President Donald Trump confirmed his status as climate denier in chief on June 1, guaranteeing his place in history as an enemy of both science and humanity. Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change will not stop the rest of the world from continuing to advance toward a clean-energy future. Solar, wind, batteries, and other technologies are growing tremendously fast, rewarding investors and employing far more people than the heat-trapping fuels of the past. Three million Americans now work in the clean-energy sector, more than are employed in the oil, gas, and coal industries combined. California Governor Jerry Brown, who heads the world’s sixth-largest economy and a hot spot of green-energy innovation, insisted that Trump’s efforts are doomed to failure. “The momentum is all the other way,” said Brown, “and I think Trump, paradoxically, is giving climate denial such a bad name that he’s actually building the very [climate-action] movement that he is [purporting] to undermine.”
Let’s hope so. Hours after Trump’s speech, Brown joined the governors of New York and Washington (later joined by nine other states as well as Puerto Rico) in establishing the United States Climate Alliance, which pledges to continue to adhere to the Paris Agreement. Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who now serves as a climate envoy for the United Nations, is organizing city governments, businesses, and universities across the country to join with these states. Together, Bloomberg argues, their actions can still deliver the emission reductions that the United States pledged in Paris, despite the federal government’s retreat.
But no one should pretend that it does not matter when the world’s biggest economy rejects an agreement that puts unprecedented international support behind ambitious climate action. By removing the rules and regulations that require polluters in the United States to change their ways, Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Agreement will slow progress at the very time when humanity’s survival requires faster action than ever.
“Crimes against humanity” is a phrase to use with caution, but it fits Trump’s repudiation of the accord—and, indeed, his entire climate policy. Timothy Wirth, who as the under secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration negotiated the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which sought to limit global warming, has said that those who deny the well-established science of climate change “ought to be tried for crimes against humanity.” Wirth told The Nation after Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord that he stood by his remark, adding that the president’s action was “a stunning moral abdication of responsibility to future generations.” To refuse to act against global warming is to condemn thousands of people to death and suffering today and millions more tomorrow. This is murder, even if Trump’s willful ignorance of climate science prevents him from seeing it. History will not be so forgiving.
Of course, the Paris Agreement is far from perfect: Its emission reductions are voluntary and do not go far enough, at least not yet. Nevertheless, the accord commits the world’s governments to leave behind oil, gas, and coal by midcentury—a historic shift. It commits them to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is the maximum compatible with civilization as we know it, and to aim for the 1.5°C limit that poor and island nations rightfully regard as essential to their survival. Thus, the accord provides citizens, activists, and the rest of civil society worldwide with a strong mandate to hold governments and corporations to account.