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Trump, the Paris Climate Accord, and climate justice

By: 
Brian Champ

June 20, 2017

Apparently against the efforts of some of his advisors, at the beginning of June, Trump announced that he was withdrawing the US from participation in the Paris Climate Accord. This was an election promise, tailored to his base of climate change deniers. Trump has declared climate change a "hoax", denying the increasingly undeniable fact of rising global average temperatures, joining the only two other nations to opt out of the accord: Syria and Nicaragua. Syria is bogged down in a horrendous civil war, and Nicaragua didn't sign the agreement because they thought it didn't go far enough.

This is a terrible blow for the efforts of world leaders to maintain the lead in the fight to curb rising global carbon emissions. He was roundly criticized for this move, rightly seen as the US abdicating any pretense to leadership on this issue. Angela Merkel described the move as "deeply regrettable, and by that I am really measuring myself. We need this Paris accord to preserve our creation. Nothing can and will stop us." Municipal and state governments have already responded to the decision by the Trump administration and declared that they will continue to act to meet their emissions targets. California and China have inked their own bilateral deal to reduce emissions, while Hawaii has enacted legislation aligning emissions reduction targets to the Paris Accord. After Trump tweeted "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris" to defend the withdrawal, the mayor of Pittsburgh pledged that the city was committed to emissions reduction targets.

Rift among elites

The Trump presidency has laid bare a world-wide rift between sections of the elites. The majority of nations around the world have acknowledged formally the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and that it is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Some of this is political expediency to placate the growing movement for climate justice, but many also see an opportunity to profit off the emergence of new industries and technologies. Economies that are able to embrace the new technologies and industries will have a leg up farther down the road compared to those that remain tied to the burning of fossil fuels. Germany relies heavily on oil imports so of course its elites are going to be more open to energy alternatives, and will claim this strategy is driven by concern for the planet.

Similarly, the reaction of newly elected, right-wing French President Emmanuel Macron to the withdrawal is instructive: "To all scientists, engineers, engineers, entrepreneurs, responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision of the United States, I want to say that they will find in France a second homeland. I call on them: Come and work here with us — to work together on concrete solutions for our climate, our environment. I can assure you, France will not give up the fight."

But these changes, even in countries where the drive to reduce emissions has been embraced, cannot change the reality that energy generated from burning fossil fuels are crucial to economies the world over, and there are structural, economic and political barriers to be overcome. The biggest multinationals in the world are the oil companies, and they exert enormous pressure on governments to ensure that infrastructure decisions and regulations remain favourable to them. This is most evident in oil producing countries like Canada, where the Trudeau government rhetorically supports global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and yet publicly champions new pipeline projects whose inevitable result will be to expand the tar sands and explode emissions. 

And this split infects the NDP as well: Rachel Notley, premier of Alberta, declared the Trans-Mountain Pipeline project as being "fundamentally important" to Alberta job creation, while many grassroots members embrace the Leap Manifesto and want to see an end to pipeline politics. This has been articulated in the NDP leadership race by the position of Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, who tied his opposition to the Energy East and Kinder Morgan pipelines in order to commit to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. 

Climate justice

At the grassroots of the movement, in spite of Trump’s move, we can have a little more hope at the moment: while it is true that this move separates the US from involvement in the global efforts to address the climate change issue, we have to be clear that this agreement was inadequate anyway. The Paris agreement states that the goal is keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celcius, but it is toothless, providing only guidelines for nations to curb emissions while providing no penalties or mechanisms for enforcement. In reality, it is a way for governments to be seen to be doing something about this undeniable problem, while attempting to position their economies to profit from the emerging clean energy sector, and the supporting technologies. Trump exposed how inadequate the climate accord was by simply walking away without any consequences. The solution is not self-serving commitments from sections of elites, but mass struggle from below.

The real impetus of the movement for change to address this problem continually bubbles up from the grassroots. The emergence of a world-wide movement for climate justice, led by Indigenous struggles against the poisoning of the land and including environmentalist, trade unionist and student activists is of incredible importance. We have to build on this movement, strengthening the links between Indigenous struggles at the forefront with workers fighting for a just transition to green jobs and with environmentalist organizations that have been sounding the alarm for decades. 

The confusion and divisions at the top, and the general mood for real action on this issue, provides a major opportunity for the climate justice movement to push for the more fundamental changes to the economy required to actually address the crisis. While Premier Notley sees pipelines, and therefore further tar sands expansion, as fundamental to the future, the only tenable long-term solution is to champion Indigenous sovereignty and a just transition.

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