Ep. 15: It's Not Pittsburgh or Paris. It's the Planet

A South Korean environmental activist wearing a gas mask participates in a protest to denounce the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, June 5, 2017. The sings read " A breathtaking earth and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord." (Photo: AP /Ahn Young-joon)

A South Korean environmental activist wearing a gas mask participates in a protest to denounce the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, June 5, 2017. The sings read " A breathtaking earth and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord." (Photo: AP /Ahn Young-joon)

“Pittsburgh, not Paris.” That was the turn-of-phrase President Donald Trump used in explaining his decision to pull out of the historic Paris Climate Accord. The phrase irked the actual mayor of Pittsburgh, who vowed to clean up the city’s emissions in keeping with the spirit of the Paris agreement. But Trump fulfilled one of his biggest campaign promises in taking the U.S. out of a deal that it was largely responsible for creating under President Barack Obama.

In this episode, we talk with Ann Carlson who for years has been watching the UN climate negotiations that led to the Paris agreement. She’s a professor of Environmental Law and the director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA. In her view, pulling out of Paris really isn't doing very much except that it's telling the world what the world should already know.

“The Trump administration has assaulted environmental regulations in every respect and it's also already made really clear that it doesn't believe in engaging in international negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions...And so by making it clear that we're withdrawing from Paris, to me that's just telling people you should understand what we're already doing which is to repudiate climate change across the board in every way. And I think that may have the effect actually of galvanizing public opinion against the United States position both internationally and domestically and getting cities and states, as we've seen in the past few days, to step up their efforts in order to counter the quite draconian policies of the Trump administration.”

During his speech, the President slammed the agreement, which allows China to increase its emissions until the year 2030, while also being able to do “whatever they want, not us.” He also singled out India as receiving billions of dollars in foreign aid, making the Paris Accord an “unfair deal” for the United States. But according to Carlson, it’s not unfair at all. China and India are actually doing a lot to combat climate change, despite their up-and-coming economies.

“India announced today that it is going to ban non-electric cars by 2030. It is already repudiating a bunch of deals for coal fired power plants and shifting to wind solar. So it's actually also moving much faster than what it committed to under the Paris agreement.”

Trump’s move to withdraw may have been dramatic, but under the terms of the agreement, the U.S. can't withdraw from the agreement for another three and a half years. As it happens, that’s the day after the election. So, as Carlson explains, if Trump is voted out of office, the next president could just walk in the door and say the U.S. wants to be in the agreement.

“One of the things that's interesting about the Paris agreement is that it was negotiated in a way that would not require Senate ratification because the Obama administration understood that it could not get a two thirds vote of the Senate. So it's actually easy to get back into the agreement. In a lot of ways, what [President Trump] did was really just say I don't like the Paris agreement and we're not in it anymore, without actually, formally taking any steps to get out of the agreement.”

Carlson says there are a lot of theories about why the Trump administration made this move. Most have very little to do with climate change and much more to do with either appealing to Trump's political base or basically snubbing the global community because Trump himself feels snubbed. But she says the biggest issue that she worries about is the vacuum in leadership the U.S. withdrawal creates.

“The United States provided a huge amount of the diplomatic leadership necessary to get China to the table to get India to the table to get the global community to agree to reduce emissions. Without U.S. leadership, I think there's a big fear that even though other countries have committed to continue to work to reduce their emissions, we really need to reduce our emissions much more dramatically than what the Paris Agreement has called for. And we need leadership for that. So without leadership from the United States, I think there's a big question about, will we get on the path that we need to get onto to avert the worst consequences of climate change. Those consequences will likely be felt over the course of the next 10,20, 40, 50, even 100 years. So this is a long term problem where you know people in the future could really suffer the consequences of the failure of the United States to act on this problem today.”

Mentioned in This Episode:

This episode was hosted by Reid Frazier. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalism program.

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