It’s official. The United States is on the wrong side of history. With the Paris agreement, nearly every country in the world joined together and pledged voluntary action on climate change. Everyone involved knew that this accord could have been—should have been—much tougher.
Except President Trump, who announced Thursday our withdrawal from the international agreement because it is so unfair to the United States, especially to the coal industry.
“In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord,” the president said. And “begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States. We are getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great.”
So much to say about that one paragraph.
First, this is a terrible decision for those citizens he speaks of. Us.
In the years ahead we know that governments, including the United States, have only two choices: Spend dollars on mitigation or adaptation. Mitigation is what the Paris agreement is all about, looking for ways to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Action is voluntary; each country is supposed to look at its own carbon footprint and come up with a plan (which the Obama administration did). There are no penalties for a country that does not meet those targets.
Adaptation is a part of the budget that will be spent no matter what. It’s funding to build a higher seawall before losing a city. It’s the cost of a medical emergency for a disease we have not seen before. Or the expense of a climate disaster, such as flooding or fires. It’s managing the migration of millions of people whose very lands will no longer be sustainable.
Even worse than the decision itself: A celebration in the Rose Garden after the president told the rest of the world that it does not matter. America first. Our greed is more important than any global partnership (even a voluntary one).
The president talked again about saving the coal industry.
The president’s withdrawal from the climate accord will take some four years to be effective.
My guess is today’s action is the end of that enterprise. Why? Because countries—even competitors who have not given up on their extractive industries—can levy taxes and tariffs against U.S. coal and other natural resources, and we have no legal recourse. We’re no longer in the club. (When it comes to coal, perhaps that’s a good thing.)
The president’s withdrawal from the climate accord will take some four years to be effective. That leaves lots of time for the current government to prove its irrelevancy. Many of us thought the Paris agreement, especially—and I’ll write it one more time—the voluntary approach, was not enough velocity to effect change. We always knew we would need to do more to get anywhere near the 2 degree warming limit.
What Trump did today is a call for all of us to ignore the federal government and act.
I am going to start with myself. I’ll write my own carbon reduction plan with goals and timetables. In the next few days I will examine everything from my travel to my food. Then I’ll make a list of what goes away. Every time I think about what I am giving up, I’ll smile and think of President Trump.
What if more people did something like that? Individual, voluntary action. What if cities, states, and tribes stepped up their own carbon reduction plans? Or levied new carbon taxes? What if regions banned or limited cars and trucks?
We cannot wait four years for a new person in the White House or for the formal withdrawal. The world is facing an emergency. The United States has abdicated. It’s time for all of us to step up in a creative fashion and make this the moment when humanity decided to meet the challenge. Let’s make it official.
Mark Trahant is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. Trahant leads the Indigenous Economics Project, a comprehensive look at Indigenous economics, including market-based initiatives. Trahant is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and has written about American Indian and Alaska Native issues for more than three decades. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has held endowed chairs at the University of North Dakota and University of Alaska Anchorage, and has worked as a journalist since 1976. Trahant is a YES! contributing editor.