True to form, President Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris accord on climate change, joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only non-participating states. He got an earful from the Europeans at the just-concluded G-7 meeting in Italy, but the US stood aside as the other six countries committed to fully carrying out the Paris agreement. Trump and most of his colleagues seem oblivious to the environmental and political costs their decision entails. The planet will suffer for their ignorance, as will initiatives in the US to move rapidly ahead on renewal energy-based technologies and accompanying employment.
The bad news on the environment continues to mount up. There is the coral reef die-off in the Great Barrier Reef, disintegration in the West Antarctic ice flow, sea-level rise, and resumption of major deforestation in the Amazon basin. 2016 was the hottest year on record, and extreme weather events that we are seeing everywhere are mainly the consequence of carbon buildup in the atmosphere, especially its impact on Arctic melting.
Another warning sign comes from the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, which is home to the Global Seed Vault. The vault, sunk in deep permafrost, holds about a million food crop seeds. Because of climate change, flooding threatened the vault, which previously had been considered impregnable. Fortunately, the vault itself did not yield; but we may not be so lucky the next time. I couldn’t help thinking of an apocalyptic scenario in which Earth’s survivors are reduced to foraging for seeds to stave off mass starvation.
Blame for Trump’s decision should mostly fall on the climate skeptics he has appointed. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is an oil-and-gas man who has a long history of disparaging scientific findings on climate change and initiating law suits against the EPA. He also has a hard time with facts—saying, for instance, that China and India have no obligations under the Paris Accord until 2030, and that they are “polluting far more than we are.” If Pruitt’s wildest dream comes true, the EPA will be eliminated by December 31, 2018 under H.R. 861. William Happer, the leading candidate for science adviser to the president, considers climate scientists (he’s a physicist) “like a cult. It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant.” (On other occasions he has likened climate science to Nazism and ISIS.) And of course there’s the secretary of energy, Rick Perry. No explanation needed there. What these three have in common besides being climate-change deniers is their belief that government scientists need to be muzzled—their public talks, conference papers, and media appearances should be closely monitored and limited.
These appointments are prelude to a proposed 31-percent cut in the EPA budget that will gut US science research and the environmental protection bureaucracy. Even though such an extraordinary cut is unlikely to get Congressional approval, some significant budget reduction is inevitable, and will have a more immediate effect on climate change than withdrawal from the Paris Accord. A quarter of EPA’s employees and 56 programs are to be eliminated.
The most lasting ill effects of having an anti-science administration may be on the science education of children at the state level. Two states, and possibly a third (Florida), have laws on the books that enable parents to challenge teachers on how they teach evolution and climate change. Parents who believe in creationism and deny climate change may not be able to force local school boards and teachers to dispose of standard science texts, but they may compel teachers to introduce creationism and “alternative” explanations of climate change in order to “balance” the curriculum.
Standing against the three blind mice are virtually the entire climate science community and, most recently, three former administrators of the EPA. (Within the administration, only Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, reportedly has argued in favor of the Paris accord as well as against supporting the coal industry.) The former administrators served over three decades, and wrote an op-ed piece the other day to express concern over Trump’s decision on the Paris Accord. Saying that Trump “has chosen ignorance over knowledge,” the three took particular aim at Trump’s proposed budget cuts relevant to global warming—not just the EPA, but also “programs in the departments of Energy, State, Interior and Homeland Security, and at the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA … The Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program is zeroed out; air and energy research are cut by 66 percent.” The op-ed concludes: “With no seeming clue as to what’s going on, the president seems to have cast our lot with a small coterie of climate skeptics and their industry allies rather than trying to better understand the impact of increased greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere.” Indeed.
Thus does the US descend into global irresponsibility and surrender of opportunities to lead in the human interest. The US withdrawal from Paris will not take full effect until 2020, but by then most of the world will have passed us by. And while our backs are turned, the EU’s climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, announced: “The EU and China are joining forces to forge ahead on the implementation of the Paris agreement and accelerate the global transition to clean energy.”
If there is a silver lining here, it is the planned formation of climate-change alliances. One is led by California and joined by progressive leaders in Oregon, Washington, New York, Massachusetts, and perhaps some other states. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is leading another emission-reduction effort involving coordination among cities, businesses, and universities. These initiatives are saying “no” to Washington’s failure of leadership and substituting for it with legislation that may go beyond the requirements of the Paris Accord. So we must now turn to our state and local governments for scientific advances, economic innovation, and political courage if we are to help save the planet.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.