The United States’ intended withdrawal from the Paris climate accord on 1 June 2017 is a decision of monumental planetary significance and geopolitical import, with ramifications for years to come. Conservatives, Republicans and some of those in the fossil fuel sector hailed this as a necessity in liberating the US from a pernicious threat to the economy, restoring American sovereignty and freedom. By contrast, it was also widely condemned by political leaders, liberals, major business executives, and environmentalists around the world as a short-sighted and potentially reckless decision that jeopardises the security and wellbeing of future generations, in exchange for some limited and fleeting economic gain.
At the recent G20 summit on 8 July 2017, America was entirely isolated in its position on climate change, leaving a noticeable rift between the US and other nations. The joint communique noted “the decision of the US to withdraw from the Paris agreement”, but added: “The leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris agreement is irreversible” and “we reaffirm our strong commitment to clean energy and implementing the Paris agreement”.1 In her closing remarks at the event, Angela Merkel even went further, stating that the US decision to withdraw was ‘extremely regrettable’ and ‘one she deplored’.2
The principal reason for the international concern is that the US is the world’s largest economy and its leadership on the world stage is still important.3 Although America may no longer be the world’s largest polluter, this is a recent change; China only overtook the US in CO2 emissions production in 2007.4 The US accounts for about 30% of global cumulative historical emissions,5 and its role in shaping the zeitgeist over the last century has been profound. From the Cold War to the Space Race, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the advancement of democracy, American leadership has been central in shaping today’s world.
It is, thus, hard to ignore the fact that the US intention to withdraw will weaken the accord and have a chilling effect on efforts to address climate change. Other nations may also choose to follow America’s lead or to waver in their own commitment to the targets, thus imperilling the whole consensus. Given that climate change has the potential to have dramatic and unforeseen consequences for future generations in the form of sea levels rising, coastal flooding, droughts, and generally less stable weather conditions across the globe, this is too significant an issue to ignore or from which to hide. Polar Research and Policy Initiative has always and will always support vital efforts to tackle climate change, to avert lasting man-made damage to the environment and to safeguard both the beauty and stability of the polar regions and the planet for future generations.
The polar regions are experiencing the impacts of climate change already – temperature increases, ice sheet and glacier losses, coastal erosion, species movements and environmental impacts, even regime shifts, changing weather and increased freshwater inflows are all redefining Arctic and Antarctic habitats and communities. Though small in number, residents of the Arctic are citizens of many of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world; US abdication of responsibility directly and negatively affects its own Arctic residents and those of other leading nations in the immediate present.
These negative effects will not be isolated to the poles. Teleconnections to the rest of the planet are becoming increasingly well understood; they link atmospheric and oceanic transformations at the poles with changes throughout the globe. These teleconnections can act to amplify and disperse impacts, including severe weather events, in ways that reduce our ability to forecast both short and long run changes and the resulting impacts they will have upon global populations and the infrastructures upon which they depend.
Seemingly isolated environmental changes will result in ripple effects through economic channels; the failure of the Paris Accord and abdication of American leadership will change who it is that wins and loses in these occurrences. For example, the invasions of the Red King and Snow Crabs in the Barents coincide with reproduction challenges to the stock of these crabs in their native North Pacific, transforming individual fishermen’s fortunes, but also whole communities, and market connections to Asian buyers are realigning. The repudiation of the Paris Accord by the current administration increases these impacts directly and indirectly. Directly, the climate changes that are favouring the lucrative crab species in the Barents over the North Pacific will be enhanced. Indirectly, the failure to coordinate and act with transparency on climate change will make it all the more difficult to cooperate on matters concerning stable fisheries supplies, which assists in shifting the terms of trade to favour the Asian buyers further. The interdependence of fisheries profits is already a controversial matter that the highest coordinating body amongst all the Arctic states, the Arctic Council, avoids.6
From a built environment perspective, the US withdrawal is a major setback and a threat to our planet economically as well as environmentally. Forty percent of humanity lives on the coast,7 a number that will also easily exceed 50% within the next two decades. Sixty percent of the world’s 39 largest cities are located less than 100km (60 miles) from the coast, including 12 of the world’s 16 most populous conurbations.8 Within the Arctic Circle itself, 80% of the largest settlements are located directly on coastlines or in adjacent low-lying areas.9
All of these areas are threatened to some extent by sea levels rising, in the form of coastal erosion, loss of land, infrastructure, or in some cases total reclamation by the sea. Losing these areas would be a significant setback for humanity economically and environmentally, not to mention in terms of the damage it could potentially have for science, equality and social progress. Cities and towns are the lifeblood of our modern way of life, and their geography, so close to the coasts, makes them particularly sensitive to rises in global temperature.
There are, however, many genuine grievances within the United States that we should acknowledge, and that did contribute to the decision on 1 June. An uneven distribution of wealth, sluggish economic conditions over the past decade, a generation of people who feel left behind by globalisation, and the nascent economic transition away from carbon, among others, are the concerns leading certain sections of the US to turn inward. The manifestation of the decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Accord, however, will affect and impoverish everyone, and will in fact hurt the poor and most economically vulnerable – those unable to afford resilience and risk mitigation at the individual or community scale – the most. The Paris Accord initially succeeded in garnering universal support where other agreements have failed because it better aligned national and global interests. Most, if not all, countries recognised not only a global common good and responsibility, but also the advantages of cooperation. The US was a leader in this recognition, a position which now seems lost. The decision to withdraw should be seen as a step backwards, not only in global, but also American national, affairs.
The US decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord undermines the foundations of American leadership and signals a potential eclipsing of American power as China positions itself to assume the vacancy and role of leader on climate change. The Chinese government has already pledged to continue to press ahead in meeting its own emissions targets, as well as signing additional climate change agreements with states like California.10
There remains the possibility of the US renegotiating its way back into the deal at a later stage, or of signing a new deal altogether, as mentioned explicitly in the US Presidential statement on 1 June. Speaking alongside French President Macron on 13 July, Trump hinted that the US was open to shifting its position on the Paris Accord. This would admittedly be an incredibly challenging undertaking given global reluctance, as the other parties see the agreements reached in Paris as irreversible.11 Regardless of the rhetoric, however, finding some way of getting policy makers in the US to accept that climate change is real, man-made and a global priority should be actively and materially encouraged in order to shore up the consensus.
The exact rise in global temperatures will also make a significant difference. The Paris Agreement addressed this in committing 195 nations around the world to “holding the rise in global temperatures to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”, as well as committing nations “to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C ”. This statistical difference in sea levels, between a 1.5 and 2°C increase in temperatures, is not insignificant either. A 1.5°C increase equates to a rise in sea levels of up to 1 metre (3 feet), where a 2°C rise in sea levels leads to a rise of up to 4 metres (13 feet).12 This distinction is important, as it could spell the difference between losing low-lying areas of cities, or losing whole cities. In Europe alone, Amsterdam, Murmansk and Venice would all be flooded by a 4-metre (13 foot) rise. Moreover, the US withdrawal from the accord makes a temperature rise of 3 or 4°C more likely, with further sea level increases. Scientists report that a 2°C spike in temperature would submerge land currently occupied by 280 million people, while an increase of 4°C would cover areas inhabited by more than 600 million.13 Temperature increases at the poles may also be two to three times greater than this,14 something that will compound local and regional impacts significantly. This should be a harrowing prospect for all of humanity and serve as a call to action for the many.
From an Arctic perspective, the decision to withdraw is also a reversal of US policy from even a matter of weeks ago, when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed the Fairbanks Declaration reiterating US commitments to international action on climate change at the start of May, which explicitly references implementation of the Paris Accord.15 Furthermore, Alaskan communities inundated by effects of coastal erosion and sea water ingress caused by climate change are already becoming climate refugees who must decide how and where to rebuild their lives, who now find their concerns and needs at greater odds with their own federal government.
In response to the threats of sea level rise, several countries have already begun making plans to address the consequences that higher sea levels entail. The Netherlands is spending billions of euros upgrading 3,700kms (2,500 miles) of sea and flood defences.16 Meanwhile, Australia has begun planning for an incoming migration of millions of climate refugees fleeing low-lying islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.17 The Maldives has already begun purchasing land on high-ground in Australia in preparation for relocating all 350,000 of their people, involving the creation of whole new cities.18
These proposed solutions have a place, but they are knee-jerk reactions that lack a wider vision. They also fail to account for other inevitable consequences like the salination of groundwater, rivers and streams as sea levels rise, rendering many coastal cities uninhabitable and inland areas unsuitable for agriculture. These solutions are also predicated on an acceptance that climate change and dramatic sea level rise are inevitable. While the science for this is well-documented, it doesn’t have to be this way. The world doesn’t have to ‘accept’ the inevitability of climate change; collectively, we do have a choice about the future of the planet.
Acknowledging that humans have an innate capacity for both creativity, innovation and adaptation, as a species on the cusp of a critical moment in our history, humanity can choose instead to take their destiny into their own hands. We need a clear overarching vision and strategy to direct efforts on a variety of scales. The positive response developing from within and beyond the US is taking shape through devolution and the perceived freedom that allows cities, communities and people to implement changes to our way of living in a colourful myriad of national, regional and local ways. Individual US states have already begun this process; on 6 June 2017, California signed an agreement with China pledging to continue to pursue emissions cuts, push for sustainable business development in the green technology sector and, ultimately, to honour the goals of the Paris Accord.19 Meanwhile, the Canadian federal government and provinces are also employing a similar approach, approaching individual American states in a strategy being described as a ‘go around’.20, 21 As a result, Quebec and California have agreed to link their cap-and-trade programmes, with Ontario set to join. Manitoba and Ontario participate in a climate coordination group with Midwestern US states, while the Canadian government has also begun building alliances with Florida, Indiana, Texas, Michigan, New York and other states.22, 23
There is mileage in this approach, provided it empowers businesses, entrepreneurs and communities to explore and implement changes themselves, and that it is not just another agreement exercised only in political circles. The more difficult part of the challenge will be to reshape incentives and profits from the economic activities that improve material well-being so that they align with the overarching vision. Doing this will require transfers of resources that create a stable super-coalition of forward-thinking communities where the net benefits of joining and remaining in the coalition – with or without official treaties – are higher than those of the globally costly status quo.24
This strategy requires three key steps: devolving certain aspects of governance, reforming planning systems and empowering people to shape the markets they use. Taken in combination, these would allow people and communities the freedom to make the necessary changes themselves, and to save humanity from its own failures. We have no greater interest than that.
A philosophy that aligns individual and local actions with a preference for beneficial global outcomes will also be more effective in the long-term than relying on international agreements. With the role of governments like the US taking a step back on tackling climate change, solutions must instead be found in greater local, state, individual, household and community action. Ironically enough, it is also cities and human settlements that are best placed to lead the way. As hotbeds of innovation and enterprise, our built environment can act as the vanguard of a new sustainable revolution. Devolving power and reforming the planning system to encourage more microgeneration of electricity is a natural first-step that stands out as an example. If systems of governance and regulations around the world could be revised to allow and openly encourage more communities to take control of their sources of power, as villages like Wildpolsried in Germany already have, then we could dramatically cut carbon emissions associated with heating and power. Through a mixture of renewables including wind farms, solar panels, hydropower and biomass, the residents of Wildpoldsried generate 500% more power than they consume, selling the surplus and profiting collectively.25, 26 If every community in the United Kingdom were to follow that example, then there would be no need for any coal or gas powered energy, cutting national carbon emissions by 41%.27 There are also the added benefits of eliminating monthly household energy costs and creating an additional household income, raising living standards and reducing inequality.
It is not enough, however, to simply produce surplus renewable energy to guarantee improvement in global well-being. Abundant renewable resource energy in Norway and Iceland, for example, has led to both Arctic nations producing copious renewable energy. Norway has used hydropower for the last 50 years to enable export of North Sea Oil that is consumed with co-production of CO2 emissions globally, though not at home; the political and ethical dimensions of this are becoming increasingly debated in Norwegian society.28 In Iceland, the growing understanding that much of the clean geo-thermal power surplus is being used for aluminium smelting that produces its own damaging emissions is also sparking local dialogue.29 These dialogues are impacting policy; Norwegian citizens are suing to stop increased drilling, for example.30 This combination of innovation and responsibility is necessary to generate meaningful reductions in climate emissions at the global level rather than simply moving them from one location to another.
The approach of places like Wildpoldsried, where it can be developed in a responsible way though, is also more resilient, manageable and less contentious than relying on energy companies and governments to build colossal offshore wind farms or to sequester all coal plant emissions. Not only would a Wildpoldsried-approach dramatically decrease carbon footprints, but it will also create new businesses in installation and maintenance, while it generates new revenue streams. These systems would pay for themselves and create jobs, while eliminating almost half our carbon footprint.
There is another cause for optimism here – the changing energy sector. The energy mix is not only being influenced by policies, but also economics, and it is driving down costs. Renewables are becoming increasingly economically lucrative, and we are already in the midst of a transition of our energy markets.
Diffusion and investment has led to not only significant price reductions in renewable energy prices, but also improved technology. US solar companies like First Solar and SunPower have massively contributed to this development. As studies by the Berkeley Lab have shown, prices for solar energy have been declining steadily since 2010.31 The same is true for wind, where especially off-shore prices are falling fast.32 A study by McKinsey predicts cost competitiveness of European offshore farms without subsidies by 2020.33 Similar scenarios are foreseeable in the US. As compared to endeavours like drilling in the Arctic, where prices and risks are enormously high, renewable power sources are definitely the more cost-effective option.
Investments into renewable energies have also increased steadily and will, with an ongoing demand, continue to rise. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) chairman Michael Liebreich was quoted saying that solar and wind weren’t alternative forms of power anymore, but had moved mainstream.34 Xcel Energy shut-down its natural-gas plant in Colorado for two full days in January and let wind fill the gap.35 In Germany, the big energy companies like E.on and RWE made significant losses by failing to use renewables or invest in them, a mistake they are now eager to correct. Remarkably, global investments into renewable energies have increased despite low oil prices.36
Consequently, there is hope that the momentum of renewable energies is charting a new path. If there is a continuous demand for clean energy, we will continue to see steady investments into renewables, and prices will continue to drop, even without overarching agreements.
Thirdly and finally, by demanding better governance, long run perspectives of risk, company policy, sustainable standards and corporate social responsibility, both shareholders and consumers can effectively steer the economy away from carbon-intensive practices, services and products towards a more sustainable future. As the downsides of climate risks are becoming more visible, the profitability of addressing climate change head-on is also becoming more apparent. Changing the market is something that is far more concretely reliable than relying on capricious governments for action. The heartening overall response from American industry opposing the withdrawal from the Paris Accord emphasises that these risks and appropriate response actions are sinking in for American industrial leadership, if not its political leadership.
By way of an example, on 31 May, shareholders at Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, rebelled against the company board and voted in favour of a motion requiring ExxonMobil to assess the risks from climate change in all their business endeavours, a decision with consequences for all future business policy.37 The motion directs the company to address strong global commitment to cap global warming at no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and it passed with the support of 62% of shareholders.38
Accepting that this motion is not going to unilaterally change Exxon’s business model of sourcing and selling fossil fuels, it is a significant and symbolic step towards recognising, addressing and mitigating the problems associated with its operations and business. Exxon had long been seen as the ‘last bastion of opposition’ to action on climate change, and so this ‘change from within’ is a significant milestone, a sign that exit strategies for fossil fuel production and use are becoming part of mainstream industrial policy.
Separately, the brewing firm Carlsberg has also unveiled plans to reduce its brewery carbon emissions to zero, singling out US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement as a motivating factor. The Danish brewer, whose beers also include Holsten Pils and San Miguel, said it would eliminate brewery emissions and halve its water usage by 2030 as part of a new sustainability drive.39
Their plans also include closing down coal power stations at breweries in China, India and Poland, to replace them with renewable sources. Carlsberg’s resolve to go green was hardened by the US announcing its plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, its chief executive Cees t‘Hart said. “People in Carlsberg are more energised [after the US decision]. We feel we can take responsibility in our own hands and don’t need to depend on politicians.” Carlsberg’s proposals, which include using only renewable energy to brew beer by 2022, are equivalent to taking 160,000 cars off the road.40
This reshaping of the market by both producers and consumers can be incredibly effective, rendering political decisions irrelevant. The momentum is also already starting to shift where businesses are increasingly recognising the value of renewables. Last year alone, renewables attracted almost double the investment of fossil fuel power.41 Against the backdrop of these trends, when taken collectively, producers and consumers have the power to make the world a more sustainable place; we just have to realise that. We need to lobby. To reflect it in our purchases. To act.
Arctic communities are also collectively demonstrating the need, the wherewithal, and ability to take these actions in advance of the global timing for adoption of new behavioural patterns that can generate global gains from remedial action on climate emissions. Though small in overall numbers, Arctic communities present opportunities for outsized learning and impact for the planet in need. At its essence, channelling this ‘change from within’ is what the world needs to do if it wants to tackle the issues of climate change – to protect the environment, safeguard the existence of polar icecaps and guarantee a stable world for future generations. We all have the power, as consumers, community members, citizens, businesses and shareholders, to shape the world around us. It is only through seizing that power, joining together and exercising it that we will be able to shape the more sustainable world that we want to see.
Polar Research and Policy Initiative welcomes any and all effort to tackle this challenge of our time, trusting that this will also lead to a new renaissance of ideas, entrepreneurialism, jobs and prosperity. This approach will also undoubtedly be more effective than waiting for a lasting global consensus to re-emerge. The US decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord, as disappointing and destructive as it is, does not have to be a cause for lost hope. This could instead be a defining moment for humanity, as people realise for the first time their collective power to shape the world in a more sustainable way and for the better.