“WE’RE still in,” was the message of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States this week, after the President, Donald Trump, announced the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The President’s announcement, which fulfills a campaign pledge, drew condemnation from charities, business leaders, and politicians. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 by 196 nations (News, 11 December 2015), includes a commitment to decreasing carbon emissions and limiting global warming to 2°C , and to providing $100 billion in aid to developing countries to cope with climate impact.
Faith bodies were heavily involved in campaigning for the deal.
Christian Aid described President Trump’s decision as “grossly irresponsible” and an act that could “mark the end of American supremacy”. Tearfund accused him of showing “complete disregard for the millions of people who are suffering at the hand of climate change”. He was guilty of an “abject failure of leadership”, said the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam. Rudelmar Bueno De Faria, general secretary of the ACT Alliance, a coalition of 144 churches and faith-based organisations, said that the exit “flies in the face of ethics and Christian values”.
But the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Michael Curry, sounded a more hopeful note.
“The United States has been a global leader in caring for God’s creation through efforts over the years on climate change,” he said on Thursday. “President Trump’s announcement changes the US’s leadership role in the international sphere. Despite this announcement, many US businesses, states, cities, regions, non-governmental organisations and faith bodies like the Episcopal Church, can continue to take bold action to address the climate crisis.
“The phrase, ‘We’re still in,’ became a statement of commitment for many of us who, regardless of this decision by our President, are still committed to the principles of the Paris Agreement. . .
“In spite of hardships and setbacks, the work goes on. This is God’s world. And we are all his children. And, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands.’”
The Bishop of California, the Rt Revd Marc Andrus, wrote on Twitter that there was “hardly a more foolhardy and dangerous thing Donald Trump could have done”.
Before confirmation of President Trump’s decision to withdraw, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, told La Repubblica that it would be “a huge slap in the face for us” and “a disaster for everyone”. He later told Reuters that it would be “completely unscientific. Saying that we need to rely on coal and oil is like saying that the earth is not round. It is an absurdity dictated by the need to make money.”
During President Trump’s visit to the Vatican last week, Pope Francis gave him a copy of Laudato Si, his 2015 encyclical on climate change, which warned that the inheritance of future generations could be “debris, desolation and filth” (News, 19 June, 2015).
In his address at the White House on Thursday, President Trump argued that the Agreement would “undermine our economy, hamstring our workers, weaken our sovereignty, impose unacceptable legal risk, and put us at a permanent disadvantage to the other countries of the world”.
The United States would immediately cease all implementation, he said, and the “draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country”. But it would also begin negotiations to “re-enter either the Paris Accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers”. The United States would “continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally-friendly country on Earth”.
The leaders of France, Germany, and Italy rejected his claim that re-entry was on the cards: “We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies, and economies.” The French President, Emmanuel Macron, described the withdrawal as “an error for the interests of his country, his people, and a mistake for the future of our planet”. A statement issued by Downing Street said that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, had expressed her “disappointment” to President Trump, and confirmed that Britain remained committed to the agreement.
A joint statement, signed by all 28 EU states, committing the EU and China to full implementation of the Agreement, is expected shortly. The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, said on Thursday that “fighting climate change is a global consensus . . . as a big developing nation we should shoulder our international responsibility.”
The lead international climate spokesman at Christian Aid, Mohamed Adow, said that the commitment from two of the world’s largest three economies proved that travel was “in one direction”.
Over the past 20 years, “the world has bent over backwards to accommodate the US in the international climate talks”, he said on Thursday. “And yet, despite all those concessions from other nations, the US has still thrown it back in their faces.”
“The 20th century was powered by fossil fuels and America dominated the world,” he said. “The 21st century will be powered by clean energy and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement could mark the end of American supremacy.
“Thankfully this will not stop the worldwide transition to a low-carbon economy. . . The rest of the world recognise that it’s in their interests to decarbonise their economies and slow the heating of the planet. They will not let one man destroy our common home.”
During his address, President Trump repeatedly emphasised the need to “put America first”, and described the Agreement as “simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers, who I love, and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production”.
He was “someone who cares deeply about the environment”, he said, and the US was “the world’s leader in environmental protection”. Data suggests that greenhouse gas emissions in the US have declined by 11.5 per cent since 2005, but are higher than they were in the 1990s.
He drew several times on a study published in March by the National Economic Research Associates, commissioned by the American Council for Capital Formation with support from the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy. The President spoke of a forecast that compliance with the agreement could result in the loss of 6.5 million jobs by 2040.
“The agreement doesn’t eliminate coal jobs,” he said. “It just transfers those jobs out of America and the United States, and ships them to foreign countries. This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries’ gaining a financial advantage over the United States.”
Rebuttals soon followed. In response to the President’s claim that, even if implemented in full, the Accord would only secure a two-tenths of one degree Celsius reduction in global temperature by 2100, Dr John Sterman and Andrew Jones of Climate Interactive cited their research forecasting a 0.9°C reduction.
The head of advocacy at Tearfund, Paul Cook, said that the President had “missed a key opportunity to boost economic growth through innovative clean-energy solutions. Growing economies such as China and India are discovering how renewable energy can be a catalyst for a booming economy, creating green jobs and flourishing businesses, while reducing carbon emissions.”
Business leaders have also criticised the decision, including the chief executive of Apple, Tim Cook, who said that it was “wrong for our planet”, and the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, who described it as ”a setback for the environment and for the US’s leadership position in the world”.
A study conducted by Yale University in December found that 69 per cent of registered voters were in favour of US participation in the Paris Agreement.
Bishop Holtam said that the US emitted nearly one fifth of global carbon-dioxide emissions and that China, the other “mega-emitter”, had committed itself to “deep and sustained cuts”.
“How can President Trump look in the eye the people most affected, including the world’s poorest in the places most affected by climate change now, and those affected by increasingly frequent extreme weather in parts of the USA?” he asked. “What will our children and grandchildren say to us about the way we respond to this extreme carelessness?”
Faith groups could make a difference, the Bishop advised. This week, shareholders in ExxonMobil defied the corporation’s board by voting in favour of a motion, tabled by the Church Commissioners and others, demanding that the company report on how its business model would be affected by global efforts to limit the average rise in temperatures.
“This is a historic vote”, Edward Mason, head of responsible investment for the Church Commissioners, said on Wednesday. “Despite strong opposition from the Board, the majority of Exxon’s shareholders have sent an unequivocal signal to the company that it must do much more to disclose the impact on its business of measures to combat climate change.”
Last year, the board of the corporation, the world’s largest publicly traded energy company, opposed the resolution and even tried to get stock-market regulators to prevent its being presented (News, 3 June, 2016).