Christian Climate Ethicist Byron Smith reflects on the meaning of Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
President Trump announced yesterday that the United States government will be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the ground-breaking international climate deal reached at the end of 2015 that includes virtually every nation in the world.
Now the Paris Agreement is far from perfect. The targets that apply to each country are not binding. It doesn’t come close to addressing the massive global injustice inflicted by wealthy nations with a long history of carbon pollution (like Australia and the US) upon the rest of the world. And even if all the unjustly distributed and non-binding pledges are kept, it isn’t nearly ambitious enough to avoid major climate impacts: coral reefs will still die, glaciers disappear, cities be swallowed by the ocean, farmlands become desert.
Yet compared to no deal, it is still a big step forward, bringing together all the largest emitters and providing a framework in which ambition can be progressively increased over time. And if all the current pledges are kept, then it will help to somewhat slow the speed and overall magnitude of warming, perhaps making the difference between catastrophe and merely disaster.
Now under the provisions of the agreement, the US cannot withdraw immediately. It will take a couple of years. But the announcement symbolises a new, unknown chapter in international climate relations. Commentators debate whether the loss of US support will embolden other more reluctant nations to also withdraw, leading to the erosion and perhaps even collapse of the agreement, or whether it may help to galvanise global opinion against the US and lead to a renewal of ambition or perhaps even punitive tariffs against US imports being applied by some of its major trading partners.
Trump and the Republican Party’s attempts to remove the US from Paris will almost certainly harm the US. Snubbing such an important agreement deals a major blow to international respect and goodwill towards the US government. The US clean energy economy will fall further behind other major nations while the Republican Congress continues to dismantle environmental regulations. Any coal plants that stay open longer than they would have will kill or compromise the respiratory health of many who live nearby. The extra greenhouse emissions that will almost certainly result from this decision will continue to hit US citizens in the form of heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires and rising oceans. And when the US government inevitably returns to the negotiating table, it will find fewer friends and angrier faces, determined to reduce the size of the unfair advantages in the deal the US got at Paris.
Yet inevitably, those who will lose the most from this move are those who already have least and are already being most harmed the most by our dangerously overheating globe. African farmers whose crops are wilting; Bangladeshi (and Rohingya) people losing homes to wind and wave; Bolivian and Nepalese villages losing their glacier-fed water supplies; Tibetan nomads losing their pastures; Indian slum-dwellers dying in heatwaves; Pacific Islanders with increasingly saline wells as waters rise; and many more. Not to mention the young and those not yet born, whose future is eroded by every extra tonne of pollution that results from this breakdown. And the myriad, myriad voiceless creatures whose ecosystems continue to fall apart under our onslaught.
President Trump justified the move through a collection of false or misleading arguments, but which boiled down to the usual Republican denial of the seriousness of global warming combined with Trump’s nationalist vision of the world as a zero-sum game: for me to win, you have to lose. And if you look like you might be gaining something, I must therefore be losing something.
At this point, some Christians may recall various teachings of our Lord: love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10.27); be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (Luke 12.15); be like God in seeking the good of all, whether friends or enemies (Luke 6.35). When we hear Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, considerable care and reflection is required to apply them today in the context of complex international agreements regarding global issues.
Yet even without laying out a complete picture of how we (or our governments) might respond, it is worth noting the jarring gap between the picture of the world found in President’s Trump speech and the vision of divine grace, mutual care and solidarity with the suffering to which Jesus summons his followers. There can be room for debate about the best paths, policies and politics to pursue as we seek to move towards justice and care for our common home. But narrow self-interest, blinkered refusal to face reality, the prioritisation of short-term profits for the already wealthy few over the lives and livelihoods of the many: these are directly contrary to Jesus’ true and living way. And on these Mr Trump has no monopoly; they are also evident much closer to home.
This reflection was written by Byron Smith, a consultant on the Common Grace Climate Justice team. Byron is the assistant minister at Paddington Anglican Church in Sydney. He is completing a Phd in Christian Ethics on 'Prospects for Christian Ethical Deliberation amidst Climate Fears'.