Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to get a fuller perspective — and Monday was one of those days.
A little over a decade ago, American voters had a presidential choice between two major party nominees who were both committed to action on global warming — John McCain and Barack Obama. Just three and a half years ago, with the United States leading the way, nations began signing the Paris Agreement, pledging action that took into account their level of development and emissions history.
Fast forward to today. The United States now sits on the sidelines, so much so that it’s news of sorts that President Trump on Monday unexpectedly dropped in on the United Nations Climate Action Summit — and spent fewer than 15 minutes there before departing for another session.
Less than a quarter of an hour devoted to a matter already starting to wreak episodic havoc on the world. Could there be a better summation of the president’s climate callousness? Actually, yes. It came later in the day, when he took to Twitter to mock teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.
It’s obvious why Trump made his brief appearance on Monday. He was roundly castigated for skipping a session on climate at last month’s G-7 meeting. His aides claimed he didn’t attend because he had conflicting meetings with several other world leaders who . . . were actually at the very climate session he missed.
Which is to say, this appearance fairly defines window dressing. We know Trump won’t take any meaningful action because he made that crystal clear after missing the G-7 meeting. Telling reporters that the United States has tremendous wealth “under its feet” — that is, fossil fuels in the ground — Trump said: “I’m not going to lose that wealth, I’m not going to lose it on dreams, on windmills, which frankly aren’t working too well.”
Indeed, the only actions he’s taken have been retrograde. Like pulling us out of the Paris Agreement. And dismantling President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. And trying to torpedo the mileage and tail-pipe emissions pact that four automakers had struck with California.
Although cities and states have made laudable climate efforts of their own, they can’t make up for the lack of federal action, says Gokce Akin-Olcum, an economist with the Environmental Defense Fund. Still, other countriesare starting to explore ways to force climate action on holdouts, she says, citing the French-led effort to reject commercial agreements with nations that have rejected the Paris accord. A further tool that could be used: carbon tariffs on goods from countries that don’t meet their Paris Agreement commitments.
Still, one thing this should bring into sharp focus is the long-range consequences of an Electoral College majority’s short-sighted 2016 decision to back a man who seems driven by little beyond rampant narcissism and a vindictive desire to erase all of his predecessor’s achievements.
Writing in the Sunday New York Times, former vice president Al Gore emphasized the silver lining in the climate cloud, saying that “we now seem to be at an inflection point, when political change begins to unroll more rapidly than we thought was possible.” Interviewed on CNN at the UN on Monday, Gore added that having Trump as the face of climate denial is galvanizing millions of young people to take to the streets demanding action.
They are rightly angry, upset, and up in arms about the mess America’s conservatives have bequeathed them. Everyone who shares their concern — and that should mean everyone who believes in science — must now realize how crucially the 2020 US presidential election looms in the world’s climate struggle.