The lobbying power of Pope Francis, six of the Group of Seven leaders and the CEOs of some of the world's biggest companies failed to do the trick. They all begged Donald Trump to stick with the Paris climate agreement. On Thursday, the U.S. President broke from the global pack and bid it adieu. His refusal to support an agreement that had been signed by almost all countries, including the United States and Canada, sent an inconvenient message to world leaders: America really is turning inward and "America First," right or wrong, will rule Mr. Trump's agenda even if it means abandoning the one alliance – Paris – that had united the world.
Isolationism and nationalism have emerged victorious in the White House and the body blow to the Paris Agreement, which Mr. Trump called a "self-inflicted major economic wound," is proof.
One argument peddled in recent days said that the Paris Agreement would be better off without the United States. Had they stayed in, the Americans would be half-hearted supporters and would use their clout to subvert the pact at every turn. So better to have them out, allowing the other 194 countries that signed the deal to get on with their carbon-reduction plans.
The argument is nonsense. There is no doubt America's withdrawal from Paris will prove devastating to the agreement even if Mr. Trump said he is open to negotiating a new environmental deal.
The Paris Agreement was unthinkable without the United States when negotiations were under way in 2015, six years after the Copenhagen climate talks collapsed in acrimony. Barack Obama, Mr. Trump's predecessor, understood that the United States, along with China, India, Germany and the other big, polluting economies, had to be inside the Paris tent. The United States was, historically, the world biggest polluter and emitter of planet-warming carbon emissions. The American plan was to cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 and it was part of the wider effort to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 C over preindustrial levels.
But the American role went beyond guilt associated with its status as the country turning Earth into a burning orb. To be effective, Paris required not just world-wide buy-in, but also American technological leadership on oversight and monitoring. The individual countries had each made their own carbon-reduction plans and unless they could be measured accurately, cheating could be rampant.
The United States would also play a key role in financing climate-change mitigation and adaptation measures in the developing world. The rich countries agreed to funnel $100-billion (U.S.) a year to the developing countries starting in 2020 (the United States has delivered $1-billion to date, with another $3-billion to come over the next three years). "The U.S. played a crucial role in financing," Canadian climate-change consultant John Drexhage said. "Will the other countries make up for the U.S. shortfall?"
With the United States out, the Paris Agreement could suffer from the domino effect. Saudi Arabia, a top-to-bottom oil economy that had been reluctant to sign the Paris deal (though it did so), could join its new best friend – Mr. Trump just signed $110-billion arms deals with the Saudis – on the Paris exit ramp. Ditto other countries. Were that to happen, the agreement would collapse. Brexit is the parallel. The European Union might survive the exit of Britain; it would not survive the exit of Britain and two or three other member states.
My own view is that the Paris deal, minus the United States, will die a slow death even though the EU, China and other big countries have, defiantly, vowed to link arms and march into the climate-change battle. At the same time, I don't believe the death or severe dilution of Paris (which would happen if the remaining countries downgrade their non-binding emission-reduction goals) mean that the global effort to cut carbon output is doomed.
China and India, especially China, know that investing in clean energy has several strategic national benefits, only one of which is preventing the planet from warming to the point that extreme weather – droughts, floods, hurricanes, fires – become so common that food production and health are severely threatened.
To them, decarbonizing their economies through the widespread use of solar, wind and geothermal energy, advanced bio-fuels and electric cars and trains is also about energy security, job creation and using innovation to create new industries with export potential. A pleasant side-effect would be cleaner skies.
China is probably the world's clean-energy leader. A decade ago, China leaped into the solar-panel market. By 2011, its production of solar panels had reached 50 per cent of global output. Today, the figure is much higher. Ditto wind turbines. By 2015, five of the top 10 turbine makers were Chinese, as was the top name – Goldwind.
China and India could trigger competitive clean-energy programs elsewhere. "There is only one path forward for reducing carbon emissions, and that is states committing themselves to investment programs in building green energy systems," says John Mathews, the Macquarie University professor who has written extensively about China's green revolution. "They will do so, like China, because of real concerns over immediate pollution from burning fossil fuels, and concerns over geopolitical tangles that come from maintaining a 'business as usual' approach."
The Paris Agreement, minus the United States, could soon become the walking dead. But the American exodus does not mean clean energy is the walking dead, too. China and India will dominate that market at America's expense. Mr. Trump's "America First" strategy – another way of saying "isolationist" – may have backfired on the climate file.