President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement is being sold by his administration as an “America First” action that will bring back coal jobs and allow business to flourish without environmental restraints. While such coal-related claims are dubious at best, the reality of the United States abdicating its role as a global climate leader is that America’s poorest and most vulnerable communities—many of whom voted for Trump—will feel the brunt of this reversal, said Fordham Law Professor Sheila Foster, an expert on environmental justice and a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change.
In a moment when states and large cities are on the vanguard of identifying and applying climate solutions, many of the very people Trump appealed to during his presidential campaign will likely be the least able to respond and adapt to climate catastrophes, such as flooding, wildfires, and drought, due to the unwillingness of Republican-controlled state governments to invest in mitigating measures, Foster noted.
“This is a devastating move for both rural and urban communities,” Foster said. Likewise, the most severe climate impacts on an international level will be felt, unevenly and disproportionately, by poor and vulnerable nations, added Foster, who wrote about this in her paper “Vulnerability, Equality, and Environmental Justice: The Potential and Limits of Law.”
Trump’s Paris Agreement announcement on Thursday, June 1, came almost nine months after the United States, under then-President Barack Obama, officially joined the agreement. More than 190 nations adopted the agreement in December 2015 in an unprecedented show of solidarity designed to strengthen the global response to the threats of climate change, among them stronger storms with more expensive damage, coastal flooding, famine, and water shortages.
The Paris Agreement’s participating nations agreed to drastically cut carbon emissions in ensuing years and decades, in order to limit temperature rises by century’s end to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial figures. America’s decision to exit the agreement allows other leading polluters like China the option to renege on their commitments and thus does not put America first, Foster said.
“Just as a matter of aggregate social welfare, we’re all worse off,” Foster said. “America will not be first, because climate change is a global problem without national borders. All this does is allow for a race to the bottom, without any clear winners.”
Perhaps the coal industry could be considered a momentary winner, if not for the fact that America’s transition to a different energy economy means coal’s days here are numbered, Foster continued.
Trump’s actions this week also raise questions about how his administration would respond in the wake of a natural disaster akin to Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy. However, his push to eliminate regulatory protections, commercialize public lands, and defund portions of the federal government that would provide relief in such instances offer clues.
“His sensitivities don’t appear to be directed toward or concerned with the fact that there will be climate-related disasters, that our environment and natural resources will be more in peril with fewer protections, and that there are costs to that that someone has to pay for,” Foster observed.
Outside of disasters, there are also cost burdens to less acute events, such as urban heat, droughts, and increases in mosquito populations (Zika virus), that will need to be absorbed and could prove to be particularly harmful to the poor and elderly.
Addressing these issues will be a central topic of discussion at the 2017 Chicago Forum on Global Cities, which Foster is attending next week. In New York, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s panel on climate change is working to address issues of equity at the neighborhood level and resolve how neighborhoods and cities can adapt to all impacts and changes they have to live with. In particular, Foster’s interests revolve around where the costs will fall when society makes decisions on issues like waste consumption or industrial disinvestment.
“The United States pulling back on the Paris Agreement creates a huge space for states and cities to step into the breach and flex their muscles and become more relevant than ever in setting policy and solving problems of people who live inside and outside their borders,” Foster said.