The Big News: Trump Acknowledges The Need For The Green Transition

06/02/2017 05:00 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2017

Liberal critics of Trump are mounting an escalation of hyperbolic anathemas about his quixotic decision to withdraw from the “Paris Accord,” as he calls it (how nice of him to use a French word). But they are misrepresenting the situation, and not helping much with the search for constructive action.

First, they claim that the USA is abandoning its leadership role. Uhu. What kind of leader is one that has contributed more than anyone else to create the problem, is still doing at least twice as much harm per capita as most other comparable countries, has been totally unreliable in international negotiations, forging the Kyoto protocol and dropping out as soon as a terrible new administration took over (the one that sent the world on a downward spiral of terror by the criminal war on Iraq), and has been dragging the climate negotiations because of its inability to have any sound agreement ratified by a congress sold out to dirty industries? So, yes, the USA has had a very strong influence on climate negotiations, because the world was needing it to join the crowd and help convince reluctant China and India to start the transition. But the USA has been a leader from behind, not from ahead.

Here is a personal anecdote. I was a co-author of the last IPCC report. At the fractious approval session of the IPCC report in 2014, the summary for policy makers about mitigation policies had a first section on the ethical issues relevant to protecting humanity from dangerous climate change, and to distributing the efforts of emission abatement. This section was somewhat contentious because it brought considerations of moral obligations of polluting countries and moral rights of developing countries. The two most difficult countries in the contact group that worked on this ethics section included… the United States, whose chief negotiator I overheard to say to his team, about our section: “we don’t need this crap.” That was an Obama team. One of the young diplomats of the US delegation came to see us the authors, after our section was finally approved by all countries, to apologize for the behavior of the delegation, expressing embarrassment and invoking tough instructions from Washington. That same day, a seasoned European diplomat told me that until the USA and China would stop dragging their feet, the world would not be able to forge a general agreement. That somehow happened the next year, leading to the Paris Agreement. The United States, a leader in climate negotiations? The rest of the world laughs. Trump is just mimicking Bush, in his own boorish style. Let us pray he does not start a new war.

The second mistake of liberal critics is to accuse Trump of being a climate skeptic. Not quite, after all. In his speech he explicitly praised the reduction of emissions already achieved by the U.S. business efforts, promised to developed “clean coal,” and reaffirmed his strong commitment to the environment, branding the USA as the country with the cleanest environment, cleanest air, cleanest water (forget Flint). He could have said that human activity has no influence on climate, that climate was not changing. He said none of that. He quoted a study that has criticized the Paris Agreement for being insufficient, he did not reject the idea that mitigation efforts can protect the climate.

So please, be fair to Trump. His decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is stupid and harmful to the U.S. economy and diplomacy, offering China and Europe a golden opportunity to take the lead (French President Macron was quick to send an invitation – in English – to U.S. scientists to consider France their second home and go doing their research there). But it is just returning the U.S. to its traditional role of the one that leads the pack from behind, dragging the whole collective momentum while being the worst offender per capita. And he is embracing the need for a good, fair agreement that would protect the climate, promising to come back if the deal is better. He will not get a new agreement, or a renegotiation, but at least we now know that the USA can be counted upon to reject the most egregious anti-scientific statements about the climate (of course, there may be worse politicians than Trump waiting for their turn, but somehow we can hope to have reached an extreme point in the political cycle) and the U.S. can be counted upon to join the world chorus for a clean environment and a protected climate. That is not much, but it is offering an opening for initiatives of clean energy development by states and companies across the USA, in partnership with the rest of the world. Those initiatives need to be supported, and the White House may not help, but we can hope it will not directly oppose them. Just ignore Trump and his suspect effort to protect the value of coal reserves, and go on with the green transition.