• Daniel Ethan Finneran

America Steps Away

June 2017


America once grasped with unity and comity the hands of 193 nations committed to the Paris Accord. It was a seminal, long-sought after agreement that bound in near unanimity all nations of the Earth. And while it was never construed to be irrevocable or ironclad, we assumed the agreement would be ours to protect and improve henceforth. It was a special, unassailable alliance that a smoldering world made in good faith. In one sweeping instant, though, this all has changed. Our fingers are unfurled, our arm rescinded from the world, and our country steps away from this international accord.


In walking away from the Paris Accord, America joins but two nations: Syria and Nicaragua. Together, we make a trio of detractors, but our reasons differ. Nicaragua refused joining the now 192 other nations because the standards for environmental protections weren’t strong enough. As a small Central American nation, whose economy depends above all else on its ecology, Nicaragua is within its rights to demand more. No one can castigate the Nicaraguan government’s intransigence in light of this. Syria, on the other hand, has other issues—namely a years’ long civil war—on its mind. Perhaps this isn’t as noble a “pass” as Nicaragua’s for not joining the Accord, but at the very least, it’s defensible.


The same can’t be said as easily about America. As the supposed exemplar of enlightened thought, scientific progress, and sober analysis, America should be at the helm of this international voyage. We should be charting, as no others can, the vanguard of this defining and all-encompassing issue of our time.


Instead, we spin the wheel and turn away. In the midst of ceaseless speculation about how President Trump would handle he took to the podium in the Rose Garden to announce the nation’s new path. The optics were audacious, I might add, as he revoked the country from an accord intent on protecting the environment while standing in front of an impeccably and beautifully manicured floral festoon. He in the foreground and the flowers in the back painted a sad irony lost on few.


As it takes time for flowers to both bloom and wither away, so too will take America some time to complete its leave from the Paris Accord. The projection is that this exit will require approximately four years. And for the foresightful few, who think in electoral increments, this places our official leave on November 5, 2020. At that time, we’ll officially bid adieu to the Paris Accord, but only if the president is the same. The fail-safe, it seems, is to bide time for a more sympathetic administration to take the reins. The Paris Agreement expiration comes at the heels of America’s 2020 presidential election. This date seems less of a coincidence and more of an assurance for those who’d rather see America stay faithful to our French friends in Paris.


That said, the resolution for a prolonged withdrawal hasn’t quieted people’s anger in the present. Overwhelmingly large swaths of Americans, including prominent scientists and eminent business leaders, have voiced their displeasure and exasperation with Trump’s decision. Prior to his decision, corporations and companies spanning the industrial gamut—disparate businesses from Walmart to Microsoft to Morgan Stanley—implored the president to stay with the Accord. This, more than anything, is telling. When this type of hodgepodge of different businesses comes together with a unified message, politicians (whose campaigns often benefit from their largesse) should listen. Above all else, companies need to profit. Even though they might suffer if tougher climate regulations were to be enacted, they recognize it’s an increasingly consuming concern in their patrons’ minds. Until very recently, this wasn’t the case, but it’s become the corporate zeitgeist as of late.


Unmoved by these Fortune 500 pleas, Trump did what he thought best. And though his decision was startling and disheartening, it wasn’t at all surprising. If you were slack-jawed and shocked at this announcement, you’ve simply been too ingenuous or unreasonably optimistic. Trump had made it an agenda item on his campaign to remove America from the Accord. It is an accord, after all, and as such, it has no legislative binding. It isn’t a treaty, which would’ve necessitated a 2/3 majority vote in Congress for ratification. Therefore, it merely needed a slapdash moratorium extempore to become undone. (Contrary to this, America is still committed to the U.N. Climate Change Treaty agreed upon under President Clinton in 1992).


The decision reeks in the worst way of President Trump and Steve Bannon’s confused “America first” policy. Applying the “America First” philosophy in this way is a fetid failure. You see, America was first—on the vanguard as I mentioned—but now our place will be taken. He reasoned that he wanted to prioritize the people of “Pittsburgh over those of Paris”, but this conceals the fact behind a patriotic smoke screen that in this accord, mutual benefit is the ultimate reward. Pittsburgh’s mayor, privy to this worldview, responded that his city will stay faithful to the standards agreed upon in Paris in 2015.


While other American leaders, be they at the state, city, or federal level, seem to understand it, the Trump administration looks as though it doesn’t get, and therefore, doesn’t accurately represent, the Accord’s essence. Trump cited the “Draconian” economic burdens the agreement imposes upon the U.S. In truth, no burden is or will be imposed upon America that she has not willfully chosen to impose upon herself. The Paris Agreement was a multilateral agreement, supported in turn by each nation’s independent and provincial self-interest. Every one of the 193 nations involved determined their own benchmarks and standards they thought to be not only appropriate but practicable. Some, by necessity, couldn’t afford to be as ambitious as others. As an example, some developing nations haven’t the green technology or the bureaucratic stability to enact sweeping climate conscious resolutions. And while that’s not ideal, the hope is that in time, those impediments will be removed. This idea that Paris infringed on American economic and industrial interests is simply untrue. If the Accord is injurious, it’s by means of a self-inflicted wound.


Every involved nation set its own goals for things like emissions and clean energy production. They did so without fear of legal consequence or international repercussions, and that’s what makes this accord so novel and encouraging. Every country is responsible for its own, but each is answerable to its committed neighbors. It combines sovereignty, responsibility, and comity in one unanimous, ambitious, and unprecedented agreement.

The president did offer to world a humble proposal. He said that he’d be open to re-negotiating the Accord’s terms if the world community was willing. If not though, he said with an ambivalent and undermining shrug, “that’s fine too”. In response, European leaders have taken the “that’s fine too” route; they say nothing new can be made of the deal. They’ve made quite explicit their intent to keep to the status quo and not to steer from a hard-won agreement that took years to bear fruit. Not even Trump’s vaunted deal-making virtuosity can change this intransigent global community’s opinion.


One perplexing thing about Trump’s decision is that it’s widely inconsistent with the majority of Americans’ opinion. Considering he’s been dubbed a populist par excellence, one might’ve expected him to play closer to the polls on this one. The statistics show that only 31% of Americans support leaving the Paris Accord. This minority likely reflects a small subset in the Republican party, since all liberals and most centrists (and even those slightly right of center) consider the Accord a valuable thing. There is the thought that Trump was solely trying to appease his base. Being that his approval rating hovers around 30%, it could just be that he pulled out from Paris to appease the staunchest fundaments of his base.

This is the view from home, but the nationalist’s message would be nothing if it didn’t toss invectives overseas. Trump inveighed at length about China and India the two most frequent recipients of his scapegoating and scorn. He complained that these two Asian behemoths (one leaping ahead in strides and the other burgeoning not far behind) had unfair and undemanding regulations, relative to our own. This isn’t quite so, and both have actually made surprising and propitious progress thus far.


Far from earning the environmentalist’s envy or high regard (both have major cities where it remains unsafe to inhale without a mask, thanks to the prodigious smog), China and India have nevertheless changed their approach to the environment.


India has significantly increased its solar market while China is bustling to become a world-leader in clean energy development. Clean energy, as they’ve hesitantly come to realize, is the obvious path for the future—for both commerce and humanity. Their governments have become wise to this, while America’s has become cynical. The Chinese government is investing heavily in these markets and is making cheaper and more efficient the products America once created in isolation. If America’s presence in this sector contracts in light of Trump’s decree, China’s will invariably expand. They and not America, will enter the future as the ne plus ultra when it comes to green energy.


So, the question is, who is it we want to be? The leader of the pack, or the nation on the outside looking in? The Paris Accord might not be a perfect first step, but it is a substantial first step. It can be likened to a child. The toddler might stand, wobble, tumble, and fall when attempting first to walk. Does this make the effort less worthwhile? Does this mean, having fallen once, a proper stride won’t ever be possible? Of course, in time, the cadence will come. The gait will hasten and he’ll begin to run. But if the first step is stymied, as President Trump has just done, we’ll never reach our end.


I’ll leave you with this. It’s a quote from Seneca the Younger. He said, “Ashes are the work of a moment…a forest the work of centuries”. At the risk of seeming too reactive, I urge you to replace “moment” with “government”. The implications, if we stand for them and allow them to pass, might not be too far-fetched.

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