Donald Trump withdraws from the Paris Agreement: A personal account by Dr Martin J. Hodson

On 8th November 2016 I was in Vaxjo, Sweden as part of an environmental delegation from the Oxford Diocese. Everyone expected that Hillary Clinton would win the US election fairly comfortably. For some reason I woke up in the middle of the night at 3.00am on the 9th and checked the Internet. I had a considerable shock as it became apparent that Donald Trump was going to win. Our delegation and our Swedish colleagues were very subdued when we gathered again that morning. I rapidly made a decision to spend some of the next two months before Trump’s inauguration researching the likely impacts of a Trump administration on environmental policy. We released this work as a JRI Briefing Paper on inauguration day, the 20th January 2017, and that had a fairly wide readership. I have followed the ups and downs, mostly downs, of the Trump administration ever since, with the idea that I would produce another briefing in 2018, after a year. But events have overtaken me. Oddly, on the 1st and 2nd June I was attending the William Temple Foundation consultation Malvern 2017, looking at “Faith, Belief and Nation-building” , and held at St George’s, Windsor. It was becoming apparent that Trump would probably announce his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement at 8.00pm UK time on 1st June. I was not expecting to speak at the consultation, but in the afternoon of 1st June the scheduled speaker on environment had to withdraw for personal reasons and I was asked to substitute with just a few hours to prepare. An hour before I spoke the news came through from the United States. I am not allowed to outline my talk as the consultation was held under Chatham House Rules. However, I can’t help reflecting now on the strange juxtaposition of events. If I were superstitious I would probably avoid going on future delegations or consultations!

So, Trump has decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, despite calls from other nations, businesses, the United Nations, politicians and faith leaders not to. The U.S.A have joined Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations against the Agreement albeit for different reasons. The decision included reference to withdrawal from the climate fund, which largely helps poorer countries adapt to climate change. Trump’s announcement has been very widely criticised from many quarters, but what does it mean? Reading back over my January briefing paper in the last few days my analysis has not changed that much. The withdrawal is bad news for the climate, but is probably worse news for the United States.

Statements from China and the European Union have very firmly indicated that they will continue with the Paris Agreement. China now looks poised to take over global leadership on the issue, but this leadership is likely to go well beyond climate change. The United States is now being cast as a “rogue nation” that simply can’t be trusted.

If the federal government of the United States is not involved, that does not mean that individual states, cities and businesses within the country will stop working on climate change. In particular, California, the sixth largest economy in the world, has continued with its own international climate diplomacy looking for agreements with China, Mexico and Canada since Trump came to power. Jerry Brown the Governor of California said “Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course. He’s wrong on the facts. America’s economy is boosted by following the Paris Agreement. He’s wrong on the science. Totally wrong. California will resist this misguided and insane course of action. Trump is AWOL but California is on the field, ready for battle.” Shortly after Trump’s announcement California joined with New York and Washington State to form the U.S. Climate Alliance. This coalition intend to stick to the Paris Agreement. Whether such a body or individual states such as California could formally join the Paris Agreement remains an open question.

Meanwhile in the months following Trump’s election, evidence that coal production is in major decline, and that renewables are having a major worldwide surge is mounting. The day before the announcement on the Paris Agreement investors in Exxon voted by a large majority to force the company to make and report risk assessments on climate change. In all kinds of ways things are moving on.

So the United States pulling out of the Paris Agreement is bad news, but it is not the end of the matter by any means. One further thought on this. Are we better off having the United States out of the Agreement at the moment? Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has often said he would have preferred to keep the US with their feet at the table. But that could have led to serious delays in what other countries might do. Without the United States other countries may be able to move forward more rapidly.

Finally, do spare a thought for our American Christian friends at the moment, and particularly those in the evangelical churches who are working so hard on Creation Care. They face huge opposition, but keep going regardless.

I will end by quoting Rev. Mitch Hescox, President of the Evangelical Environmental Network, long term JRI friends in the States: “Whether or not we will stand tall on climate action is not up to President Trump. He is like the naysayers of old, trying to convince the Hebrew people during their wilderness sojourn to return to Egypt. Like the children of Israel, let us choose, rather, to continue forward towards the Promised Land. For if we follow God’s will for us and work to overcome climate change by creating sustainable prosperity powered by clean energy, we will indeed enter into a brighter, healthier future for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children.”

Dr Martin J. Hodson,
JRI Operations Director