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The United States: A Country on its Own

Gui Carvalho - Downtown Miami Flooding, May 20, 2007

By 2008 the United States was the only major country not to have signed the Kyoto Agreement on limiting climate change.  As Kevin Phillips points out, many Americans have no reason to concern themselves with the long-term future, as 40% of American Christians expect the biblical prophecies of Armageddon and the end times to come true.[1]

A Montana Army National Guard CH-47D Chinook helicopter flies over the North Dakota/Minnesota border area flooded by the Red River April 1, 2009.  (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Roger M. Dey/Released)

The United States, for long the biggest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, an “honour” that China acquired in 2006[2], under George W Bush refused to commit to binding control of its greenhouse gas emissions in concert with other nations, together with Liechtenstein, and Monaco; it was one of only three countries in the world which had not, by 2008, ratified the Kyoto Protocol.  Liechtenstein and Monaco hardily count as political heavy-weights.  This policy was in part due to lobbying by ExxonMobil, other energy companies, and organizations such as TASSC, GMI, and the now defunct Global Climate Coalition, funded by some oil companies and other large industrial corporations, making the short-term argument that restrictions would affect the U.S. economy.  It is not easy to discard an old paradigm, especially when it has made you very rich indeed.  Most of the rest of the world has taken a different view.  Sir David King, formerly the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser, said, in 2004, that “climate change was the most severe problem faced by the world.”[3]

Whereas the Obama Administration signed the Paris Agreement, the election of President Trump has again called into question the commitment of the United States to fighting climate change. Although at this time, it is too early to be certain precisely how the new Administration will implement (or ignore) climate change policies. There was also a press interview in December 2016 which said that Ivanka Trump wants to become an ambassador for the fight against climate change. Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner have increasing influence in The White House, and have already been a moderating influence on policy, so the worse fears of some may not be realised (one hopes). On the 19th April 2017 The Washington Post reported that, top Trump officials are feuding over whether America should leave the Paris Agreement. The report says that although President Trump promised to “cancel” Paris during the election campaign, he has faced calls for the United States to remain a party to the agreement from oil, gas and even some coal companies, including ExxonMobil. Kevin Cramer, who was an energy advisor during Trump’s campaign has suggested that the US remain a party to the Paris Agreement, but reduce the its emissions pledges. Leaving the Paris Agreement, which the previous administrator signed up to, is a lengthy process, there is period of three years before notice can become effective, followed by a year’s waiting time; in other words, in time for the next US Presidential Election, which Trump well may not contest, because of his age or other factors. So whatever decision is finally made the implementation of any change in policy – unless the US were to leave the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – will take time. In the short term there have been real concerns about the impact of Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, where regulatory programmes are being abandoned. The EPA’s budget is due to be cut by 31%, which will dramatically reduce its staffing and end a number of environmental programmes. Elizabeth Kolbert said in The New Yorker in April 2017 that, “A White House characterized by flaming incompetence has nevertheless  managed to do one thing effectively: it has trashed years’ worth of work to protect the planet.”

It is, however, important to note that circumstances in 2017 differ from those in 2008, on one hand the emergent “renewal” economy is now well-established in the United States, because of economics, rather than policy; Texas is a major producer of wind-power and Tesla is now (as of April 2017, with a $50 billion valuation) a more valuable company than General Motors. The decline of coal powered electrical generation in the United States is also largely a matter of economics, coal is no longer competitive; the new Administration will find that it cannot change this. The impact of climate change is now obvious in the United States, in particular the rise of sea-level in Florida and the increasing threat from storm surges, let alone the problems of drought in the southern United States. Politicians arguing that these events are temporary are in the position of King Canute, who unsuccessfully ordered the tide back; they have an increasing credibility problem. President Trump’s policies have so far been mercurial, and his advisors do not have a coherent body of political dogma, so at the time of writing it is impossible to actually predict what the Administration’s policies will actually be. However, there are indications that there could be a reversal to anti-climate change policies from the new Administration. At the G7 meeting in Rome, April 2017, no joint statement on combating climate change was issued because the US is “re-analysing” its energy policy, according to a senior G7 official.  Carlo Calenda, Italy’s economic development minister, said there was “no friction” between the G7, but that there would be no joint agreement on a commitment to combating climate change because the US was still “reviewing” its stance, according to The Financial Times. It is important to note that, as of April 2017, the US Government had not taken steps to withdraw from The Paris Agreement. At the Rome (2017) G7 Meeting the EU said it “regretted” an energy executive order Mr Trump signed in March 2017, that may make it more difficult for the US to implement all its commitments under the Paris Agreement (The FT).

In January 2017 Scientific American reported that: “The Trump administration has instructed U.S. EPA to get rid of mentions of climate change from its website.” The report added that, “Communications staff were told to remove the agency’s webpage on climate change, according to two unnamed EPA staff members. The move adds to concerns that a Trump administration will promote a denial of fundamental science within its agencies.”[4]

It is unlikely that the rest of the world will be influenced by American policy, anymore that its failure to ratify Kyoto stopped progress in dealing with climate change; American exceptionalism is not exportable. In recent years China has been the dynamic force in dealing with climate change, and the European Union has also been moving in the right direction.

(c) Andrew Palmer, 2017 Please do not reproduce without permission.

[1] Kevin Phillips – “American Theocracy, The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century”, Viking, New York, 2006, page 88.

[2] John Vidal and David Adam “China overtakes US as world’s biggest CO2 emitter”,        June 19 2007, The Guardian, London, this articles cites a report from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which says that China exceeded US emissions in 2006.

[3] BBC News –“Global warming ‘biggest threat’” 9 January, 2004

[4] Niina Heikkinen – “Trump Administration Orders EPA to Remove Its Climate Change Web Page”, Scientific American, 25 January 2017.

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