There was never a better time for the US to leave global climate talks

June 3, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

US Embassy, Berlin, with a bit of help from Greenpeace

US Embassy, Berlin, with a bit of help from Greenpeace

Op-ed by Tim Gore, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Research of Oxfam’s GROW Campaigntim_gore

Oxfam began campaigning for a global climate agreement in 2007. We have sent teams to every COP and every single negotiating session ever since. Along with many partners and allies, we have held stunts, published papers, generated media coverage, lobbied incessantly and mobilised many many thousands of people to push governments and companies to do more at the UNFCCC for a decade.

So Trump’s announcement this week hurts us all. We know that the people who will pay the price of every delay to the climate action we need are the communities we work with in every country every day.

For many who have been part of this struggle, the real kicker is knowing the US negotiated for years to get an agreement designed to be palatable to US domestic politics. After the US succeeded in watering down the Kyoto Protocol 20 years ago before refusing to ratify it, this feels like history repeating itself. Certainly the Paris Agreement is littered with evidence of US intransigence – attempts to agree fair share principles were blocked, approaches to addressing loss and damage neutered and climate finance provisions limited to a drop in the ocean of needs – despite Trump’s ludicrous claims to the contrary.

Bali 2007

Bali 2007

It’s tempting then to wonder whether the world should have resolved to build a global climate agreement without the US years ago. Imagine if at the Bali conference in 2007, when the Bush administration’s delegation was openly jeered for blocking a roadmap to a new agreement, the rest of the world had decided to go ahead without them. Would there have been a better outcome in Copenhagen two years later? Could the Paris Agreement have been stronger if the US had either chosen or been forced to walk away at any point during or after the Durban conference in 2011?

I believe the answer is no. The fact is the world was not ready to go it alone without the US at any point over the past ten years of climate negotiations. But it is now, here’s why.

Firstly, because as we have been saying since Paris, the pendulum of climate leadership has been swinging towards the global South for some time. China’s emissions have seemingly peaked – almost unthinkable at the time of the Copenhagen conference – and both China and India are cancelling swathes of planned coal fired power stations. Their investments in renewable energy are staggering – boosted by the price of solar and wind technology dropping like a stone. The Climate Vulnerable Forum has pledged to achieve 100% renewable energy in their economies by 2050. These are game-changers that mean the foundation is laid for new international alliances to lead the global climate fight in the years ahead.

The EU and China have already signalled their intent. New South-South institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank hold huge promise to accelerate investment in renewable energy. The commercial, trade and diplomatic partnerships that will be built will leave no-one in any doubt that far from putting America first, Trump’s move puts the US last in the race to build a more sustainable economy.

Second, because global climate politics now takes place beyond the confines of relations between nation states. Cities, sub-national units (including the States in the US) and companies all increasingly understand they too have responsibilities to act, or are being pushed to do so by citizens. We’re going to need them in the US and everywhere else not only to drive deep emissions cuts at record speed in the next few years, but also to contribute the resources needed in countries from Afghanistan to Zambia to leave fossil fuels in the ground, adapt to the climate impacts they are already battling and pay for the loss and damage that cannot be prevented.

And third, because there is a movement of people in the US that will not let their government get away with this madness for very peoples climate marchlong. They put together the biggest march on climate change the world has ever seen. They are putting their bodies on the line to block coal plants and pipelines from being built. They are driving fossil fuel interests out of Washington DC. They are demanding a response from their elected representatives that is actually commensurate with the scale of the crisis we face. They are standing side by side with those fighting all forms of social injustice. And I don’t believe for one second they are going to stop, whether the US is in the Paris Agreement or not.

We couldn’t have said any of these things at any other point in recent memory. So while the US government rowing back from its international responsibilities on climate change is not a new story, the truth is that we have never been better placed to respond to Trump’s decision on Paris. Oxfam will be debating internally and with all our partners, allies and close friends that have been part of this journey for climate justice what part we can play in writing the next chapter. We will not take this lying down, we will persist, and we know we are far from alone.