Lucas Tersigni is a Third Year International Relations Student at the University of Western Ontario and has served as a Senior Editor of The General Assembly Publication since its inception in October 2017. He specializes in history of diplomacy, theories of realism, US foreign policy, Cold War history, and foreign policy analysis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The first of a two part series on climate change, the effects of climate change and the potential implications of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords are examined.
Climate change is a topic that is usually ignored by the media in favour of North Korea’s latest nuclear adventures and President Trump’s offensive comments. However, behind the scenes, scientists and astute businessmen such as Elon Musk are looking for new and creative ways to solve the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced. Unfortunately for scientists and astute businessmen, climate change is more of a political issue than a scientific or consumer one since states regularly establish environmental regulations, and control policy over fossil fuel consumption and power production. Countless organizations have confirmed that global temperature has increased by an average of 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1880, and the recent 2015 Paris Agreement is an attempt to keep the temperature change well below 2 degrees Celsius. While this may seem like very slow growth, it is important to note that NASA estimates that two-thirds of global temperature change has happened since 1975 at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20 degrees Celsius per decade. If this rate of increase continues, sea levels are expected to rise by 1-4 feet by 2100.
With the 2015 Paris Agreements, it appeared as if the nations of the world had finally agreed on a legally binding international climate regime. Unfortunately, the Trump administration pulled out of the agreement citing the supposed leniency on developing economies such as China and India for burning coal. While the reason for Trump’s withdrawal can most certainly be questioned, the effect that it will have on the goals of the agreement will be drastic. Currently, the United States is one of the largest carbon emitters per capita in the world, and Trump’s plan is to continue to rely on fossil fuels to maintain economic growth and America’s position as the world economic power. At a glance, the Trump Administration’s move away from multilateral cooperation and into a unilateral pursuit of economic prosperity looks like a classical realist approach as the pursuit of power at the expense of others is a central facet of realist theories. However, in reality, Trump’s approach is a draconian reading of realist theory and one which will not effectively combat the dramatic challenges that climate change presents.
If current trends continue, the effects of climate change are potentially disastrous. Climate zone shifts, reduced crop yield, polluted water, the migration of deadly diseases, rising sea levels, and hurricanes caused due to climate change are expected to displace 150-200 million people by 2050, dwarfing any refugee crisis in history. These climate refugees are a very serious security threat because the mass migration of refugees is likely to cause instability in weaker states which could lead to increased international terrorism. The only comparable refugee crisis in the modern age is the ongoing Syrian Refugee Crisis which has displaced 6 million Syrians internally, and 5 million externally. This was a particularly destabilizing phenomenon as the mass influx of refugees caused instability in the region and allowed for terror groups to spread with relative ease into Europe. Comparatively, the potential 150-200 million climate refugees dwarf the figures from the Syrian Refugee Crisis, exponentially increasing the threat level. This is expected to be a major blow to Western powers in the global War on Terror and will exacerbate any problems that may already exist. All of these issues, especially climate refugees, will cost the United States, and other countries much more money than the initial yearly investment proposed at the Paris Climate Talks.
These problems are in stark contrast to President Trump’s two major claims to why his administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords earlier in 2017. First, is that the United States, due to its immense share of international wealth, would be the major financier of the $100 billion per year pledged by the world’s developed countries starting in 2020. This money is foreign aid given to developing countries to invest in green technologies and policies. His second claim is that it allows the United States’ economic competitors like China and India to continue to burn coal to create energy but not the United States, thus leaving it at an economic disadvantage. The first notion is a legitimate concern, the United States in the agreement, due to its economic size, will have to shoulder most of the financial burden. However, even if the United States contributes $40 billion, or 40% of the total yearly finances, it is a small cost compared to the extra money it would have to spend on foreign interventions due to terrorism caused by climate refugees. To put this $40 billion in perspective, the United States spent $1.6 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight terrorism and rebuild those countries, the instability caused by climate refugees is expected to force the United States and NATO to intervene much more frequently in weaker countries to stop terrorism. The second claim is completely false. Nowhere in the Paris Accords is there a provision that mentions energy, or specifically coal. The Paris Accords allow nations freedom to come up with their own climate policy, so long as it achieves its goals. This claim is most likely a political ploy to satisfy coal miners, who Trump put great emphasis on during his campaign.
The implications of Trump’s political narrative on climate change can be disastrous for the rest of the world and could even backfire on the Administration’s campaign to get America winning again. Since climate change is a global phenomenon, and the United States is one of the world’s largest polluters, a strong effort to combat climate change cannot exist without its participation. So, let’s collectively say it: “No President Trump, climate change is not a Chinese conspiracy”. The real solution to the issue of climate change first has to come by way of changing attitudes on the subject matter. This is where an adaptation of classical realism can certainly help. Stay tuned for the next article in the series, which outlines a new theory I call “climate realism” and shows its adaptation to classical realist principles, and what application of the theory to actual policy may look like.