View from Washington: No, we won't always have Paris

Trump chucks climate change, China and US science out of the pram

President Donald Trump’s Executive Order to start unpicking the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) is not a formal repudiation of the Paris agreement on reducing climate change emissions. But it may well both hole that deal below the waterline and scuttle his relationship with the US science community.

The cornerstone of the order directs the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strip away CPP regulations that would have forced the closure of older coal-fired power stations and suspended construction of new ones in favour of those fuelled by renewables.

The CPP had not come into force – the Supreme Court placed a stay on it in February 2016 – but it was vital to Team Obama’s overall commitment in Paris to cut US carbon dioxide emissions by just over a quarter of their 2005 level by 2025.

There are other factors already causing US emissions to fall, notably the increasing use of cleaner-burning natural gas for power generation. But few researchers, diplomats and energy economists believe that target can be met unless all the originally proposed reduction measures are enforced.

They now fear the consequences of Trump’s decision for more reasons than simply undermining Paris’ goal of staving off an increase in the global temperature of more than 2 degrees Centigrade above the pre-industrial level (the point at which scientific consensus has it that irreparable damage will be done to the world’s climate).

First, if the US has signalled its disregard for the accord, there is the obvious fear that other nations may follow suit, not merely thwarting the Paris deal but potentially accelerating the rate at which the 2 degrees C threshold is breached.

Importantly, the accord is not legally binding. Trump can leave it in place officially, while ignoring it with impunity in law. So can others, but particularly if one of the two countries that did most to frame the deal jumps ship.

Second, there is the threat that Trump’s order will finally stoked tensions with China to a dangerous level, graduating from aggressive Twitterage to an actual policy that provokes a “robust” diplomatic reaction from Beijing.

After all, it was rare US-Sino political cooperation that seeded the Paris deal. The two countries jointly announced their proposals on climate change before the conference and moved in rapid lock-step to ratify the agreement after it. Moreover, following Trump’s surprise election victory, Chinese premier Xi Jinping clearly signalled only this January his country’s position that the agreement should hold during a high-profile speech to the United Nations in Geneva.

Third and finally, Trump’s Executive Order may now once and for all brand his administration as “anti-science” at home.

That something nasty was on the way was known well enough. During the campaign, Trump blasted climate change science with such friendly terms as “hoax” and “bullshit”. Since taking office, his administration’s draft budget has already proposed cutting EPA funding by 30 per cent (48 per cent within its R&D office), closing the ARPA-E advanced energy research programme, and the winding down of a number of other environmental initiatives at Nasa and elsewhere.

However, it is now also being noted that Trump has taken these steps and applied his order on the CPP even though only one or two out of the 46 leading science and technology posts in his government have so far been filled. It gives the impression of a president bellowing ‘La, la, la, can’t hear you’ at the research community while stuffing his small thumbs in his thatch-covered ears.

And there is one final irony. The order may not even help Trump towards what he claims is his goal: protecting and expanding the number of jobs in the US’s beleaguered mining sector. As noted earlier, natural gas is arguably now the greatest threat to the coal industry. Meanwhile, mining employment is falling as much because the mines themselves are increasingly automated as because of demand.

But perhaps it truly is science and Trump that will now never have Paris. Rather, these could be the beginnings of a very ugly enmity.

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