Should we be worried about the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement?

From Campaign for Social Science

Last week’s Queen’s Speech confirmed that despite the path chosen by the US, the UK would honour the Paris Agreement. Here Shonil Bhagwat, Senior Lecturer in Geography at the Open University, looks at the motivations and implications behind the US decision, and how international action on climate change will go on.

As the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the withdrawal of US from the Paris climate agreement comes as a setback to international action on climate change. This puts the US alongside Nicaragua and Syria, the two other UN member countries who have refused the deal. Does this withdrawal threaten to derail the international momentum on climate change and should we be alarmed? This article suggests that even without political leadership international action on climate change can continue. Over the last two decades since the commitment made by many countries in 1997 to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the public understanding of climate change has increased and the grassroots action on climate change is going from strength to strength.

Deal and no deal

By withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, the US joins Nicaragua and Syria. The reasons, however, for Nicaragua and Syria to refuse the Paris deal and for the US to withdraw from it are very different. Syria has been ravaged by war and is politically very unstable so it is hardly surprising that the country’s focus is currently on its internal turmoil and not on climate change. Nicaragua, on the other hand, refused the deal because it does not go far enough in halting the temperature rise. The countries who have signed the deal have committed to it on a voluntary basis and without a binding agreement. This means even if the signatories don’t meet the target, there is no mechanism to hold them to account. By contrast, Nicaragua is ahead of the game and has put in place plans to meet 90% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 and is even considered a “renewable energy paradise”. Renewable energy initiatives in most other countries are pale by comparison.

The US has very different reasons to withdraw from the Paris climate deal. Trump wants a deal “on terms that are fair to the United States” and his reason for withdrawing from the deal is that he is “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Trump compared the US with India and China and complained that under the Paris agreement these countries will continue to increase their coal-fired power plants, gaining financial advantage over the US. This misses the point that large sections of populations in countries like India have no access to electricity and many other countries are in a much worse situation than India let alone the US. So Trump’s ‘fairness’ argument is unfounded. By walking away from an international agreement on climate change, Trump’s America will take itself back to the 20th century fossil-fuelled economy while the rest of the world charges ahead towards a greener economy of the 21st century.

Proximate vs ultimate concerns

What is interesting in Trump’s arguments is that two different kinds of concerns are being pitted against each other. Whereas jobs in the coalfields of Pittsburgh is a proximate concern to Trump’s audience, climate change is somewhat distant. For a Pittsburgh resident, 2-degrees temperature increase does not mean anything because that sort of variation in temperature can be experience in a single day. What matters to them is to have a stable and secure job in a coal factory so they can fulfil the basic needs of their families. Trump’s argument that coal jobs will go to China and India if the US signs the climate deal chimes well with them. The scientists and climate negotiators, however, talk in terms of keeping within a 2-degrees rise in global average temperatures. For them, this is the ultimate concern, one on which the future of the planet depends. As President of the world’s second highest greenhouse gas emitter, Trump should know this, but he is choosing not to speak that language, let alone translate it to the Pittsburgh resident.

If we go back to the end of the 20th century, the resident of Paris would not have sympathised with this language either. Even though the environmental movement was very much alive in the second half of the 20th century, the concept of anthropogenic climate change was still nascent. Climate change as an idea consolidated only after the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which made explicit links between greenhouse gas emissions and increasing temperatures. The idea of climate change gained rapid momentum during the 2000s and became a mainstream discourse during the 2010s. In the 21st century, climate change has transformed from being a distant concern to being an immediate concern for many. It has even galvanised public support for many other environmental issues including, but not limited to, agriculture and food security, biodiversity conservation, deforestation, desertification, land degradation, and even poverty alleviation. Climate change has triggered the transformation of economy in many countries and has created jobs in, for example, the renewable energy sector.

Should we be worried?

The US backtracking on climate change deals is nothing new. The country played a major role in shaping the Kyoto Protocol when Bill Clinton was President but failed to ratify it and commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. However, this did not derail international efforts on climate change. Instead, the action on climate change has accelerated since the early 2000s. Flying in the face of Trump’s backtracking, many voices have expressed continued commitment to taking action on climate change including New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. US billionaire Michael Bloomberg has even offered to pay $15 million from his private wealth to the UN’s Climate Secretariat to compensate for the money that Trump’s government will refuse to contribute.

Many world leaders have spoken out about not letting the international climate efforts derail because of the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement and members of the scientific community have added their voice too. The commitment to action on climate change shows no signs of stopping. Even if political leadership from the world’s largest economy is hard to come by, action on climate change looks set to continue at the grassroots. While the political process has been disappointingly slow and frustrating – with flip-flopping on intergovernmental agreements or legally binding targets – grassroots action has gone from strength to strength because of people’s beliefs and convictions. Perhaps at the heart of the grassroots action is the yearning for a world that is different from the established economic and political systems that Trump represents. Whether the US is in or out, the international action on climate change will go on.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.

The environmental costs of Trump’s wall

Shonil Bhagwat, The Open University

It looks like Donald Trump’s “great, great wall” is actually going to happen. Its likely impact on human society has been well-noted, but in the longer-term a barrier across an entire continent will also have severe ecological consequences.

The US-Mexico border is around 1,900 miles (3,100 km) long and some of it has already been fenced off. According to Trump the proposed wall will cover approximately 1,000 miles and “natural obstacles” such as rivers or mountains will take care of the rest.

Aside from the debates over whether or not the wall will do much to stop drug trafficking or illegal immigration, how much it will cost the US taxpayer, or whether Mexico will pay for it, a 1,000-mile wall has significant environmental costs. For a start, all that concrete will generate millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. And then you have the fact the wall will ravage a unique desert habitat that straddles the two countries and will prevent the movement of local animals.

US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has estimated that the wall will threaten 111 endangered species as it passes through four key wildlife reserves on the US side of the border and several nature reserves on the Mexican side.

Some of the affected species are obvious: animals with cross-border populations include bighorn sheep, ocelots and bears. Splitting plant and animal populations by building a concrete wall promotes inbreeding and a decrease in genetic diversity, which makes many species susceptible to diseases and epidemics. The wall is also likely to wipe out the few jaguars still lingering in Arizona and New Mexico by cutting them off from breeding populations south of the border.

There are fewer than 200 Sonoran pronghorn left – and the wall would run right through their home.
Florin Chelaru, CC BY-SA

Other species are more unexpected: the bald eagle, America’s national bird, can obviously fly over any barriers yet the disruption to its habitat means it makes the FWS’s list of affected migratory birds. Even marine animals such as manatees or sea turtles can’t escape the wall’s impact.

Long division

The Trump wall may never become anything more solid than a metaphor for increased border surveillance, aided by technology, to keep illegal immigration under control. However, if a vast concrete wall really is built, and if it is as tall and impenetrable as Trump hopes, it will presumably last for thousands of years. This will have long-term ecological consequences.

July 2100 on the US-Mexico border if we maintain high carbon emissions.
climateinternational.org / NASA

The glacial and interglacial cycles of ice ages and warm periods unfold over thousands of years. Over the past 11,000 years we have had a relatively stable climate, but anthropogenic warming is delaying the arrival of the next ice age.

As species start to feel the pressure of a warming climate, they will need to move towards the poles as their habitats shift. Plants and animals currently found in central Mexico may find their “natural” home moves north of the border. The wall will make such movement impossible and will make these species vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Equally, in the much longer term, if or when the next ice age eventually begins and ice sheets start to expand southwards, species from the north of the wall will need to move south to escape the freezing temperatures. The Trump wall will pose a significant obstacle for such movements.

On evolutionary timescales of millions of years, such an obstacle in the movement of animals and plants will drive extinctions and the emergence of new species. A political act of this kind can have far-reaching consequences for the ecological and even evolutionary landscapes.

Build bridges instead

Preexisting security barriers across the US-Mexico border are already making life difficult for local wildlife, according to peer-reviewed research.

Researchers found fewer racoon-like coatis in areas with border fences.
francesco de marco / shutterstock

Scientists across the world consistently call for more permeable border fences in order to allow animals to move through them. One 2011 study even looked specifically at the US-Mexico border. The authors warned species were being forced into risky unfenced “bottlenecks” and called for better planning tailored towards wildlife movement.

Our knowledge of how to conserve animals across international borders has come a long way. Many nations have embraced shared responsibility for shared wildlife, and a number of international legal instruments also set out the “dos and don’ts” for conservation in transboundary regions.

If Trump really wants to show his prowess in construction, and wants to leave a long-term infrastructure legacy, then he should build bridges for wildlife on the US-Mexico border – not walls.

The Conversation

Shonil Bhagwat, Senior Lecturer in Geography, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Book Launch: Conservation and Development (Routledge)

Book launch webpage

Conservation and Development (Routledge)

Speakers: Dr Andrew Newsham (SOAS University of London), Dr Shonil Bhagwat (Open University), Prof Sian Sullivan (University of Bath Spa)

Chair: Colin Poulton, Head of the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy, SOAS

Date:9 March 2016 Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes:9 March 2016 Time: 6:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: L67

Type of Event: Book Launch

 

Conservation and development share an intertwined history dating back to at least the 1700s. But what are the prospects for reconciling the two, and how far have we come with this project? This book explores these questions through a detailed consideration of the past, present and future of the relationship between conservation and development. Bringing to bear conceptual resources from political ecology, social-ecological systems thinking and science and technology studies, Conservation and Development sets this relationship against the background of the political and economic processes implicated in environmental degradation and poverty alike. In this launch and discussion event, building on the concluding chapter of the book, the speakers will discuss the future of conservation and development, drawing upon their own experience of this relationship and fielding questions from the audience.

Green and Pleasant Lands on “Plants: From Roots to Riches”

Shonil Bhagwat talks to Kathy Willis about sacred natural sites, their cultural ecosystems services and their value for conservation of biodiversity

Green and Pleasant Lands on BBC Radio 4 at 13:45 British Summer Time on 21 August 2014

Image for Green and Pleasant Lands

Photo: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dqngm

Prof. Kathy Willis examines the different kinds of spiritual, physical and intellectual links that we have with the landscape and their diverse ecosystems and the extent to which they contribute to our health and well being.

As well as providing a source of inspiration and recreation there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that green spaces can make a positive contribution to our health, but what kinds of landscapes are of greatest benefit?

Kathy Willis assesses the some of the latest research assessing physiological and psychological benefits that ecosystems can provide from manicured botanical gardens to wild open countryside

With contributions from Richard Barley, director of horticulture Kew Gardens; Rachel Bragg researcher in Green Care at Essex University, Shonil Bhagwat environmental geographer at the OU, and historian Jim Endersby

Producer Adrian Washbourne.

Podcasts and Downloads from the series