations and majorities in Congress. The George W. Bush administration, for example, pledged $2 billion to a precursor of the GCF — the Climate Investment Funds— in 2008.

The broader point, however, is that financing low-carbon energy systems and climate resilience is an investment, not a burden. Other countries not only are contributing to international climate aid — and expanding their soft power accordingly — but also are aggressively pressing ahead with the climate effort and seeking to capture a market share of the global clean energy economy.

It is clear that the future lies with renewable energy. The cost of electricity from solar, for example, has been on a steep downward trend. By mid-2016, the global average had declined 17 percent compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, global installation of renewable generation capacity reached a record high in 2016 and accounted for the majority of new generation capacity.

That means there is a huge economic opportunity in pursuing — and encouraging — clean energy. As countries implement their climate goals, China in particular is seeking to dominate clean energy markets. China is already the world leader in new renewable energy investment, with a total of $78.3 billion in 2016 — a figure that is nearly 70 percent higher than U.S. investment. Six of the 10 largest photovoltaic cell manufacturers are companies based in China. By 2020, the country plans to invest $360 billion in renewable power generation — and create 13 million jobs as a consequence.

These investment decisions are not a matter of altruism or moral obligation. They are a matter of national self-interest and competitiveness.

The claim that the Paris Agreement saddles the United States with financial burdens is not the only myth that has found purchase in the White House. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon have reportedly claimed that the Paris Agreement binds the United States to particular climate goals and to take particular domestic actions — both of which are false.

Bannon and Pruitt are allegedly the lead agitators for a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump has reportedly argued that the United States should remain in the global climate pact. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry — along with much of the business community — are said to favor remaining in the agreement.

According to recent reports, the pro-withdrawal faction is currently winning the battle within the White House, but given the lengthy back-and-forth over the issue, only time will tell.