In withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, U.S. President Donald Trump demonstrated monumental ignorance about climate change and the agreement itself. As Vox energy and climate writer David Roberts noted about Trump’s announcement, “It is a remarkable address, in its own way, in that virtually every passage contains something false or misleading.”
From absurd claims that the voluntary agreement will impose “draconian financial and economic burdens” on the U.S. to petty, irrational fears that it confers advantages to other countries to the misguided notion that it can and should be renegotiated, Trump is either misinformed or lying.
The agreement to limit global temperature increases that every country except Syria and Nicaragua signed in December 2015 (the latter because it doesn’t go far enough!) is an astonishing achievement. Despite a relentless, massively funded campaign of denial, the world’s nations came together and agreed to reduce the risk of climate chaos.
Scientists warn of overshoot, of exceeding greenhouse gas emissions beyond a level to which human society can adapt. As global average temperature rises, warming ocean waters could release immense amounts of methane frozen in Arctic waters. The potent greenhouse gas could take us into unknown territory where human survival is questionable. With Trump’s single-minded focus on propping up outdated, polluting industries, he’s unlikely to lead us out of this mess — but that doesn’t mean we should give up hope.
In science fiction stories about aliens invading Earth, the U.S. president gets on the phone with Russian, Chinese, European and other leaders. They unite to confront a threat that endangers them all. National borders mean nothing to the common enemy.
Today, we face a threat not only to our species but also to much of life on the planet. This time, the invasion isn’t from outer space; it’s the result of the collective effects of human activity. It still requires united effort to head off its most dire effects. Climate change and our response to it will be the defining moment of humanity’s relatively brief history.
Human boundaries around property, cities, provinces and countries matter enormously to us but mean nothing to nature. Salmon, monarch butterflies, grizzly bears, air and water pay no attention to borders. In 1986, when fire broke out in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Swedish scientists were the first to alert the world to a catastrophic release of radioactive particles. Debris from the 2011 tsunami at Fukushima, Japan, reached Canada more than a year later. Although constructs like the economy, markets and corporations have huge significance for human affairs, their perpetuation depends entirely on the state of the biosphere.
Life on Earth was made possible by the blanket of greenhouse gases enveloping the planet. They regulated temperature and kept it from fluctuating drastically between day and night and through seasons. As life evolved, photosynthesis became the planet’s primary means of capturing and using the sun’s energy, eventually producing and maintaining atmospheric oxygen. Plants mediated the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen, but the rise of fossil fuel-driven industrialization has pushed carbon dioxide beyond plants’ capacities to utilize it. We have steadily altered the chemistry of the air beyond levels that developed over several million years.
Scientists have anticipated the crisis of catastrophic climate change from human activity for decades, but despite their warnings, political and economic agendas have, with a few exceptions, trumped real action to reduce fossil fuel use.
The problem didn’t appear suddenly. Industrialized nations have been the major greenhouse gas contributors, spurred by the American economy’s spectacular growth. Signatories to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 recognized that countries responsible for the problem should cap and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while allowing poorer nations to develop economically until leaders could enact another all-inclusive treaty.
If there’s a bright side to Trump’s decision, it’s that climate change has received more serious media coverage than ever before, and people around the world—from municipal, state and business leaders in the U.S. to heads of state everywhere—have agreed to increase their efforts, to lead where Trump has failed.
People from all walks of life are joining forces to confront the common threat. The leader of the most powerful nation is not among them. Sad!