“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” So tweeted an American businessman, Donald J. Trump, in 2012.
Come 2016, and climate change activists around the world shudder at the thought of this tweet, for Trump has been elected the next president of the United States. In early November the Eiffel Tower was lit green to commemorate the Paris Agreement on climate change; just a few days later, diplomats and climate change activists alike were wondering about the future of the agreement with Trump as the president.
In India, where New Delhi’s toxic smog and pictures of toxic foam flowing out of the Yamuna river have made headlines, it is indeed difficult to picture a future without strong commitment and a sense of urgency toward a cleaner and greener tomorrow — both especially important coming from the United States, which was responsible for the highest carbon dioxide emissions in the world for decades before being overtaken by China. Though the United States is a key signatory to the Paris agreement today, it never ratified the previous climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol.
The “climate justice” argument, which holds that developed countries have an ethical responsibility to help the developing world prevent and overcome adverse climate effects, has been the major point of contention between the United States and India and other developing economies. The deadlock was finally overcome in the Paris accords, making the agreement almost revolutionary.
But what does Trump’s dismissive attitude toward core climate issues mean for climate justice? Trump had earlier declared that he wants to “cancel billions in payments to UN climate change programs and use the money to fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure.” This funding was set aside by the Obama administration to provide support to developing countries so that they can take action to reduce carbon emissions; something they are unable to afford otherwise. In fact, under the Obama administration the United States has committed to giving $3 billion to the UN Green Climate Fund, and as of November 4, it had already handed over $500 million.
However, concerns that Trump might formally withdraw from the Paris agreement might be overblown, according to Alexandre Ziegler, France’s ambassador to India. Ziegler was also a key diplomat at the COP21 conference held in Paris last year.
“The reality is that the United States has signed and ratified the agreement. And therefore, it is technically and legally difficult and politically extremely complicated to pull out,” said Ziegler during a talk at Ashoka University in India. “Also, we have known him [Trump] as a candidate till now and not as a president. As far as I know, I recently read that the president wants to keep an open mind about the agreement,” Ziegler added.
Common But Differentiated Responsibilities
The United States was the world’s largest polluter for decades. The key argument by India and many developing nations has therefore been that the countries that pollute more should initiate more emission cuts than countries that don’t pollute as much.
The Paris accord emphasized the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” in the climate debate. This principle puts the major responsibility on developed nations to work toward slashing their carbon emissions and providing financial and technological assistance to developing economies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This approach basically states, “the polluter pays.”
“For India, which is an economy that is highly dependent upon coal, oil, and power plants and whose prospects for growth has been so impressive — engaging into an agreement that could actually limit their access to these was not and easy decision,” Zeigler said.
In fact, even during negotiations it seems India was worried about future U.S. commitment. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States in June, Townhall reported that one of the negotiators commented, “President Obama is pushing hard to get the Paris agreement going as his legacy. But he can only join the agreement. He can’t ratify it. What if developing countries ratify it, helping the Paris agreement come into force by 2016-end, but the next U.S. president walks out of it with a simple executive order? We have to be mindful of the possibilities.”
Now India has ratified the deal, but the “possibility” imagined by the negotiator seems even closer to reality. With Trump and his contemptuous attitude toward climate change issues India can only hope that the Paris agreement stays intact.
India ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in October, on the 147th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The Paris accord officially entered into force on November 4, successfully starting an era where all nations are actively working toward a cleaner and greener tomorrow.
“[T]here has been a consensus among all countries and leaders that our climate has been affected a lot in the past 24 months or more,” Ziegler said. “The Paris Conference was a real moment of hope, in the year 2015, which had been a difficult year. COP21 was all nations together for a cause, and in diplomacy, that’s quite a rare achievement.”
What’s left to be seen is how far developed nations go in fulfilling promises that till now have just been about lip service and little or no on-the-ground action. President-elect Trump’s skepticism toward climate change is not encouraging.
Sanjna Sudan is a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University.