Why the US is now more isolated than ever in the climate change fight

Share this page: 

This entry posted by Jesse Young, Senior Policy Adviser, Oxfam America, on 8 November 2017.

This week, as global climate negotiators convened in Germany, Syria announced it will join the Paris Agreement on climate change -- meaning that the United States is now the only country in the world that won’t be part of the landmark 2015 pact. This is remarkable -- and it’s worth thinking through what it means.

The world is a diverse place. It is rare to see a global consensus on any issue, let alone something as complex and divisive as climate change. And yet, that’s just what we achieved through the Paris Agreement. That the US is now the lone dissenter speaks to how deeply isolated the Trump Administration is.

Even more baffling is the fact that  the Paris Agreement represents the embodiment of so many things that the US has long sought, under Democratic and Republican president alike: a strong climate agreement that applies to all countries, both developed and developing alike. When President Trump declared that he’d prefer an agreement that holds India and China accountable, he needed to look no further than the very agreement he was abandoning.

How did we get here?

After President Trump announced this past June that he intended to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, it was widely reported the US would be joining only two other countries -- Syria and Nicaragua -- who did not sign onto the Agreement. 

When the Paris Agreement was negotiated in December 2015, Nicaragua abstained because their government believed the Agreement didn’t go far enough in addressing climate change. Syria was, and remains, embroiled in a brutal civil war.

What’s changed since then?

Well, for one, the Agreement actually took effect -- and well-ahead of schedule. A word of explanation on this front: the Paris Agreement could only enter into force after countries representing at least 55% of global carbon emissions had joined the Agreement. This process typically takes years --  it was assumed that countries would move sluggishly, and that the 55 country/55% of emissions threshold wouldn’t be reached until 2017 or 2018 at the earliest. But enthusiasm for the Paris Agreement was dramatic and global -- and the Agreement crossed the threshold in October 2016, and entered into force only days before Donald Trump was elected.

The international stampede to join the Agreement has only continued since then: 169 of the 197 parties to the UN climate convention have now formally ratified the Paris Agreement. But even those who haven’t completed the process yet have nonetheless signed the Agreement, and pledged to join in the future. Nicaragua announced in October it would reverse itself, and join the Agreement.

Swimming against the tide

So the Trump administration is woefully isolated against the world’s efforts to move forward on climate change.

Trump’s reasons for leaving Paris were almost entirely fictional or just flat-out lies -- namely, that the Agreement lets China and India off the hook, that it would destroy the US economy, or that a readily-available “better deal” is possible.

After a record-breaking year of extreme weather events in 2017 - from hurricanes that lashed the US, to floods in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, to drought in Ethiopia, the moral bankruptcy of Trump’s position on Paris is even more galling and unforgivable.

While the Paris Agreement won’t solve climate change alone, it’s our best hope for a global solution.

An inexplicable move

And yet Trump is announcing plans to exit Paris, ramp up emissions, and cut climate finance to developing countries -- completely isolating the US from the rest of the world.

Try explaining Trump’s position to the entire population of Barbuda, which has been fully evacuated from this year’s hurricane damage. Or to the 75% of the population of Puerto Rico still without power. Or to the families in Houston who lost loved ones from Hurricane Harvey. People from Fiji, the country hosting this year’s climate summit, would be similarly hard-pressed to understand Trump’s reasoning -- Fiji, after all, is an island nation threatened by rising seas and destructive cyclones.

But the story doesn’t end there

Trump can’t fully exit the Agreement until November 2020, so the US will remain in Paris until then. And  Trump doesn’t speak for the entire country, as the majority of Americans agree with taking climate change action. Thousands of US businesses, mayors, governors, tribal councils, universities, and others have pledged to support the Agreement and drive new action on climate.

Ironically, Trump’s decision on Paris has only increased awareness in the US of the Agreement’s importance -- and galvanized a host of new sub-national activity around tackling climate change in the US. But, as always, more work remains to be done.

This entry posted by Jesse Young, Senior Policy Adviser, Oxfam America, on 8 November 2017.

Photo: “We have known happier days. Now we are like children, waiting for someone to feed us,” said Malaiko Usman (56) mother of six children, after her family lost many of their cattle to Ethiopia's drought. Credit: Abiy Getahun/Oxfam, Dec 2015.