In practical terms, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to formally withdraw from the Paris climate accord doesn’t much matter. Rather, it is a theatrical gesture that gives all actors in this drama a chance to strut their stuff.
The accord itself is largely aspirational. According to the United Nations, even if all the pact’s signatories – including the U.S. – delivered on their Paris promises, the world would still face catastrophic climate change.
In any case, it is not clear that signatories will deliver on their promises. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, for instance, is still distressingly vague about how it plans to meet its carbon reduction target, a target that Trudeau, when he was in opposition, used to deride as grossly inadequate.
If Canada or any other signatory fails to meet its goal, there will be no penalty. There is no enforcement mechanism in the Paris pact.
Trump understands this. Since he became president in January, he has been busy dismantling every policy that might have allowed the U.S. to meet its carbon reduction goals.
All of that was fine with the world. Under the deliberately loose wording of the Paris accord, he had every right to do so.
Indeed, the real question is why Trump bothered to formally withdraw at all. He could have just as easily continued to sabotage the climate deal from within.
The answer, it seems, is that this veteran showman wanted to make a point that would resonate with his audience.
Certainly, there is a great deal of theatre involved in all of this. Major nations, including Germany, Britain, China and Canada, continue to pledge fealty to Paris. Given the inherent weakness of the accord, that is easy to do. Given the global unpopularity of Trump, it is also politic.
But it also allows these nations to portray themselves as being on the cutting edge of the new economy. Big business, including big energy, has belatedly come to realize that climate change provides major commercial opportunities. Chinese firms in particular hope to cash in on what they expect will be a worldwide craving for solar panels.
America’s Tesla wants to save the planet by selling everyone an electric car. Even those who manufacture sandbags benefit from a world in which frequent flooding has become the norm.
To the new corporate giants, such as Facebook and Amazon – and even to some of the old ones, such as Shell and IBM – Trump’s decision to abandon Paris was definitely uncool. Tesla founder Elon Musk responded to the move by quitting one of Trump’s advisory councils. In effect, he was saying: I can’t afford to be associated with such an old dinosaur. Still, the old dinosaur is far from toothless.
Trudeau has said that Trump’s decisions won’t affect Canada’s unwavering commitment to fight climate change. In fact, they already have. In April 2016, Trudeau and then U.S. president Barack Obama jointly agreed to impose new restrictions on methane emissions from oil production. After his election, Trump scrapped the U.S. regulations. Under pressure from Canadian producers, Ottawa responded by announcing a three-year delay in its methane plans.
Expect more pressure on government to backtrack as Canadian businesses respond to specific Trumpian climate change rollbacks that put them at a competitive disadvantage in the U.S. market.
This, however, will take place quietly, in the realm of reality.
On the main stage, meanwhile, the morality play is set to continue. Evildoer Trump has tied Paris to the railroad track. The coal-fired train of climate change is bearing down. In the distance, the good guys – led by Canada, Europe and China – are riding to the rescue in self-driving, electric cars.
Will they get there in time? Can they save the heroine? Or will the villainous Trump use old 20th century technology to shoot out their solar-powered battery packs?
Stay tuned. The melodrama continues.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs reporter.