Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2016 Paris climate accord was not particularly surprising. The gesture, made to prove a point to his right-wing base and other countries, is disappointing and reflects poorly on Trump, especially so since he was a signatory to an open letter in The New York Times in 2009 urging his predecessor Barack Obama to pass legislation restricting greenhouse-gas emissions! Many in the US, including multinational corporations that discouraged withdrawal from the accord, are understandably disheartened by his odd reasons for abdicating American responsibility.* Other countries, such as China, France, and Germany, have voiced disappointment at Trump’s environmental shortsightedness.
Religious leaders around the world supported the Paris accord, prominent among them Pope Francis. Trump’s decision also goes against the heartfelt appeal of a coalition of eminent Buddhist leaders, who declared in a landmark climate change statement in 2015: “We urge world leaders to generate the political will to close the emissions gap left by country climate pledges and ensure that the global temperature increase remains below 1.5 degrees Celsius, relative to pre-industrial levels. We also ask for a common commitment to scale up climate finance, so as to help developing countries prepare for climate impacts and to help us all transition to a safe, low-carbon future.” (Global Buddhist Climate Collective)
While the Paris climate accord was never legally binding, and the US withdrawal is more or less symbolic as commitment to meet the targets is up to individual countries, attention-grabbing news like this distract us from the cause and from taking action, since we as individuals can still make a difference. As Vajrayana Buddhist teacher Judie Lief wrote for Lion’s Roar, in response to the withdrawal: “The shock, outrage, and righteousness are titillating. . . . We can calm down and take the time to really try to understand the causes and conditions that underlie climate change and our society’s polarized response to it. Instead of being caught in self-righteousness and blame, we can begin to face and understand our own contribution to this problem and what we might do about it.” (Lion’s Roar)
The US withdrawal also has some silver linings: it has brought China and Europe closer together to combat climate change, and even individual US states, such as California, are bypassing Trump to seek allies such as China in developing and promoting green industries and sustainable energy. Other states with environmental agendas should follow suit and break with the Republican Party’s mendacious skepticism of climate change and uncritical support of the fossil fuel industry (incidentally, even oil titans such as ExxonMobil supported the Paris Agreement). In the meantime, China and Germany have already pitched themselves as leaders on green energy, and France has declared that it will welcome and fund all American researchers focusing on climate change and new energies if they wish to continue their research in France. Closer collaboration between nations and other institutions is inevitable and ideal.
Eventually, rather than dealing with a world leader who pays lip service to the Paris climate accord while working to circumvent or subvert it to please his interests, it is better to clearly see a US president who, despite his unpredictability and volatility, seems to telegraph his thinking and his policies via social media with unusual transparency. At least the world knows unequivocally that Trump truly does not have climate change as a priority on his legislative agenda.
Ultimately, it is up to the global community and religious organizations to make the most of Trump’s withdrawal. We have already noted how governments of all stripes and ideologies have moved on without Trump and will enact their own plans to meet the Paris Agreement. Judie Lief is again correct when she notes that change must come from the grassroots level, with passion and innovation bubbling up from local communities, charities, and small businesses as well as from “up high,” such as multinationals and governments.
In the end, the political landscape has not shifted much. The objective and reasons for mitigating climate change are unchanged. Barbara Maas, head of endangered species conservation for NABU International, Germany’s oldest and largest conservation organization, told Buddhistdoor Global: “The ecological systems that sustain all life on our planet are blind to social divisions based on nationality, race, religion, gender, or the depth of our pockets. Looked at in this way, climate change teaches us in no uncertain terms that, without exception, we are all in this together.”
One of Trump’s tried and tested political tactics is diversion and distraction, usually with a deliberately contentious statement or tweet that need not be sensible or even coherent (e.g. the exaggerated response to the misspelling “covfefe” in a tweet on 31 May). It is important not to spend too much energy unpacking or refuting these statements. The world should “keep calm and move on,” to use the cliché poster slogan. We should focus on ensuring the ecological survival of our planet, our only home, without which human life cannot exist.
As Dr. Maas has noted, “Self-centredness and materialism cannot deliver sustainability, peace, wellbeing, or equitable prosperity because they ignore the universal interconnectedness of all life and the law of cause and effect.” Rather than an obsession with perpetual economic growth at the cost of everything else, the Buddha has shown us the way towards happier lives built on authenticity and contentment. We do not need to depend on exploiting or enacting violence against the natural world or other human beings. Recognizing and acting on this moral possibility will heal us and the planet.
* The reasons range from the politically expedient, such as placating his right-wing voting base and Republicans in congress (many of whom are climate change skeptics), to the bizarre, including leaks from his aides that he was “bewildered and irritated” by French president Emmanuel Macron’s stronger handshake and indirect rebukes concerning climate change.
The Paris Agreement (UNFCCC)
A Yuuuuuge Climate Flip Flop (The Atlantic)
Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders (Global Buddhist Climate Collective)
Commentary: Why I’m Still Hopeful After the US’s Paris Exit (Lion’s Roar)
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global