LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Even global-warming sceptics can be alarmed by Donald Trump’s pledge to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord. In fact, thoughtful sceptics might be best placed to worry. Since they do not see any increased environmental threat, they are able to focus on where Trump is doing the most damage: to the still fragile system of global governance.
The practical effects of the Paris accord amount, as even its most fervent supporters would accept, to no more than a tiny step in the right direction. If all the signatories only fulfilled their commitments, and if the standard climate models are correct, then the average global temperature in 2050 would be 0.2 degrees Celsius lower than if nothing were done, according to an MIT study. That is far from offsetting the 2 degree increase which is widely considered a sort of tipping point for substantial harm to life and prosperity.
Moreover, the Trump withdrawal does not do much damage to the global consensus on warming. He is almost totally isolated in his hostility, not only from his peers in both rich and developing economies but also from the vast majority of corporate bosses and even from most U.S. politicians, especially those outside of Washington, D.C. Nor is his churlish approach likely to have much effect on the pace of technological change.
Gas is already replacing coal, electricity is creeping up on oil for transport, renewable sources are gaining ground and energy efficiency is increasing, especially in the poor countries where it matters most for both prosperity and emissions. The momentum is too great to be slowed down by a loss of some U.S. subsidies and research spending.
The enthusiasm for the Paris agreement was largely based on the theory that it was a positive sign – world leaders committing to make sacrifices in the face of a common threat. Trump and his nationalist followers do not understand that – but also, they appear not to understand just how global the economic world has become. Political borders still matter, but research, development, supply chains, manufacturing technologies and the scientific consensus are increasingly multinational. As the Brexit-bound British are starting to learn, it is startlingly expensive to tear apart the tightly woven webs which bind countries together in the modern economy.
However, the economy is much more integrated than the political system which is supposed to govern and guide it. There are many international organisations to deal with specific problems, but for big challenges, from labour migration to hazardous financial flows, it generally takes a crisis before the G7 or G20 manages to take decisive actions. Global warming was perceived as just such a crisis.
This manifestation of Trump’s ignorant and belligerent political nationalism presents a great challenge to the political leaders of the rest of the world. It was hard enough to come together when the United States was generally in favour of shared efforts. With Americans willing to push in the opposite direction, it will be harder to build the consensus needed to share sovereignty and global leadership.
Fortunately for the world, the global sway of the United States has been declining for decades. Some of the loss is mechanical, as other countries become more prosperous. The U.S. share of global GDP was 38 percent in 1969, but it is now running at around 22 percent. Much of the damage is self-inflicted, by bitter domestic politics, failures of foreign policy and the negative role model set in healthcare and criminal justice.
Unfortunately for the world, relatively little has been done to fill the governance gap created by the American absence. Europe has been too fragmented, Russia lacks wealth and perhaps goodwill, Japan is too insular. The world’s rising powers have not shown the necessary depth of skills and experience to craft global accords.
For all this, the world managed to deal reasonably well with the 2008 financial crisis. And some progress was made on global warming. But Trump has just widened the global governance gap. The decision to backtrack on a largely symbolic commitment has made it clear that in the next global crisis – financial, environmental, public health or military – the United States cannot be counted on to help out.
Will that definitely be a bad thing? The looming departure of the UK from the EU seems to have helped push the rest of Europe to work more closely together. Perhaps the looming departure of the United States from the global order will have to stimulate a similar energy from many nations’ Trump-frustrated politicians. It had better. Otherwise, the global economy may not flourish, and peace may not prevail around the world.