Is this what “America First” looks like?

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

The announcement Tuesday that Syria intends to join the Paris climate agreement means that if the US withdraws as announced, we will be the only country not participating in the global process to control humanity’s most difficult challenge.

Is our national situation really so unique that joining the Paris process is in the national interest of 194 countries, but not ours? Imagine the enormous diversity of nations on earth: rich countries, poor ones, dictatorships, democracies, capitalist, socialist, and communist countries, boreal, tropical, small island states… nations of all sorts have seen fit to join hands to meet the global threat of climate change. All except… us.

What is driving this “American exceptionalism?” Certainly Trump is not following recommendations from his science advisor, since he doesn’t have one. And he’s not listening to U.S. science agencies, either: just last week, 13 US federal agencies released an exhaustive and thoroughly-reviewed report that reaffirms the dominant human role in climate change, and outlines the far-reaching consequences of inaction. What about the American people? According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, registered voters favor continued US participation in the Paris agreement by 5:1. Also 70 percent of US adults understand that global warming is happening, 53 percent know it is mostly caused by humans, and 69 percent favor strict emissions limits on existing cola-fired power plants—the essence of the Clean Power Plan, which Trump cancelled last month. So if Trump’s policies are intended to reflect the understanding and desires of American voters, they are badly missing the mark.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Trump administration is putting the interests of the fossil fuel industry and other political allies ahead of those of the American people, peoples of other countries, and all of our descendants. Confirming this suspicion, and adding insult to injury, next week at the UN climate conference the US administration will sponsor a program on “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.” Really.

This is frustrating, embarrassing, and worse, but there are reasons for optimism. There is no sign that America’s willful stupidity is lessening the motivation of others to address the climate problem. If anything, the opposite is true. States, cities, corporations, are doing more than ever to confront climate change, and many will be present at the UN climate conference this week and next. Costs of renewable energy have dropped dramatically and continue to decline. Partly as a result of this, greenhouse gas emissions from the developed world have begun to drop, and China, the world’s biggest emitter, seems to have stabilized its emissions. Also, there is growing evidence, based on real-world experience, that climate policies like carbon taxes can have economic benefits while also mitigating climate change. So, despite the best efforts of some folks in Washington, we are making progress. Let’s hope it is not too little, too late.