The End of the Paris Prophecy

Donald Trump's election win is bad news for the Paris Agreement and very bad news for the climate.

Deliberations at the 2015 Paris COP meetings. COPPARIS2015 / Flickr

Following an initial period of shock and horror, experts, stakeholders, observers, and journalists linked to the international climate process have energetically downplayed the consequences for the Paris Agreement of Donald Trump’s election victory.

Portraying him as a “pragmatic businessman,” some argued that Trump would come to his senses and see the economic benefits of climate action. Others questioned his capacity to actually push through his campaign promise of immediately “cancelling” the Paris climate agreement once inside the Oval Office.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed his confidence that Trump would not undo the Paris Agreement. Ségolène Royal, the French environment minister and outgoing president of the Conference of the Parties, the yearly UN climate change meeting, declared that there was nothing to be worried about since it would take at least three years for a US president to exit the agreement (which came into force on November 4), and an extra year for an exit to actually happen.

Royal’s remarks are simply not true. Subparagraph three of article twenty-eight in the agreement stipulates that if a country unilaterally decides to opt out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it also automatically withdraws from the Paris Agreement. According to Michael Wara, environmental law expert at Stanford University, President Trump could unilaterally decide to do this, without consulting with the US Congress — as was already the case under Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush when they withdrew the United States from military treaties.

This option, which best reflects Donald Trump’s climate denialist campaign declarations, would produce the greatest damage to the international climate regime. By unilaterally withdrawing from the UNFCCC (launched over twenty-five years ago), the world’s second-largest emitter would permanently undermine the Convention’s legitimacy and future. Given the absence of a Plan B, the UN climate negotiations would likely be swept away by uncontrollable centrifugal forces.

As his recent “open mind” remarks suggest however, Trump could settle for a less “radical” option and choose to remain in the agreement. Yet even this option could spell the end of US climate action — which, as a group of NGOs have recently shown, is far from satisfactory given its historical responsibility.

The intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) that form the backbone of the Paris deal are non-binding. There is no way of forcing a country to fulfill its stated reductions pledge. Subsequently, Trump can simply ignore Obama’s pledge to reduce US emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025 when compared to their 2005 level.

Worse, he can also dismantle the bodies and instruments in place to fulfill this objective (the Environment Protection Agency would be the most likely target) and cancel the existing — and limited — environmental regulations. At the end of the day, given the amount of climate deniers that are now buzzing around him — including Jeff Sessions, among others — and the pressures that will likely come from the segments of capital that have funded the entire infrastructure of climate change denialism in America, his stance on the Paris agreement is of little importance.

Most significantly, and regardless of his chosen course of action, Trump’s victory effectively annihilates the self-realizing prophecy upon which the Paris Agreement was built: the idea that, as Laurence Tubiana, lead negotiator for France in the run-up to Paris explained, by triggering “the convergence of rational anticipations,” “words contribute as much to change as the agreement itself.”

For its architects and supporters, the Paris Agreement’s function is to send “unambiguous signals that the world will shift its economic and social activity toward more climate-friendly and sustainable pathways.” It is the “momentum” generated by the agreement that is supposed to inspire transformational change by all stakeholders — states, local governments, businesses, investors, and NGOs. A priority after Paris was therefore to keep up the Paris “momentum” by highlighting — through an elaborate communications strategy — that the prophecy was being realized.

As one communications expert put it, this involves a savvy combination of one-third fear and two-thirds hope. For Christiana Figueres, former UNFCCC Executive Secretary, it was essential to “relentlessly [inject] optimism into the system, no matter what the questions from the press . . . and no matter what the evidence to the contrary.”

Questions of whether or not such a strategy could ever be sufficient to enforce and protect a global climate change pact aside, Trump’s election has brought down an already wavering Paris edifice. Over the course of 2016, it was confronted with a number of opposing signals and realities — from the reopening of coal mines to climate-averse free-trade agreements. Trump’s victory dealt it a killer blow.

Given the forces unleashed by this election, how can the Paris prophecy possibly survive?

Not only will the prophecy not be fulfilled, but it also risks turning against itself. As the sociologist Robert K. Merton explains, a prophecy can become self-defeating when confronted with an event that directly challenges its realization. Trump’s election threatens a core component of the orchestrated narrative in place since COP21.

It is because of its universal character and, in particular, the fact that the United States and China — the world’s two largest emitters — committed to reducing their carbon emissions that the Paris Agreement could be labeled and marketed as a “historic pact,” “historic deal,” “landmark climate accord,” “groundbreaking climate accord,” and “chance to save the world.” By dropping out of the equation, the United States turns the Paris prophecy into a nightmare.

At the Marrakech COP, one only had to look at the expressions on delegates’ faces to realize just how disastrous Trump’s victory was for the Paris Agreement and all that it stands for. In a last-ditch attempt to salvage the situation, the agreement’s die-hard supporters are now trying to reshape the narrative.

Given that it will be harder to mobilize countries — why should anyone still commit to ambitious climate action if the United States is backing out? — the Paris spin doctors are diverting the public’s and media’s attention towards subnational and non-state actors, particularly cities and businesses (especially in the field of energy).

The “spirit of Paris” is intact, they argue, since investors, local governments, and businesses, with or without government backing, are already fueling the transition towards a low-carbon economy. “Trump’s election,” they tell us, “will not slow the groundswell of climate action we see from cities, states and provinces, businesses, civil society groups, and other actors whose decisions are not governed by the Electoral College.”

In Marrakech, John Kerry expressed his confidence in the fact that the “marketplace will dictate [change], not the government.” Investing in clean technologies and infrastructures is presented as making good business sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that they are convinced that Trump will come to his senses, not for the sake of the climate but to preserve the United States’s global economic superpower status.

The problem is that the invisible hand of the market is neither green nor social.

Trump’s victory is a stark reminder that the fight against climate change is more than just a storytelling exercise. Climate change is a battleground where opposing interests — whether corporate or geopolitical — come into conflict.

We, as stakeholders in this battle, have a duty to tell the truth: No, corporate self-interest will not save the climate. No, the climate struggle is not on the right tracks. Pre-Trump global mitigation commitments place us on a path towards a dangerous 3°C increase in global temperatures. Only by acknowledging this can we, to paraphrase Murray Bookchin, do the impossible and prevent the unthinkable.