Since Mr Trump walked out of the Paris agreement one year ago, it has been fascinating to watch the decline of media interest in “saving the planet”.
Donald Trump imposed punitive tariffs on steel imports exactly a year after he announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. The two decisions are unrelated, except that both reflect the character of his presidency.
President Trump looks at any international arrangement on any subject – Iran, North Korea, trade, climate – and asks himself whether it is a good deal for America. If he thinks it is not, he starts making trouble. He loves a deal but, unlike some politicians on this side of the water, he sees no point in a bad deal.
When President Trump starts the trouble, he does not necessarily know where it will end. He is, if you like, open-minded; or, if you don’t like, irresponsible. He just wants a result, and will pull back if he thinks he won’t get the right one. In the case of his trade war, he will succeed if his action exposes unfair practices by trade rivals and forces them to change. He will fail if all he does is put up everyone’s prices, including, of course, America’s.
In the case of the Paris process, he has succeeded almost without trying. The answer to the question, “Which major country in the world has most successfully reduced its CO2 emissions?” is, “The United States of America”. US emissions hit a 25-year low last year. This success has nothing to do with the UN caravan, which has rolled on for 30 years, or, indeed, with Mr Trump. It has everything to do with the shale revolution – the triumph of much cleaner fossil fuels. Energy prices are falling.
By contrast, the greenest of the great economic powers, Germany and Japan, have poured money into renewables. They are consuming more coal than before, however, with Japan planning 36 new coal-fired power stations over the next 10 years. Since renewables are not reliable (because of intermittency), Germany must have more coal or lie prostrate before Mr Putin and his gas. Both Germany and Japan are increasing their carbon footprint because they have run away from nuclear. Energy prices are rising. China, after a slowdown, is increasing its CO2 emissions fast once again.
As for “Paris”, this is failing, chiefly for the reason that poorer countries won’t decarbonise unless richer ones pay them stupendous sums. The amount supposedly required to do this, agreed at the Copenhagen conference in 2009, was $100 billion a year, every year, from 2020; but no mechanism could be devised to compel the poor countries to restrict their emissions. At yet another conference in the process, in Bonn last month, the parties broke up without agreement on handing the money across. It is almost impossible to imagine real agreement, because it would be unenforceable.
If you look back, you can see that Copenhagen was the first ebbing of climate panic. Gordon Brown, then prime minister, told us that we had “50 days” to avoid catastrophe. Prince Charles warned delegates that “our planet has reached a point of crisis and we have only seven years before we lose the levers of control”. President Barack Obama, burnished by his freshly awarded Nobel Peace Prize, flew in. Yet all these great men failed to persuade the wretched of the earth to abandon their right to economic growth. “With your pens, you can write our future,” said HRH. The developing countries had the wit not to sign all the same.
Perhaps if Copenhagen had taken place before the global credit crunch of 2008, the world would have swallowed anything. The great paradox of greenery is that it is a boom phenomenon: only when a society is awash with dosh does it start believing it wouldn’t mind getting poorer. By December 2009, however, the dosh had evaporated.
The Paris conference of 2015 put a brave face on the failure of Copenhagen, by parading an agreement. But as the agreement was non-binding, and permitted countries to determine their progress on CO2 reductions unilaterally, it did not alter the reality. The whole UN process originated in the belief that global warming could be prevented only by a global solution. It never found that solution, and so, at Paris, was hoist with its own petard.
The Prince of Wales was proved wrong in 2016, when the “irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse” that he had predicted did not show up. Yet he spoke truer than he knew when he made that warning about losing the levers of control. The global warmists lost those levers – if they ever had them – after Paris.
Mr Trump noticed this and felt free to walk away. US participation in the Paris arrangements formally ends the day after the next US presidential election. It will be a brave Democrat who campaigns for the White House on a “Let’s stay in” ticket. What’s in it, after all, for America?
Since Mr Trump walked out, it has been fascinating to watch the decline of media interest in “saving the planet”. There was the most tremendous rumpus when he made his announcement, but the End-Of-The-World-Is-Nigh-Unless feeling that made headlines before Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris, and numerous other gatherings, has gone. This feeling was essential to achieve the “Everybody’s doing it, so we must do it” effect the organisers sought.
The media barely noticed the recent Bonn meeting. I doubt if they will get apocalyptic about the next big show, “COP24” in Katowice, Poland, this December. The Poles are among the nations emerging as “climate realists” – people with their own coal and a very strong wish not to depend on the Russians. Climate-change zealotry is looking like CND after the installation of cruise and Pershing missiles in the 1980s – a bit beside the point.
None of this means that activism will disappear. There will be strong anti-American campaigns and moves to impose ESG (environmental, social and governance) investment principles to make the lives of fossil-fuel companies a misery. In Britain, energy bill levies to subsidise renewables will probably continue to ensure that Theresa May’s famous “just about managing” people are just about screwed simply because they want light and heat in their homes…