A climate march in Washington DC, March 2107. Photo: Mark Dixon, via Wikimedia Commons

US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is bad for workers and bad for the planet

08.06.2017

By Brian Kohler, sustainability director at IndustriALL Global Union

On Thursday, June 1 2017, Donald Trump announced that the USA would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This has global implications, of course, but is also quite clearly against the interests of the citizens of the USA, including – or especially – workers, their families and their children, and the communities that depend on them.

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement throws some red meat to the understandably angry, alienated and deliberately misinformed voters that elected Trump, and will in the very short term boost the share prices of coal companies, enriching the Koch brothers and a few other mega-billionaires who own him.

It will not create jobs, for reasons explained below. In return, it will put the health and well-being of people (and other species) – today and for unknown future generations – at serious risk.

When leaders act against the clear best interests of the people they are supposed to represent, there can be only two possible explanations: stupidity, or corruption. Take your pick.

Although announced by Trump, this is a decision of the ruling Republican party. Every leading Republican candidate and almost every Republican politician has more or less promised to do this. It has been an article of faith for many years that any aspirant to Republican Party support must deny climate change. The Republicans were, however, careful not to directly deny climate change in the announcement of withdrawal, thereby sidestepping the criticism that the announcement is based on climate denial and instead pretending that it is about the economy and jobs. But make no mistake: this decision is only possible if you do not really believe that climate change is a problem

Reaching the Paris Agreement was the culmination of over 20 years of difficult negotiating. It is an imperfect document but still a major step forward. Many of the compromises that it contains were put there by the USA, with reluctant acceptance by other countries to keep the USA in the Agreement. The idea that Donald Trump will be able to negotiate a better deal is ludicrous. When Trump says he wants to re-negotiate the deal, what he really means is that he wants to dictate terms to countries like India, and China. Unfortunately for Trump, this is 2017, not 1947, and China will not be dictated to.

Furthermore, Trump has apparently not even considered that other countries might impose a countervailing tariff on American goods for being unfairly subsidized by lower carbon costs. Being on the outside of the Paris Agreement, there is nothing to prevent that. So much for job creation.

What the USA's Withdrawal Will Not Do

This decision will not bring back coal mining jobs. Even if (at best) it results in an unlikely and very short term increased production rate, technological change has ensured that this will not result in very many, if any, additional jobs. It simply does not take as many workers to produce a tonne of coal in 2017 as it did in the 1950s.

More importantly however, the economics of energy have shifted. It is already cheaper in many cases to produce electricity from wind, or solar. Most investors are not interested in sinking their money into new coal mines, and would rather invest in renewable energy projects that have a more certain future. Banks and insurance companies are increasingly reluctant to finance or insure a technology that is seen as a “sunset industry”. Trump's announcement will not change this.

What will change for workers, however, is that the USA will no longer be committed to the Paris Agreement's expectations that governments create a Just Transition for affected workers in coal mining communities. This will weaken the ability of trade unions to negotiate good deals for affected workers when faced with the industrial transformations that are inevitable – Trump, or no Trump.

In short: no new jobs; and less protection for workers.

Abandoning the Paris Agreement won’t make the USA greater in any other meaningful sense, either. Doing so cedes leadership in tomorrow's technologies to countries that are actually prepared to invest in research and development, for example in the Asian region, and particularly China. These are countries, by the way, that are not actively engaged in tearing down public education and compromising their universities. China already owns key technologies in renewable energy. Trump's announcement ensures that the USA will not catch up.

On climate change, the science is clear, and irrefutable. The worry is not that the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have exaggerated the problem. The real worry is that they have understated the problem.

IPCC scientists are appointed by governments and they know that they are delivering a message that most of their bosses would rather not hear. Therefore if any criticism of the IPCC is valid it is that its estimates tend to be cautious - erring on the conservative side and assuming that the relationship between greenhouse gases and global warming is generally smooth and consistent, and will continue in this manner. This assumption has yielded climate models that are remarkably powerful and scientifically beyond reproach. However they do not make any attempt to predict potential climate "tipping points" - points at which the earth's climate may be transformed to an entirely new point.

A tipping point is a change of state that one cannot easily return from. Think about an egg in a bowl. If you rock the bowl you can move the egg but if you stop rocking the bowl the egg will return to its starting position. However if you rock the bowl too violently you can cause the egg to go over the edge of the bowl and crash to the floor. Now, if you stop rocking the bowl the egg will not return to its starting position - it is in an entirely new state that it cannot return from.

The earth's climate may have tipping points that we cannot predict. To take just one possible example, warming oceans cause greater and greater amounts of methane gas trapped as methane hydrates frozen in ice below polar oceans and in permafrost – to be released. Methane is itself a powerful greenhouse gas, and this release will accelerate Arctic and Antarctic warming, thereby defrosting even more methane hydrates which creates more warming and accelerates more release of methane. No-one as yet knows if this dangerous feedback loop is powerful enough to overcome other climate stabilizing factors. There are other possible scenarios that could trigger a tipping point. The IPCC does not factor these into its climate models, although they are discussed in worrying terms in its literature.

The USA's Republicans, by potentially slowing progress in addressing climate change, have put the entire future of humanity at risk.

But climate tipping points are not the only way in which this decision is terrifying. Even the USA's military has expressed fear that destabilizing the world's climate increases security risks. As the ruling Republicans busily dismantle everything from environmental protection, to education, to health care, a frightening fact emerges. The USA now leads the world in only one area: military power. An old saying is that when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.