Trump leaves the Paris Agreement & what liberals can learn

Trump leaving the Paris Agreement isn’t an awfully big surprise. It formed a pillar of his election campaign, and he has the executive power to tear it up himself. We have long known that Trump thinks of global warming as somewhat of a conspiracy, and we have long known that Trump dislikes any meaningful engagement with the wider world.

The Trump Presidency has already seen the US slash funding for UN bodies- especially those related to climate change- slash money for research on climate science at home and slash foreign aid designed to go to countries in need of help to reach their climate and development goals. The President was set to either ignore the Paris Agreement, but technically stay a part of it, or leave the Paris Agreement.

In March, Trump signed an executive order turning back on many of Obama's environmental and climate policies. That executive order also scrapped many of the provisions designed by the Obama administration to help the US meet Paris Agreement climate plans. 

The Paris Agreement requires a country report their progress towards their climate targets. There are, however, few concrete penalties that can be enforced on a country that does not meet those targets. There are therefore few concrete penalties that Trump could have expected should he have simply kept America inside the Paris Agreement, but set about a course that entirely contradicts the US’s climate pledges that formed part of the agreement- including by failing to cut emissions within the US, restoring subsidies for dirty energy solutions while cutting research on green solutions and by refusing to meet funding targets for international climate finance mechanisms.

This was what many expected; that the US would remain part of the Paris Agreement in name alone. It would be a shock, therefore, if the US technically leaving causes the deal to collapse- or even causes any major derailment beyond what was expected in January and has largely already come to pass.  The US has also left related organisations, like the GCF. Again, it was expected that the US would effectively pull out of these organisations in all but name.

Unfortunately, Trump does not see the major flaw in his plan. Investments in green technology are providing a significant return on investment. Increasingly, subsidies and other market interventions aren’t needed to make green technology the business-friendly solution- green energy is legitimately becoming cheaper than dirty energy.

What we did wrong

I am a firm believer in foreign aid, international cooperation and green development. Unfortunately, these three tenants of supposed liberalism have taken a beating in recent years, as populism has branded them anti-business, anti-jobs and anti-people.

We – and I do include myself in this – have been using the wrong arguments for decades to defend international aid, international cooperation and green policy. While it is entirely correct to point to the suffering that foreign aid alleviates, it is entirely right to point out the benefits of cooperation between global powers compared to conflict between them and it is entirely right to point to the irreversible damage climate change is doing to our world, when describing benefits of giving aid and stopping climate change, that is not a strong enough case.

In recent elections, we have found that people reaching the end of their careers haven’t worried too much about what their vote will mean for their children or their grandchildren. We have found populists able to tell them that the young don’t deserve the things that they deserve. That’s partly because that’s a really tempting narrative – ‘you’re better than everyone else’ sells most crazy ideas – and partly because it is easy to believe that retreating from the rest of the world and turning the clock back will mean more money for you.

The problem is, it doesn’t. This is something we haven’t addressed enough in recent years. Moving the world forwards through aid, international cooperation and green development directly makes lives better for people in the UK (and the US).

Every penny we spend on international aid is an investment, and it pays for itself in terms of increased trade. Everybody we send to a developing economy with a union flag on their back to distribute aid wins us good will. Every project we fund in the developing world that helps improve infrastructure increases our export market. Every project we fund in the developing world that helps bring green power to those who didn’t have it before boosts British tech business, while also reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted. Every community we help develop reduces the risk of terrorism and international crime in the UK.

Every penny we spend on green alternatives is an investment, and pays for itself in terms of cheaper business solutions. Every investment into green energy reduces electricity prices for UK consumers. Every investment into research into renewable energy reduces our reliance on foreign oil and the whim of the global commodities market. Every investment into renewable energy made in the UK takes jobs away from foreign coal miners or oil riggers, and brings them back to technicians and mechanics in the UK. Right now, green energy is the cheapest and most reliable business solution to many of our energy needs.

Every time countries form multi-lateral agreements, their strength in the international arena to get what they want increases. Every time countries sign a real and carefully thought out free trade agreement, consumers on both sides get more choice of what to buy, they get cheaper products, and they have more jobs.

People like Trump don’t understand – or perhaps care about – the humanitarian or the strategic or the scientific reasoning behind things like aid, green policy or cooperation. They do, however, understand basic business investments. A provable return on investment is worth more in convincing those who actually need convincing on foreign aid, green policy or international cooperation. Those who respond to the humanitarian case do not need convincing

When people who wanted to remain were faced with having to explain why the EU was a good thing in last year’s referendum, they were left spluttering. It is good because it is good. The benefits of international cooperation are obvious, but difficult to put into words, aren’t they? Then a negative campaign was built on the disadvantages of leaving the EU rather than what cooperation actually achieves. Those who didn’t get it were reminded of how they were being lied to, rather than why they were being lied to. All that time, no one had actually laid out the benefits of living in the modern world. 

Editor in Chief, Great British Politics.

Political commentator. Ba (Hons) Modern History and Politics. Spent a lot of time on the campaign trail, for various parties. Spent a lot of time working for charities and NGOs. In search of a new picture.

- Adam Hyde