President Donald Trump confirmed his status as climate denier in chief today, guaranteeing his place in history as an enemy of both science and humanity. Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Accord on climate change will not stop the rest of the world from continuing to advance toward a clean-energy future. Solar, wind, batteries, and other technologies are growing tremendously fast, rewarding investors and employing far more people than the heat-trapping fuels of the past. Three million Americans now work in the clean-energy sector, more than the oil, gas, and coal industries combined. California Governor Jerry Brown, who heads the world’s sixth-largest economy and a hot spot of green-energy innovation, insisted that Trump’s efforts are doomed to failure. “The momentum is all the other way,” Brown said, “and I think Trump, paradoxically, is giving climate denial such a bad name that he’s actually building the very [climate action] movement that he is [purporting] to undermine.”
But no one should pretend that it does not matter when the world’s biggest economy rejects an agreement that put unprecedented international support behind ambitious climate action. By removing rules and regulations that require polluters in the United States to change their ways, Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Accord will slow progress at the very time when humanity’s survival requires faster action than ever.
“Crimes against humanity” is a phrase to use with caution, but it fits Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Accord and indeed his entire climate policy. Timothy Wirth, who as the under secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration negotiated the Kyoto Protocol that sought to limit global warming, has said that those who deny the well-established science of climate change “ought to be tried for crimes against humanity.” Wirth told The Nation after Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord that he stood by his remark, adding that the president’s action was “a stunning moral abdication of responsibility to future generations.” To refuse to act against global warming is to condemn thousands of people to death and suffering today and millions more tomorrow. This is murder, even if Trump’s willful ignorance of climate science prevents him from seeing it. History will not be so blind.
Of course, the Paris Accord is far from perfect: Its emissions reductions are voluntary and do not go far enough, at least not yet. Nevertheless, the accord commits the world’s governments to leave behind oil, gas, and coal by mid-century—a historic shift. It commits them to limit global temperature rise to the 2 degrees Celsius that scientists say is the maximum compatible with civilization as we know it, and to aim for the 1.5 Celsius limit that poor and island nations rightfully regard as essential to their survival. Thus the accord provides citizens, activists, and the rest of civil society worldwide with a strong mandate they can use to hold governments and corporations to account.
Thanks largely to such pressure from civil society, reinforced by the growing recognition of global elites that the climate crisis is indeed dire, the Paris Accord has already accelerated real climate progress. Some of the greatest change is underway in China, which is rapidly shutting down coal plants and mines and adding solar and wind plants, notwithstanding Trump’s shameless lies at the White House about China’s supposedly doing nothing. Meanwhile, the leaders of China and the European Union announced that they remain committed to the Paris Accord and plan to intensify cooperation on clean energy, a huge and growing global market that US businesses will now find harder to navigate. So much for America First.
Remarkably, Trump did not deny climate science outright in his remarks in the Rose Garden. Reading from a prepared text, he refrained from repeating his favorite falsehood about climate change—that it is “a hoax” invented by the Chinese to undermine the US economy. Perhaps his aides have learned this much: Although fooled for decades by the disinformation campaigns funded by such polluters as ExxonMobil and voiced by Republicans in Congress, a majority of Americans now realize that climate change is real, caused by humans, and dangerous. Trump instead portrayed his withdrawal from the Paris Accord as a matter of economic fairness and patriotism, of standing up for American workers, businesses, and taxpayers who, he said, are being taken advantage of and, worst of all, laughed at by foreigners who foisted a “very unfair” deal on the hapless negotiators of the Obama administration.
This narrative could be consistent, however, only by ignoring what is now a truism within the business press and financial class: The jobs, profits and market opportunities of the future are in clean energy—not oil, gas, and coal. Indeed, two days before Trump’s announcement, the shareholders of ExxonMobil delivered a stunning rebuke to the oil giant’s management: By a 62 percent majority, they voted to require the company to produce annual reports on how it will remain profitable in a future when governments and science will limit oil and gas production.
But make no mistake: Trump’s speech was climate denial with a vengeance. At this point in the climate crisis, the science is terrifyingly clear. Global emissions of heat-trapping gases must peak by 2020 if the 1.5C target is to remain feasible, by 2030 for the 2C target. Physics does not compromise; it does not do the deals so beloved by Trump. And that means that pledging to unleash America’s “abundant domestic energy” sources—by which Trump explained he meant oil, gas, and coal—will make it immensely more difficult to honor those temperature targets, even if the rest of the world continues galloping forward.
In human terms, this increase in US energy production will mean more of the killer cyclones that killed hundreds and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka this week. It will mean more of the massive storms such as Hurricane Sandy that leveled vast parts of New York and New Jersey days before the 2012 presidential election and inspired Businessweek’s cover headline, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!” It will mean that the extinction crisis that has already claimed countless plant and animal species will intensify, furthering impoverishing the planet both ecologically and spiritually. All of this is a crime against humanity—and against Earth.