Science should supersede politics on climate change

Science should supersede politics on climate change

The US flag flies on a towboat as it passes a coal-fired power-plant along the Ohio River in Stratton, Ohio. (Reuters)

As if in a cruel joke, at almost the same time as more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries released a declaration that “clearly and unequivocally planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” the Trump administration this month formally notified the UN that the US is withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement of 2015. One would be hard pressed to find another example of such utter and reckless defiance of science by politicians, especially where the very existence of humanity and its entire habitat is under severe threat.

There is still a tiny and ever-shrinking minority that, out of ignorance or vested interests, insists that the Earth’s extreme weather conditions, unseasonal temperatures, warming seas and melting icebergs are not caused by human activity, but are a mere cycle in nature’s behavior. It is not that such people are refusing to admit that these changes will have a disastrous, cataclysmic impact on Earth and all its species, rather they are ignoring or refusing to accept that human activity in the modern era is the main contributor to global warming and the resultant climate change. To deny this fact is to deny science itself.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report of 2014, scientists are more than 95 percent confident that nearly all global warming is caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and other human-caused emissions. The Paris agreement set itself the goal of halting this trend and keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with the aim to pursue efforts to further limit this increase to 1.5 C.

President Donald Trump’s decision to begin his country’s year-long process of withdrawal from the Paris agreement, which will culminate the day after the 2020 US presidential election, was a cynical way to kickstart his re-election campaign. It appeals to his base, which perceives the agreement as a threat to the US economy and their jobs. By turning its back on global cooperation aimed at combating and reversing the impacts of global warming, the US has dealt a body blow to those efforts both symbolically and practically.

The most powerful economy in the world, with the greatest resources, which has led the more progressive agenda in the international community for many decades, is signaling to the world that, as far as it is concerned, this issue is not a priority, neither domestically nor internationally, and that it sees no value in global cooperation to combat climate change. In practical terms, no other country is more essential to this struggle. To start with, as data compiled by the International Energy Agency demonstrates, the US is second only to China in terms of its total atmospheric emissions of heat-trapping gases. More telling is the fact that the US is not only responsible for about 15 percent of these emissions but, calculated on a per capita basis, it produces two-and-a-half times more than China and more than three times the average contribution of France.

For more than three-quarters of a century, the world has looked to the US for leadership on many issues. But now, on the one dilemma that might determine the very survival of humankind and the degree of suffering we will have to endure in the process, the world is finding America’s leadership not only sorely wanting, but a genuine obstacle to survival. Moreover, the US is not only a military and economic superpower, but a world powerhouse when it comes to technology and innovation, and its commitment to the development of green and clean energy is invaluable. Hence, Washington’s message that protecting the environment is not a major concern for the country is a signal to investors and innovators that they should divert their energy and resources elsewhere.

Disappointingly, climate change has not so far taken center stage in the US election campaign that is currently beginning to heat up. A year before voters will choose the next president, global warming is neither a source of great contention between Republicans and the Democrats, nor in the Democrats’ battle to choose their presidential contender. It raises the question of whether any candidate sees this as a vote-winning issue at all, especially while so much attention is concentrated on the attempt to impeach Trump over his alleged misdemeanors in connection with Ukraine.

The world is finding America’s leadership not only sorely wanting, but a genuine obstacle to survival.

Yossi Mekelberg

In the current disruptive and chaotic atmosphere in Washington, with hostile relations between the White House and Capitol Hill, there seems to be no space for dealing with any topic that will have a long-term impact and require a unified national effort, along with a global and forward-looking approach. Of the 188 original signatories to the Paris climate accord, the US is the only one to express its intention to withdraw and perceive itself as a victim of the agreement rather than a leader and beneficiary of it.

Denial, ignorance or indifference cannot conceal the scientific community’s warnings to us all that the climate crisis the planet is facing “is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle.” Since the most affluent countries are mainly responsible for greenhouse gas production and generally have the greatest per capita emissions, it is their responsibility to address this issue.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that the reason behind Washington’s abandonment of the agreement was that it was an “unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses and taxpayers,” and that the US is already taking steps to reduce its heat-trapping emissions. This was sheer populist deflection and abdication of responsibility for the sake of gaining some cheap points in an election year.

What the Trump administration is doing by abandoning the Paris agreement amounts to a targeted assassination of efforts to contain global warming and of international cooperation in general, which might well result in the further marginalization and weakening of the US as a global leader.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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