HIKONE, SHIGA PREF. – I wrote in this column on April 19 that although anything could happen, it appears all but certain that U.S. President Donald Trump “will dare choose to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement as long as he sticks to his populism.” Sure enough, he publicly announced on June 1 that the United States was abandoning the accord.
Between May and June, significant changes were triggered in U.S. public opinion about Trump by suspicions surrounding “Russiagate.” On May 9, Trump suddenly fired James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who had been probing allegations that the Russian government resorted to acts that would favor the Trump campaign in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Based on notes he took during his one-on-one meeting with the president, Comey testified before Congress that Trump persistently urged him to stop looking into allegations surrounding former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and to clarify whether the president himself was a subject of investigation.
In the United States, obstruction of justice on the part of the president is a grave matter. On May 17, the Justice Department launched investigations into Russiagate, including the possibility of obstruction of justice by the president, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel. If confirmed, it could potentially result in Trump’s impeachment.
Trump was thus pushed into a tight corner, and his rate of approval plummeted rapidly. In my view, it was with the aim of halting any further decline of his popular support that he announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement.
Many Americans are suspicious of the generally accepted theory that a rise in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is bringing about climate change — and most skeptics are Republicans. Indeed, this group includes Trump, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Trump must have hoped that his decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement would bolster his popularity. Since taking office in January, he has signed one executive order after another to implement his campaign pledges, one of which was to pull out of the climate accord. In announcing the decision, he defended himself by insisting that he had been elected by the people in Pittsburgh, not by those in Paris. Pittsburgh, home to the headquarters of the United States Steel Corp., used to be known for the steel and coal industries. But it has now transformed itself into a high-tech business center. Trump would not escape criticism for being anachronistic if he still believes Pittsburgh is a steel town.
The Paris agreement, which took effect on Nov. 4, 2016, has been joined by 194 signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with the exception of Syria, which is in the middle of a civil war, and Nicaragua, which seeks even more stringent environmental rules. Despite Trump’s announcement, it will take roughly four years for the U.S. to officially secede from the accord — and the withdrawal will not take place before the next presidential election on Nov. 3, 2020. This could mean that Trump’s action was nothing but an attempt to curry favor with coal mine workers.
It is inconceivable that Trump, now 71, is contemplating a bid for re-election in 2020. In all likelihood, he will in 3½ years’ time return to the real estate industry, where he will feel more at home than in the White House. He will thus let his successor worry about the aftermath of his decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. Afraid of being impeached, Trump presumably tried to prove himself a champion of populism, emphasizing that the climate accord would deprive the declining smokestack industry in the Midwest of jobs and hoping to regain support by denouncing the Paris agreement.
The Obama administration had submitted to the United Nations a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent from the 2005 levels by 2025. But Trump has accused President Barack Obama of overstepping his authority by pledging $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund without congressional approval, and said he will not permit any further payment to the fund beyond the $1 billion already contributed.
At a meeting of the Group of Seven environment ministers in Bologna, Italy, on June 12, six countries excluding the U.S. adopted a joint statement calling for the implementation of the Paris agreement. According to the statement, the U.S. would continue working on reducing carbon dioxide emissions but would not endorse its section concerning climate change. U.S. EPA chief Pruitt reportedly left the meeting after the morning session on the opening day.
Nine states — including New York, California and Washington — 125 cities, 902 companies and investors and 183 universities have joined the movement “We Are Still In.” Participants from the business sectors include such big names as Apple, Google and Nike. Members of the movement say they are determined to combine efforts at the state, municipal and corporate levels to achieve the emission reduction target set by the Obama administration.
When President George W. Bush decided to pull America out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. accounted for more than 20 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions, and roughly 40 percent of the emissions produced by the 41 countries bound by the protocol. That is why Bush’s decision had a serious impact.
In contrast, the impact of Trump’s decision to leave the Paris agreement will not be so serious for three reasons.
First, the U.S. share of the carbon dioxide emissions has fallen over the past two decades to less than 16 percent due to sharp rises in emissions by China, India and other emerging powers. Second, a domino effect of other nations joining the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris accord is not likely because virtually all of the signatories to the UNFCCC have signed the accord — and also because trust in Trump is low. And third, the remaining parties to the Paris accord are now free from possible obstructions to deepening discussions on climate change that could have come from Washington had it stayed on board. It may be reasonable to assume that the U.S. withdrawal could prove to be a positive factor as more than 190 countries around the world seek to work together on measures to alleviate and cope with climate change.
Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.