Just over a year ago, on April 22, 2016, 175 countries agreed to abide by the terms set in the Paris Climate Accord, vowing to mitigate the emission of fossil fuels in an attempt to bring the global temperature down to pre-industrial levels. Within weeks, literally, every country had signed on, except for Nicaragua, whose government claimed that the agreement was “not tough enough”, and Syria, still embroiled in civil war. It was considered a major victory by diplomats and activists alike.
Hours ago, the United States of America (which is also the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita) announced its intent to withdraw from the agreement. Some considered this move a major victory, others took to the streets in protest, but all seemed to miss the fact that this change in rhetoric is (for now), limited to just that– rhetoric.
The United States is withdrawing as per the terms set in the accord, through a process that will take four years to complete. Three and a half years from now, President Trump will be up for reelection, and he has just tied himself to a referendum that he is unlikely to win. Public concern in the US on Climate Change is already at an eight-year high, and that number is climbing quickly as more and more people begin to experience the immediate effects of a warming planet.
With Americans seeing countries like Germany, France, and China emerge as new world leaders in renewable energy, Democrats in 2020 will capitalize, announcing that nationalism has failed to strengthen the country’s stance as a global superpower. They’ll be presenting themselves as our nation’s last chance to be a leader in the burgeoning new global industries offered up by alternative energy.
And even as the country prepares to withdraw, the actual impact will not be as major as some seem to hope, or as severe as others fear. Leaders in dozens of major cities have already vowed that their cities will abide by the terms set in the accord; when Pres. Trump mentioned Pittsburgh (a long-standing city of industry), saying “I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris”, Pittsburgh’s defiant mayor began to make the rounds on Social Media and Cable News, pointing out that Trump suffered an overwhelming defeat in Pittsburgh during the election.
Why the president preferred to be alliterative rather than accurate, we may never know. But this embarrassing little political gaffe analogizes the one big negative impact that the United States’ withdrawal announcement may actually carry; Just like the rest of the world, US cities no longer see the president as an effective leader, so rather than continuing to let themselves be lead, they have decided to stop listening, and are beginning to transfer the reigns of power and influence to others, if not officially.
It’s a stark reminder that the United States of America is not an inherently exceptional nation, but rather one that is made great by the people who lead it. It’s a lesson usually learned by empires in decline when it’s too late to remedy this type of decision, but this time, we do have a chance to come back. In the coming years, Americans will witness a failure of protectionist and nationalist policies, and in 2020 we will be presented with the option to try again. That’s the beauty of a democratic republic like the US. The only question is if change does come, will it be soon enough to make a difference?