President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement is certainly bad news, both for the environment and international diplomacy.
But there was a bit of good news this week from an unexpected place: the Exxon-Mobil annual meeting in Dallas. There, shareholders ignored the company’s recommendation and voted to require it to report on how climate change will affect its business, a first step in acknowledging the seriousness of climate change. ExxonMobil said such reporting wasn’t needed, arguing that demand for oil and gas will increase for decades.
Although similar resolutions have been introduced on behalf of ExxonMobil shareholders in the past, this was the first time an accounting of the potential consequences of climate change was approved by shareholders — 62 percent of them, The Washington Post reported. As a reference point, the report is to be based on a greenhouse gas emissions goal established by the Paris agreement.
The change was led by several financial advisory firms and fund managers, highlighting how the financial world is taking climate change — and changes companies will need to make to deal with it and the accompanying regulations — seriously.
No matter what the U.S. government does, or does not do, corporations and investors will continue to make their own decisions about how to adapt to climate change, and many have pledged to continue to reduce emissions. Despite its opposition to the requested climate change report, ExxonMobil, and its former CEO, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, urged Trump to abide by the Paris Agreement.
There is great danger, however, in leaving the responsibility for minimizing climate change-causing emissions, much of which come from the burning of oil and gas, to corporations, because they are focused on maximizing profits. Only the government is responsible for protecting the health of citizens, ensuring that natural resources are not squandered and keeping our environment liveable. Or, it should be.
Trump, who has proposed to slash the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, to dramatically cut spending on scientific research and to make health care more expensive, has largely abandoned these responsibilities.
Withdrawing America from the Paris accord is the latest in this string of dangerous decisions. It removes the United States from the international debate over one of the most pressing issues currently facing the world, one that will result in mass migrations due to drought and hunger that will worsen global conflicts, as the Pentagon has repeatedly warned.
And, of course, whether we have a policy of “America first” or not, what happens in the world — worsening air pollution, sea level rise, catastrophic storms — will affect us.
“The countries of the world care about climate change. They see it as a profound threat,” Todd Stern, the former U.S. special envoy for climate change, wrote for The Atlantic.
“The president’s exit from Paris would be read as a kind of ‘drop dead’ to the rest of the world. Bitterness, anger, and disgust would be the wages of this careless act,” he added.
It also tells the world that the U.S. is not an honest broker in any negotiations, whether about trade, peace or carbon emissions. The message that Trump is sending is that no agreement with the U.S. is permanent; a new administration will simply undo agreements made by prior administrations, often for unclear or dishonest reasons.
It also runs counter to public opinion. Even among those who voted for Trump, far more believe the U.S. should participate in the Paris agreement than oppose it.
Trump’s Thursday announcement leaned heavily on the notion that withdrawal from the climate agreement will allow American businesses, especially coal mining, to prosper. It won’t. Already, there are far more Americans employed by the clean energy industry than by the fossil fuel industry. China, the target of much of Trump’s ire over the climate agreement, has the fastest growing renewable energy sector in the world.
Far from making America great again, Trump’s decision on the Paris accord makes America more vulnerable, less trustworthy and a worldwide pariah when it comes to addressing climate change.