The Paris Climate Accord, Trump, and the Fate of the Planet

This afternoon, to the disappointment of many, President Trump is to announce that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, the landmark international deal between nearly every nation on Earth, with the exception of Syria and Nicaragua (and now, the US), aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions in the effort to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change. This agreement was hailed by many as the first major step toward real action on climate change, and it’s fair to say that the world needs this kind of international cooperation to achieve the goal of being a sustainable civilization. But, to Trump and some of his supporters, the agreement is a “bad deal for Americans” because it will cost jobs. Is this a justifiable point? Is there any basis of evidence in these claims? Well, lets break it down to get a better understanding of the Paris Climate Agreement, climate change, and what’s next now that our president has turned his back on our international partners.

The Paris Climate Accord

The Eiffel Tower after the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement

We’ve all likely heard of the Paris Climate Agreement (Accord) at some point over the past year and a half. It’s been a point of contention between the major political parties in the US, and was brought up frequently during the 2016 Presidential Election. But what we haven’t heard much about is what exactly the Paris Climate Accord entails. The hallmark of the agreement is the goal of limiting the rise in global average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius, with the ambitious goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The 195 nations who signed the Paris Agreement pledged individual emission reductions over the coming decades, and each nations pledge varies. The United States pledged to reduce its emissions to 26% below 2005 levels, while most other countries pledged to reduce their emissions by between 40% and 60% in the same time frame. These pledges are also voluntary, and can be adjusted by the nation making the pledge without entering negotiations or withdrawing from the agreement. It’s easy to spot who got the better deal in this agreement, despite what Mr. Trump and his administration claim.

Though the President announced that he will be withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, there are still a number of challenges ahead for all sides of the aisle. Legally, Trump has the authority to make this call, but under the provisions of the Paris Agreement, the United States cannot formally announce its withdraw until 2019, or three years after the agreement was adopted. Even then, a years notice must be provided before a party to the agreement can officially end their commitment. This means that although Trump can announce the withdraw, no final moves can be made until potentially after the next Presidential Election in 2020.

Trump and some of his top staffers, such as Stephen Bannon and Scott Pruitt, have railed the Climate Agreement for being a “job killer.” While it’s true that some jobs would be lost in the effort to curb emissions, the number of jobs generated by the transition to clean energy would easily outweigh the losses. There are dozens of reports and statistics that show that clean energy has been a major driver of economic growth, even more so than coal, oil and other fossil fuels combined! Moreover,  between 2008 and 2012, 49,000 jobs in coal were lost, while four times as many jobs were gained in the clean energy sector!

The Paris Climate Agreement was only a stepping stone in the right direction, and though it’s an important step, it’s not the end of the efforts to slow climate change to a manageable degree. Trumps administration may not believe the facts, but the states and municipalities sure do. Bill De Blasio, Mayor of New York City, pledged to uphold NYC’s commitments to reducing its emissions, and California quickly followed suit. Many states offer incentives for installing renewable energy on homes and businesses, and many more have their own plans for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions independently of the Paris Agreement. Oddly enough, Trumps Secretary of State, and his own daughter Ivanka were reportedly putting immense pressure on Trump to stay in the agreement, but apparently had little to no effect on the final decision.

Climate Change: A Monumental Challenge

Climate change is nothing new. In fact, the Earths climate changes frequently over long periods of time. But that’s where the similarities to what we are experiencing today stop. To put into perspective the rate at which we are changing the climate, think about this: The last glacial maximum was roughly 20,000 years ago, and the difference in global average temperatures between the glacial maximum and the dawn of the industrial revolution was 5 degrees Celsius. In just one hundred years, we are 1/5 of the way there; Human activities have raised Earths temperature by one degree Celsius since the end of the 19th century. That means that we’ve changed the climate to a point that would take 4,000 years naturally in just a fraction of that time. The last point to consider here is that with only a 5 degree Celsius difference in temperature, the Puget Sound region was covered by a massive ice sheet a half mile thick where Seattle now stands, and one mile thick at the US-Canada border. We are currently on track for an increase of 4 degrees Celsius, or slightly more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100.

The next thing to remember is that the global average temperature has risen one degree Celsius, which means that the variations are significant depending on which part of the planet we are looking at. The rise in temperatures is significantly higher in the polar (specifically the North Pole) regions than in the temperate regions, such as the Pacific Northwest. The term global warming, although not incorrect, can be misleading as some places on Earth will see changes in temperatures so slight that you’d only notice when taking accurate measurements over a long period of time. That’s why climate change is the preferred terminology for more accurately depicting what is occurring.

This is likely going to sound like a broken record for many of us, but as the polar regions warm, ice sheets continue to melt. This, coupled with the expansion of the sea due to its own warming trend, has caused seas to rise about six inches since 1880. This is only expected to accelerate over the next several decades and most of the truly catastrophic events are ahead of us, but six inches does a lot more damage than one could expect. Just check out this article on sunny-day flooding in the Southeast.

So, as truly unfortunate as it is, it’s hard for most people to be worried when these events are unfolding extremely far away, in distance or in time. Although Washington State may be spared some of the more immediate effects of climate change, we are still seeing local impacts today. What are these impacts? How are and will we be affected by a changing climate?

Changes in our Weather

Retreat of South Cascade Glacier between 1955 (left) and 2006 (right).

Washington already has some very erratic weather, and may become even more so with the progression of climate change. We are most likely going to see wetter, milder winters and warmer, drier summers. This could potentially increase the frequency of droughts in the summer (especially east of the cascades) and in the rainier season the risk of landslides may increase. In the mountains, many of the Evergreen States iconic glaciers will continue to retreat.

Impacts on Hydrology

Coho salmon in Skagit County

Our rivers and streams are, in many respects, the life-blood of our beautiful state. However, they aren’t expected to fare so well with those shifts in our weather patterns. Because the mountains will see more precipitation in the form of rain, the snow pack will gradually decline, and since summers are warming up the melting rate of the snow pack will be accelerated. Throwing in the retreat of the glaciers, rivers and their tributaries will experience record low flows. The result is a slow moving, warm body of water; sedimentation will rise and overall quality will decline, making it difficult for salmon and other native fish to swim upstream to their birthplaces to spawn the next generation, and may threaten some local water supplies.

Forests and Wildfires

A wildfire rages in the North Cascades

It’s difficult to predict how our forests and plant communities will respond to climate change, but some models suggest that, for a short period of time, most plants will benefit from the excess carbon dioxide and the plant communities may become denser and more widespread. However, it’s unclear how they will tolerate the changes in weather patterns, and most experts agree that the trend will reverse over time, eventually leading to a significant shift in plant distribution and population. Also, wildfires will increase in frequency, scale, and become harder to contain in the drier summers, threatening animal habitats and reducing air quality across the state.

So, What Comes Next?

While it’s true that some jobs will be lost in the short term as we combat climate change, those sacrifices are worth it when accounting for the economic, social, and environmental damages that could occur if we don’t act now. There are likely to be serious consequences that harm our health and our communities, which explains why CNN dubs the move a “middle finger to the future.” We know that Mr. Trump has a lot of power to influence how we respond to climate change and other environmental concerns, and he has been quite clear regarding his position on the environment. But amid all this, there is still a light at the end of the tunnel.

First, other major parties to the Paris Agreement have only reaffirmed their commitment to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, including the EU and China. Second, in the United States, there is an obvious trend toward a greener economy (which just so happens to be the reason for the decline in the coal industry). As this handful of influential individuals continue to deny the reality of climate change, the people are only further encouraged to stand up for Planet Earth, and it will only be a matter of time before the federal government catches up. Oh, and we can’t forget what was mentioned earlier, the states and local governments are leading the way in clean energy and transitioning to sustainable economies, but we won’t fully get there until D.C. gets on board.

We can all do our part to make this ambition a reality. Whether that means getting a degree in environmental science and working in the field, volunteering for a nature preserve, signing a petition or attending a protest, even simply just educating ourselves, our families, and our peers about the importance of addressing our ecological challenges will give the movement a little more traction. That’s why Everett Community College is committed to promoting awareness on sustainability and environmental issues, and strives to reduce its own environmental impact.

The takeaway is that, despite the blow delivered by the retraction from the Paris Agreement, it’s still possible to see the change we need. The powers that be may have significant influence, but the change doesn’t start with the government; it starts with us. The people who have more to lose and less to gain from this prolonged inaction. Get involved, speak up, and show our leaders that we won’t stand idly by while they ignore this imperative and risk not only the fate of our planet, but the fate of our future.

What do You Think?

Tell us what you think about this move by the Trump administration by participating in this online poll. You can also learn more or get involved by contacting the EvCC Sustainability team at